24 Sunday A - Forgiveness - Seven Times

Thomas O’Loughlin
Introduction to the Celebration


We often describe ourselves as ‘the People of God’ and as ‘a people set apart’; and very often such names have been misinterpreted by Christians to mean that we are somehow ‘God’s elite’ or that he has some special friendship for us and our doing that he does not show to others. Today’s gospel confronts us with the reality of what it means to be ‘a people set apart’. We are the ones who must reject the desires for vengeance and retaliation, and in the face of those who offend us must work for reconciliation. To start afresh, working for what is good, after one has been hurt is never easy; it goes against a deeply embedded instinct in our humanity that calls for retribution. But to be the group who seek to continue the reconciliation of the world that was accomplished in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus is what we are about. Now, as we begin to celebrate this mystery, let us remind ourselves that as ‘a people set apart’ we must be willing to be those who bring forgiveness and new hope into the world. Let us ask ourselves whether we are willing to be reconcilers.
Michel DeVerteuil
General Comments


Today’s passage deals with the crucial issue of forgiveness, surely the most pressing of all our human problems, as individuals, as communities and as a human family. The future of humanity is in the hands of those who can forgive.

It is important to understand Peter’s question correctly: it is not about being wronged many times (a situation which Jesus speaks about in Luke 17:4). Here, Peter is asking about one wrong. We are dealing then with a very deep hurt, the kind that remains with us for years and that we find ourselves having to forgive many times over. We think we have forgiven, but when we meet the person who hurt us we realise that we have to start forgiving all over again. This is the question then – how long do we continue with this struggle to forgive the one wrong?

We must think not merely of personal wrongs but of deep ethnic and racial wrongs, the kind that have nations torn by civil strife for generations – the human family knows so many of these at present.

As always, Jesus does not give us prescriptions; he invites us to enter into the God-like way of seeing things and leaves it to us to decide how we will act out of that consciousness.

Jesus’ response is in the form of a parable, and the key to interpreting his message correctly is to
understand how a parable is meant to be read. We are accustomed to learning (and teaching) through
“edifying stories.” In this kind of story the characters are either “good” or “bad”; we are meant to imitate the good ones and avoid being like the bad. It is always wrong to read a parable like that. We find that we identify one of the characters with God and end up with a strange God, one who tortures those who don’t forgive their enemies, burns the cities of those who do not accept his wedding invitation, closes the door on the bridesmaids who come late for the wedding feast, and so forth. Many Christians have developed warped ideas of God as a result of reading Jesus’ parables in this way. 

A parable is an imaginative story which we enter with our feelings. We identify with the various
characters as the story unfolds, until at a certain point it strikes us: “I know that feeling!” This is a
moment of truth, when we say, “I now understand grace and celebrate the times when I or others have lived it,” or “I now understand sin and experience a call to conversion.”

In this parable we see a man who is in a position of total helplessness; he is made to feel worthless, he has neither dignity nor freedom. His life, and that of his entire family, is in the hands of this king who makes him grovel before he will condescendingly set him free of his debts. He is not a bad man: he has been generous enough to lend money to someone who is in even greater need than he is, knowing full well that sooner or later he will have to return his own loan to the king.

The problem with him is that his spirit has been broken by oppression. Hardship has extinguished the spark of generosity. Experience tells us how frequently this happens. He has been made to feel so helpless and impotent that when he finds someone with even less power than himself he oppresses him in turn.

The king also is a victim of oppression. He breaks out of the oppressive world when he forgives his servant (even though we can detect some condescension), but it doesn’t last. The servant’s meanness defeats him, he takes back his generous spirit and becomes as mean as the servant. Very different from our God!

The parable then makes us reflect on oppression, understood quite correctly as being indebted. What a terrible thing oppression is! It keeps everyone in bondage – the oppressed and the oppressors alike. It isn’t God who keeps us in bondage, but we ourselves, and the parable tells us that we will continue in this bondage, “handed over to torturers”, unless someone makes a breakthrough and replaces meanness with generosity of spirit, the spirit of forgiveness, permanent and unconditional, “from our hearts.”

