Twenty Fourth Sunday of the Year
Today’s gospel is very confusing and illustrates what is wrong with religion where it has been used to justify violence, guilt, fear and economic exploitation and presents an intimidating, punishing, torturing and unforgiving God. Sit with the discomfort and challenge of today’s good news in the Gospel of Matthew. We live with conflict, injury, pain in a world where we see the lengths of inhumanity people can go.
There are and have been crimes against humanity and atrocities; there are threats of war and random acts of terrorism. Suffering continues despite the efforts of many to strive for justice and peace, for fairness and freedom, for tolerance and harmony. As we reflect on the gospel, exploitation seems to escalate, e.g., human trafficking and bondage. Peter’s question, ‘Lord, if my brother/sister sins against me, how often must I forgive? Peter’s seven echoes through to present addressing us today. How hard it is to forgive injustices in church and society, to find a way through the anger and seven seems to be very generous but Peter is exhorted to be as generous as God is toward us: forgive over and over again. Yet, in the face of great suffering and betrayal, it seems justifiable, sensible even, to withhold forgiveness - to blame, retaliate, seek retribution - even after the person who does harm acknowledges their wrongdoing and commits to change. The gospel today begins with Jesus’ comforting and challenging words about forgiveness which we are to practice over and over again because it is God’s way. It is then contradicted as God is identified with a cruel king whose actions contradict Jesus’ words about forgiveness as well as Jesus’ image of a compassionate God in Sirach, the Psalm and Paul. Sirach exhorts us to show love in place of hate, compassion in place of resentment and forgiveness in place of anger and Jesus teaches us to forgive, not seven times but 77 times. So forgiveness is an essential requirement for faithful Christian discipleship and meant to be our way of life. As there is no limit to love, there is no limit to forgiveness.
There is a subtle pairing of the great commandment to ‘love one another’ in the Gospel acclamation with the parable of the unforgiving servant. It strikes as a double imperative: ‘love one another and forgive one another as I have loved and forgiven you.’ This is the good news of God’s generous and forgiving love that is ours for the taking every day. It is a love that is kind and merciful, slow to anger, full of compassion (Psalm) that is offered in the face of suffering, injustice, and exclusion, physical and verbal assaults, in times of peace and in times of pandemic.
Jesus is then presented as identifying God with a money lender, a king, a loan shark, whose first impulse is to sell a whole family into slavery. No cruelty is too excessive. ‘So will my heavenly Father do to you unless each of you forgives your brothers from your heart.’ Clearly, Jesus could not have uttered those words. They contradict the image of God as depicted in Sirach, Psalms, Romans, and the Gospel of John (Alleluia verse). Jesus would have been aware of countless people living in debt and facing intimidation as people still do under loan sharks, banks and other financial institutions. The social reality of Matthew’s time was of dehumanising slavery and debt bondage as accepted practices.
If Matthew is promoting a harsh image of God and supporting economic exploitation and violent behaviour there is a message for us. It seems Jesus’ followers had a hard time leaving behind their overwhelming concept of a violent, punishing God. They struggled to distance themselves from contemporary economic exploitation, human trafficking, slavery, torture, war and violence, despite Jesus’ teaching and example about a completely new order. We see that difficulty in the church today when more and more economics is more valued than people and relationships. We do not have to pick too deeply to uncover these elements covered by a veneer of faith. They are still with us. These are all that Jesus opposed. Our response to God’s goodness and mercy requires a change of heart and a commitment to ongoing conversion – ‘not seven but 77 times seven’. To ‘live and die with the Lord’ (Rom 14:8) involves forgiveness which includes loving the enemy. It is an ongoing challenge in community, in society, in family and between nations. This is how we participate with Jesus in recreating God’s world – a world of peace through justice and nonviolence. When we forgive, we say to the world, ‘This is what God looks like. This is the life that God inspires.’ We show people what God is like.
The Church needs to be a space where the world gets to see what kind of people Jesus is capable of producing. Pope Francis says that the Church is not a museum for saints or an enclosure for the virtuous but like a field hospital, where the wounded find healing, the weak are strengthened and the weak lifted up. It is a place where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the Gospel. Our very credibility is at stake when we lack forgiving and compassionate love for those who are on the periphery or estranged from the Church by one reason or another. If grace doesn’t break out here, among us, between us, then none of this stuff is real, and none of it is going anywhere. Violence, torture and intimidation is part of God’s reign. It is a big world created by people with big hearts. The debtor who failed to forgive the debt was trapped in a dehumanising and small world. Jesus knew that we needed practice. With hearts opened wide to the amazing grace of God’s mercy, can we trust that Jesus’ instruction is a sign of solidarity with the human condition?
We are called to reveal the forgiveness of God in our relationships. Can we be a forgiving and inclusive church that reaches out to people who struggle and fail to live up to our ideals or values? Can we reach out to those who are marginalised or estranged from one another and form bonds of healing? Can we be more and more a church that listens, dialogues, accompanies, encourages and engages with those who are struggling, wounded and failing – not to mention the young, the aged, women, gay and lesbian people? We can with respect, empathy, compassion and humility.
Pope Francis reminds us that the church has to be a place where those who are alienated feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the Gospel. Jesus did not reject tax collectors and adulterers or those who denied and betrayed him. We must commit ourselves to the task of reaching out to all our brothers and sisters by learning to expand our hearts and express the breadth and the height, the length and depth of God’s love