15 PENTECOST - PROPER XIX - A - 17 MATTHEW 18.21-35
Today’s gospel reading continues where last week’s gospel lesson left off. You recall Jesus had just given his disciples a lesson on how to deal with forgiveness and reconciliation in the church. When he had finished speaking Peter asks and answers his own question looking for Jesus to confirm his response. “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive him? As many as seven times”?
Peter’s question presupposes the reality of his rights and the limitations of his duties. Among the Jews, the number of times one should exercise forgiveness varied. Three times being the fixed number, in other statements seven. However, that was according to the Old Covenant. In the pre-Israelite period vengeance toward one who had done wrong knew no limits.
We see from studying the gospels that the duty of forgiveness occupied a large place in the teaching of Jesus. The spirit of revenge had cast a dark shadow upon the life of his own race and upon society in general. God’s people were awaiting a Messiah that would wreak havoc on Israel’s enemies and restore Israel to nation status.
Unlimited forgiveness, however, was to be the dominant spirit of the New Society Jesus was ushering in, a hard lesson to learn then, as well as now. Jesus uses a parable to illustrate his point.
Christ said that the Kingdom of God is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. He then told the parable of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant. The parable tells us more about the nature of God than about the nature of the kingdom.
It seems obvious from the parable that receiving forgiveness and forgiving are related. Because God forgives us, we are in turn are required (obligated) to grant the gift of forgiveness to others. How can we learn to forgive? Can we learn to forgive ourselves and is forgiving ourselves related to our being able to forgive others?
Jesus says that true forgiveness comes from the heart. It cannot be merely lip service.
When I was growing up, I had a younger brother. He was exactly five years younger than I was. By the time I was ten or so, he being five, he wanted to tag along with my friends and me wherever we went and be involved in whatever we were doing. However, we did not want him, told him so, and would send him home.
Of course, he returned home crying and telling our mother how awful we had been to him and that we did not want him to play with us. And of course when I returned home I was confronted by my mother who told me I was to apologize to my little brother and tell him I was sorry and I did so.
Looking back on it now, I must confess, I am not certain it came from the heart but more out of fear of not saying so. As we grow older in life, we discover that we have all been stepped on at some point and felt abused, neglected, rejected and taken for granted and if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we have treated others in the same way.
Many times, we have apologized for our behavior and perhaps have been on the receiving end of another’s apology. But were we really being forgiven and were we really offering true forgiveness? Did it come from the heart or were we merely giving lip service in order to try to smooth over an awkward situation with the aim of maintaining a friendship or relationship.
“What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us…” Joseph’s brothers asked in the first lesson. We can always tell when we have been truly forgiven, that is, when once we have expressed our sorrow at having offended another, they accept it and it is never brought up again. It is as if it had never happened, or never been said and the relationship goes on as if it never did.
Likewise, we can know when the opposite is true, that is, when the other person never let us forget it. The key thing is not that we should therefore swallow all resentment and “forgive and forget” as though nothing had happened. The key thing is that one should never give up making forgiveness and reconciliation one’s goal.
If confrontation has to happen, as it often does, it must always be with forgiveness in mind, never revenge. The parable, then, needs little explanation. The lesson to be drawn is that the disciple who does not forgive not only causes grief to the community, but also incurs the wrath of God.
There is not one of us who does not stand in the same relation to God as the unmerciful servant to the king in the parable. We have all been the recipient of God’s unlimited forgiveness. Moreover, we have all been guilty of the same sin of with holding forgiveness.
Ill will and a revengeful, grudging spirit involve others in the consequence of our own sins. And when we with hold forgiveness we impose on God’s good nature without regard to the consequences. As St. Paul aptly reminds us, each of us will stand before the judgment seat of God and will be held accountable for things done and left undone.
Every time we accuse someone else, we are accusing ourselves. Every time we forgive someone else, we are playing forward God’s having forgiven us. Our obligation to forgive others is a practical rather than emotional obligation, and, if we do not perform it, we must expect to find those blessings forfeited. God’s forgiveness is probationary and may be recalled at any time.
Mercy is enthroned in the heart of God. Thus, it should be in ours. To forgive is to be God-like. Our hearts must be open to forgiveness, never closed. If it is open, able and willing to forgive others it will be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness.
It is only when our true relation to God is grasped that we come to think and act in a God-like way. Jesus established the New Covenant and the way of life, which will mark out the New Covenant, is forgiveness. The cross is proof not only of God’s love for each of us but the sign that the blood of Christ has reconciled us to God.
Here, Jesus makes it clear that if we want to continue to receive God’s forgiveness we have to be prepared to give it. It is a hard lesson to learn, but even harder to put into practice. Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer says it all.
If we are still counting how many times we have forgiven someone, we are not really forgiving him or her at all, but simply postponing revenge. What Jesus is saying with his 70x7 answer is, don’t think about counting; just do it. AMEN+