We can reflect on the movement of oppression/forgiveness at different levels – on the world stage, in our countries, within our families and neighborhoods, in our own hearts. In each case, we celebrate the people who have made the breakthrough.
In our own hearts: what unforgiven hurts still “torture” us? We recognise the bitterness which keeps us in bondage, consuming our energies, preventing us from enjoying life and being at peace with those around us. We remember the times when we were able to free ourselves, even if only temporarily, like the king.

Within families and communities: so often we are concerned mainly about punishing the offender. We celebrate today the peacemakers among us, those who work through mediation to re-establish harmony within the community.

Within nations, especially between ethnic groups, social classes, religions. We think of Northern Ireland, former Yugoslavia, the Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan, the black community in the United States – the list can go on and on!

We think of the debt of the third world countries, causing anger, resentment and civil strife. Indifference to the plight of those who are in debt keeps the whole human family in bondage.

Prayer Reflection

As we begin our prayer, let us listen to some of the prophetic voices of our time speaking of forgiveness to our modern world which is so much in need of it:

“The philosophy of retributive justice has brought nothing but chaos and widespread distress to families caught up in it. It has guaranteed a growing level of crime and has wasted millions of
taxpayers’ money. We need to discover a philosophy that moves from punishment to reconciliation, from vengeance against offenders to healing for victims, from alienation to integration, from negativity and destructiveness to healing and forgiveness. Retributive justice always asks first: how do we punish the offender? Restorative justice asks: how do we restore the well-being of the victim, the community and the offender?” …. Vincent Travers, o.p. in Religious Life Review, Sept./Oct. 1995

 “The experience of forgiveness leads us to a radical understanding of the doctrine of Grace. We
are saved, not by getting it right, but by the love that redeems us while we are getting it wrong.“…
Richard Holloway, Dancing on the Edge

- “There will come a day when the martyr will be made to stand before the throne of God in
defense of his persecutors and say, ‘Lord, I have forgiven in thy name and by thy example. Thou
hast no claim against them any more.’”
A Russian Orthodox bishop wrote these words as he went to his death in one of Stalin’s purges

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill-will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have bought thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to the judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.”
Prayer found in the clothing on the body of a dead child at Ravensbruck camp where 92,000 women and children died; in Mary Craig, “Take up your Cross,” The Way, Jan. 1973

“While waiting for the Kingdom, make the Kingdom.
While waiting for righteousness and peace, practice righteousness and peace.
You want a paradise of love?  Forgive.” …..Carlo Carretto, Summoned by Love

Lord,  we ask you to look with compassion on the many people in our world
who are in bondage because they cannot forgive from their hearts.
What they have suffered may seem trivial to us, a mere one hundred denarii,
but they are handed over to torture
until they have paid their debt of forgiveness. 

Pope Francis visiting the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere during a visit to the Sant’Egidio community in Rome

We thank you for the great people of our time who, like Jesus,
work for the forgiveness of debts:
- John Dear and the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Washington, D.C.;
- the Sant Egidio Community in Rome;
- the Tallaght Community Mediation Scheme in Dublin;
- Archbishop Tutu and the Truth Tribunal in South Africa.
We thank you that these servants, following the way of Jesus,
are showing our contemporaries that unless they forgive from their hearts
you have no choice but to leave them and their communities in bondage.

We thank you for those who have taught our world forgiveness:
- spouses who welcomed back those who had been unfaithful;
- members of minority groups who work for racial harmony in their neighborhoods;
- devotees of traditional African religions in dialogue with the mainline churches;
- Nelson Mandela;
- Pope John Paul.
We thank you that, unlike the king in Jesus’ parable,
they did not let themselves be turned aside from the path of forgiveness,
but forgave seventy-seven times.

Lord, have pity on the many countries that are being torn apart by traditional hatreds;
send them men and women who will show their compatriots
that unless they forgive from their hearts
they will be forever tortured by hatred and the desire for revenge.

