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Forgiveness has Implications for this Life and the Next

September 11, 2017
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A - September 17th, 2017
Today’s Gospel (Matthew 18:21-35) addresses the necessity of repentance and repeated forgiveness that are required of those who call themselves Christian. The Gospel passage can be divided into two major sections. The first is Peter’s question to Jesus: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” (18:21-22). This is followed by Jesus’ response that forgiveness knows no bounds or limits (18:22). The second section is the parable of the unmerciful servant that Jesus uses to drive home his point (18:23-34).
There is some similarity between this story in Matthew and the teaching related in Luke 17:4, but the parable and its ending are unique to the Matthean account. In examining Matthew’s parable of the king and the servant closely, we realize that it doesn’t necessarily describe Jesus’ insistence on repeated forgiveness which was the original purpose of Peter’s question and Jesus’ subsequent reply. The first slave had become vulnerable; he was weak and worthless before the king as he stood before him begging. He regains power by demanding repayment of his fellow slave and imprisonment when he cannot pay. He will not relinquish this power over others. His fellow servants then go and report him to the king; and yet their action is like that of the first servant whom they incriminate. In the end, the fellow servants have behaved in the same way he did; they failed to forgive and demanded punishment. In the final analysis, the Father’s forgiveness, already given, will be withdrawn at the final judgment for those who have not imitated his forgiveness by their own (18:35). Jesus warns that his heavenly Father will give those who are unforgiving the same treatment that the king accorded the unmerciful servant.
Lingering questions
What does it mean to forgive? First of all, forgiveness implies that there is something to forgive. Whether it’s something big or small, the need for forgiveness means somebody has done something wrong. The Greek word used for “forgiveness” in today’s parable means “to send away” or “to make apart.” Forgiveness “sends away” whatever has been keeping people apart. Anger or feelings of vengeance are “sent away.” By forgiving, one is no longer under the control of the past sinful act that he/she suffered. We know that Jesus demands boundless forgiveness of his disciples. Forgiving and showing mercy, however are not always simple matters.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that those involved will be reconciled immediately. Nevertheless it begins the healing process and helps to remove feelings of revenge. To ignore Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness has serious implications in this life and in the next. Do we really believe that our eternal destiny and salvation are harmed or hindered by our inability to forgive while we are on this earth? How do we do justice and show mercy? These are certainly not easy questions for us to answer and they surface in us a myriad of emotions which are also present in this parable.
That is why we need to listen closely to the words of Sirach in today’s first reading (27:30-28:7): “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbour’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.”
The lessons of a “crime against humanity”
This time of year offers us an opportunity to reflect deeply on how we as a Christian community respond to evil in the world, how we forgive and how we show mercy. On the eleventh day of September 2001, the world stopped and terror and horror led us into the depths of the mysteries of evil, human suffering, and death on a great scale. Many asked where God was in the midst of such devastation and destruction on September 11. Yet with God’s grace we also experienced the height of human sacrifice and the ability of our brothers and sisters to manifest heroic love.
The terrorist attacks on Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and New York City were not just attacks on the United States of America. In the words of Saint John Paul II, “they were crimes against humanity.” The victims of these tragedies came from dozens of countries, and the economic and political repercussions have been global. While those responsible for the attacks may have been motivated by opposition to specific American policies, particularly in the Middle East, their underlying agenda appeared to be a deep antagonism toward Western culture and Western institutions. Any simplistic connection between Islam and terrorism must be rejected. 9/11 presents a challenge to the Church as well as our government to come to a deeper level of understanding and engagement with Islam.
The “enemy” in a war against terror is difficult to define, we have to be careful to avoid that everyone becomes a potential enemy. We have to avoid the war against terror becoming a war against the other. A society built on fear and mistrust of the other will never be a peaceful society. Only when legality, the rule of law, and peaceful coexistence are reestablished will we taste victory.
Religion and terrorism
Despite the message of Jesus and the clear teachings of the Church, many people may still be caught up in the anger and outrage over violent crime, especially over the events of September 11, 2001. Visceral reactions may still cry out for vengeance, but Jesus’ example in the Gospels invites all to develop a new and different attitude toward violence. The Church is called to break down the barriers that divide peoples, to build up relationships of trust and to foster forgiveness and reconciliation among peoples who have become estranged. As followers of Jesus we must be prophets of justice and peace and always passionate about the suffering of humanity in our times.