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Homily notes

1. Reconciliation is a word that is bandied about in Christian discourse: we talk about it in relation to individual sinfulness; we talk about it in social situations of injustice; and we use it as the name of one of the sacraments: the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We use the word so often that it can become just a synonym for repentance, penance, the process of ‘getting rid of sin’, offering forgiveness, or a process for rebuilding harmony in society. It is all of these things, but it is also one of the key words by which we can understand

(1) the role of the Christ in relation to church,
(2) the role of the Christian body towards the larger society, and
(3) the one of the central Christian attitudes towards life and how it should be lived. 

This sculpture is called ‘Reconciliation’. It is in the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral in England

2. It is easiest to begin by sketching the habit of being reconciliatory, being someone with the attitude of wanting reconciliation. It is worth noting the exact implications of Peter’s question of Jesus: ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ There is no hint in the text that this brother has come and asked for forgiveness. This is not a mutual process. The forgiveness in question is a unilateral act by the one who has been sinned against. Someone has been offended/ attacked; that person now wants to forgive the offender without any hint of the offender seeking forgiveness or showing an awareness of their crime or showing contrition. The question is how often is this attitude of offering forgiveness unilaterally and unconditionally to last? Is it a one-off event, something that should be given a good trial (let’s say ‘seven times’) or something that must be on-going (‘seventy-times seven’)? The Christian position is made abundantly clear.

But what is this attitude? The forgiveness in question consists in continuing to seek the way that builds up peace with those who offend one, rather than seeking either to get revenge for their offences or seeking to write them out of the script of one’s own plans for right acting. The Christian must act rightly, despite how others behave, even when that behaviour is directed against them. Reconciliation is the steady willingness to build the universe aright in spite of, and in the aftermath of, those who would break down peace and goodness between people, or between people and the environment. One must not only seek to stop damage to individuals, society, the environment, but one must always be ready to start over, repair damage, and begin again. This beginning afresh, rather than pursuing a vendetta or engaging in recriminations, is at the heart of reconciliation.

3. The task of the Christian body, the church, is to act as an agent for reconciliation in a human situation where, after any offence has been felt, our instincts and’ gut reaction’ is to find the culprit, extract redress (sometimes we are honest and openly call this ‘vengeance’ and admit that we like the idea of ‘getting our own back’; sometimes we opt for spin and speak of ‘restoring the status quo’ or of ‘condign justice’), and then have an extended period during which the offender suffers the effects of their crime whether this is imprisonment, isolation, being given the cold shoulder, or some other kind of exclusion. However, reconciliation is focused not upon redress, but upon getting back on track, repairing the damage, and starting afresh. The past is past; we must get on with building the kingdom of justice, love, and peace. If we look back it is only to learn lessons, not to engage in the activity of retribution. This is a very different view of the way humans should act to that which most societies have pursued either now or in the past.

The church is the minister of reconciliation whose vocation it is to work to repair the damage done within the creation, material and human, from evil choices. And this ministry cannot be confused with wagging fingers at problems nor naming sins, nor should it be reduced to the individual reconciliation of penitents, (viewed in terms of an individual’s relationship with God). This working for reconciliation is part of the priesthood of the whole people of God.

Wherever there is division, corruption, suffering or disruption in the order of things, there is a task of reconciliation to be addressed; and Christians make the claim that they are willing to adopt this task as their own. In a world where the pursuit of vengeance keeps conflicts running and multiplies the amount of suffering and misery, Christians are supposed to be taking a different tack.

4. Reconciliation is also a way of understanding the Christ­-event: God in Jesus was reconciling the world to himself. The pattern for all Christian reconciliation is the way the Father has offered a new beginning to the creation in the Last Adam. This use of reconciliation as an overarching theme for the whole of the gospel is captured in the opening statement of the current formula of sacramental absolution: ‘God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. The Father allows us to begin afresh and to then grow to the fullness of life; we rejoice in this as the joy of faith. We must allow those who have harmed us/ our creation to start afresh and help
them grow to the fullness of life; we accept this as the challenge of the life of faith.

5. Perhaps we are now in a better position to appreciate the wisdom of Ben Sira: the homily could conclude by reading the first reading again as its various messages (e.g. ‘stop hating’) should now fit into a larger framework.

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John Litteton
Gospel Reflection

Why was Jesus so insistent about the practice of forgiveness in the lives of his disciples? Peter was probably embarrassed by Jesus’ answer to his question ‘How often must I forgive?’ Jesus told Peter to be far more forgiving than he was suggesting. Peter must forgive seventy-seven times, not seven times.

In saying this, Jesus was not implying that forgiveness could be refused on the seventy-eighth and subsequent occasions. For Jesus, there could be no limit to the number of times people would forgive. Forgiveness was to be a continuous activity and one of the central characteristics of the Christian lifestyle.

So why was Jesus so adamant that his listeners would understand how his message of forgiveness was central to his teaching and preaching? Was it because he wanted to be excessively demanding? Or was it because he knew that forgiveness was among the most difficult challenges for human beings? 

Orthodox priests pray as they stand between pro-EU protesters and police lines in central Kyiv, Jan. 24, 2014.

It would have been easier for most of Jesus’ disciples to be unforgiving because they had direct experience of oppression and injustice from the Romans, who were occupying their country, and from the tax collectors, moneylenders and religious leaders. Did Jesus want to raise the standards and expectation beyond their capabilities? The answer to these questions is ar emphatic ‘No’.

Jesus was uncompromising about the centrality of forgiveness because he understood human nature completely. He knew that if people would not forgive one another, and if they could not graciously accept forgiveness from other people when it was offered, then they would be unable to experience God’s forgiveness. Jesus appreciated that the human spirit yearns for acceptance, sympathy, respect, companionship and a sense of belonging. None of these is possible in the absence of forgiveness.

Practising forgiveness, therefore, enables us to realise these yearnings. Our greatest gift from God — the ability to love — is dependent on our ability to forgive. Forgiveness brings healing. If there is no forgiveness in our lives, then our human nature becomes flawed. We feel isolated. We become less than human and, eventually, our dignity and sense of self-worth diminish. Our innate beauty derived from being made in the image and likeness of God is shattered. There is a diminution of the quality of human life and living. 

When, as repentant people, we celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation properly (that is, we confess our sins, make reparation for our wrongdoing and resolve not to commit these sins again) we are assured that our sins are forgiven and that we will have God’s help to avoid sin in the future. We all need to experience forgiveness in our lives. The sacrament of reconciliation enables us to receive God’s forgiveness for our sins. We become whole human beings again, capable of tremendous love and sacrifice. Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus insisted on forgiveness among his followers?

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1.     From the Connections

THE WORD:

The cutting edge of Jesus’ teaching on love is that nothing is unforgivable nor should there be limits to forgiveness. 

It is ironic that Peter should ask the question about forgiveness that introduces the parable of the merciless steward, since Peter himself will be so generously forgiven by Jesus for his denial of Jesus on Good Friday.  It was common rabbinical teaching that one must forgive another three times; the fourth time, the offender was not to be forgiven.  Perhaps Peter was anticipating Jesus’ response to his question by suggesting seven rather than the conventional three times; but Jesus responds that there should be no limit to the number of times we must be ready to forgive those who wrong us (“seventy times seven times”), just as there is no limit to the Father’s forgiveness of us.  As the king in the parable withdraws his forgiveness of his servant because of the servant’s failure to forgive another, so will God withdraw his forgiveness of the unforgiving and merciless among us.  God's forgiveness is not entirely unconditional: if we do not share it, we will lose it.

HOMILY POINTS:

Forgiveness can only be given out of love and, therefore, demands sacrifice on the part of the forgiver.  To forgive as God forgives means to intentionally act to purge the evil that exists between us and those who harm us, to take the first, second and last steps toward bridging divisions, to work ceaselessly to mend broken relationships and to welcome and accept the forgiven back into our lives unconditionally, totally and joyfully. 

Before our merciful Father in heaven, every one of us is an insolvent debtor -- but the great mystery of our faith is that God continues to love us, continues to call us back to him, continues to seek not retribution but reconciliation with us.  All God asks of us is that we forgive one another as he forgives us, to help one another back up when we stumble just as God lifts us back up.