Saint John Paul II and 9/11
On the first anniversary of the tragic events that took so many lives in the United States, Saint John Paul II spoke these words at his General Audience in Rome on September 11, 2002: “One year after September 11, 2001, we repeat,” he said, “that no situation of injustice, no feeling of frustration, no philosophy or religion can justify such an aberration.” He continued: “Every person has the right to respect for life itself and dignity which are inviolable goods. God says it, international law sanctions it, the human conscience proclaims it, civil co-existence requires it.”
The Cross at Ground Zero
At the time of this immense tragedy, we in Canada were in the midst of preparing for World Youth Day 2002 when terrorist hijackings and the ensuing Iraq War erupted on the world scene. I shall never forget the pain, anguish, and uncertainty that September 11 cast upon World Youth Day 2002. In the midst of a carefully orchestrated pilgrimage of the World Youth Day Cross throughout the 72 dioceses of Canada, the Cross took a detour in February 2002 on a journey that is not normally part of the Youth Day preparations in a given country. We had the permission and blessing of Pope John Paul II to take the World Youth Day Cross to Ground Zero in New York City. Our delegation consisted of young delegates from many Canadian dioceses, together with representatives of police, ambulance, and fire. We carried the Cross to Ground Zero, to pray for the victims of the terrible tragedy at the World Trade Center and elsewhere in the United States. This visit was a profound sign of hope to the people of America, and the entire world, who struggled to understand the terror, violence, and death-dealing forces that humanity experienced on September 11, 2001. Ours was a defiant act, because there in a place that spoke loudly of destruction, devastation, terror, and death, we raised up the wooden Cross – an instrument of death that has been transformed into the central life-giving symbol of Christianity.
Earlier that morning at a Mass in Manhattan’s Church of Our Saviour near the United Nations, then-Archbishop Renato Martino, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the UN, told us in his moving homily:
The sacred Scriptures speak to us about sin, and the desperate need we all have for conversion. What you will see today when you visit Ground Zero is the consequence of sin: A crater of dirt and ashes, of human destruction and sorrow; a vestige of sin that is so evil that words could never suffice to explain it. Nevertheless, it is never enough to talk about the effects of terrorism, the destruction it causes, or those who perpetrate it ... We do a disservice to those who have died in this tragedy if we fail to search out the causes. In this search, a broad canvas of political, economic, social, religious, and cultural factors emerge. The common denominator in these factors is hate, a hate that transcends any one people or region. It is a hatred of humanity itself, and it kills even the one who hates.
Gillian, young woman on our national staff from Western Canada summed up our visit to Ground Zero with these words:
Only now do I begin to grasp what we saw. I liken Ground Zero to a construction site. I realized that, amid all the destruction, how important it is that Ground Zero really become a construction site – on which to build hope, peace, and forgiveness. The World Youth Day Cross is the cornerstone for construction to begin.
God, bring your peace to our violent world
Today let us repeat the prayer offered by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI during his historic and moving visit to Ground Zero in New York City on Sunday, April 20, 2008. As we pray these words, let us beg the Lord to make us instruments and bearers of his forgiveness and reconciliation to the broken world around us:
O God of love, compassion, and healing,
look on us, people of many different faiths and traditions,
who gather today at this site,
the scene of incredible violence and pain.
We ask you in your goodness
to give eternal light and peace
to all who died here—
the heroic first-responders:
our fire fighters, police officers,
emergency service workers, and Port Authority personnel,
along with all the innocent men and women
who were victims of this tragedy
simply because their work or service
brought them here on September 11, 2001.
We ask you, in your compassion
to bring healing to those
who, because of their presence here that day,
suffer from injuries and illness.
Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families
and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy.
Give them strength to continue their lives with courage and hope.
We are mindful as well
of those who suffered death, injury, and loss
on the same day at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Our hearts are one with theirs
as our prayer embraces their pain and suffering.
God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world:
peace in the hearts of all men and women
and peace among the nations of the earth.
Turn to your way of love
those whose hearts and minds
are consumed with hatred.
God of understanding,
overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy,
we seek your light and guidance
as we confront such terrible events.
Grant that those whose lives were spared
may live so that the lives lost here
may not have been lost in vain.
Comfort and console us,
strengthen us in hope,
and give us the wisdom and courage
to work tirelessly for a world
where true peace and love reign
among nations and in the hearts of all.
[The readings for this Sunday are: Sirach 27:30-28:7; Romans 14:7-9; and Matthew 18:21-35.]
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