The Risen Christ calls us to seek reconciliation that transforms and re-creates: forgiveness that is joyfully offered and humbly but confidently sought; forgiveness that transforms the estranged and separated into family and community; forgiveness that overcomes our own anger and outrage at the injustice waged against us and focuses on healing the relationship with the person who wronged us and ruptured that relationship.  Christ-like reconciliation also means possessing the humility to face the hurt we have inflicted on others as a result of our insensitivity and self-centeredness. 

2.     From the Sermons.com

As with so many of the stories of Jesus, the parable of the debtors arose out of a question that was posed to Jesus. Simon Peter said to him: "Master, if my brother sins against me, how many times should I forgive him? Seven times? Even as he asks that question my mind cannot help but think about children and how they will sometimes confess something they do wrong expecting to get praise from a teacher or a parent because they were so honest.

In the same sense, Simon Peter by asking this question is not expecting rebuke but praise. He is expecting Jesus to say: "Excellent Peter. You go to the head of the class. You get A+." According to Jewish law, Peter had the right to think that he had done something good. Scribal law clearly read: 

"If a man transgresses one time, forgive him. If a man transgresses two times, forgive him. If a man transgresses three times, forgive him. If a man transgresses four times, do not forgive him." What Peter has done is to take this law of limited forgiveness, multiply it by two and add one, and then sit back with a smile on his face and say: Now how is that for being a great guy? And he surely must have been taken aback when Jesus said you must forgive seventy times seven. 

Then Jesus proceeded to tell a story. There was a certain king who had a day of reckoning for his servants...
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Most adults recognize it is their "job" to teach children right from wrong, good from bad, safe from scary, yes from no.  

But there are some lessons that children are better at teaching us. Think about celebrations like birthdays (especially Christmas), and Easter, and any other special days that have the possibility of "presents" attached. Kids LOVE them, anticipate and adore them. Children love and accept presents with unabashed enthusiasm. Receiving a gift is "all good." 

For adults it is a bit more difficult. We worry about the cost of the gift. We worry about reciprocating the gift. We worry about whether the gift has invisible "strings" attached. Suddenly "receiving" is a bit more complicated than just joyous. Receiving a gift is hard for most of us. We either feel beholden, or suspicious, or overwhelmed, or unworthy of the freely given gifts (gratuities) that bless us. That's why adults often become better givers than receivers. 

The adult vs. child version of acceptance is even greater with the other tremendous "gift" young children are good at offering and accepting. Kindergarten kids might get into a heated battle over who gets custody of a Ninja Turtle figure. Tears and blows might even be involved. But after a truce is called, and apologies are offered (or sometimes enforced), in a short time all is forgiven, and (play) time goes on. Forgiveness is offered and the play date goes on.

There are no thoughts of revenge. There is no nurturing of anger. There are no dreams of retaliation...

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 Forgiveness Written in Stone 

A story is told of two friends who were walking through the desert. During some point of the journey they had an argument, and one friend slapped the other one in the face. The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything, wrote in the sand, "Today my best friends slapped me in the face."

They kept on walking until they found an oasis, where they decided to take a bath. The one who had been slapped got stuck in the mire and started drowning, but the friend saved him. After he recovered from nearly drowning, he wrote on a stone, "Today my best friend saved my life." 

His friend asked him, "After I hurt you, you wrote in the sand and now, you write on a stone, why?" The other friend replied "When someone hurts us we should write it down in sand where winds of forgiveness can erase it away. But, when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone where no wind can ever erase it." 

So real forgiveness keeps on leaving the sins of others and our hurts in the past. Yet Jesus understands the difficulty of such forgiveness. To keep on forgiving is a God-like characteristic. It is contrary to human nature. So He gives a parable beginning in v.23 which will help us obey His commandment to keep on forgiving. 

Stephen Felker, How Often Should I Forgive?
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 To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.

C.S. Lewis
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 The Danger within Us 

French author Victor Hugo has a short story titled, "93." In the midst of this tale a ship at sea is caught in a terrific storm. Buffeted by the waves, the boat rocks to and fro, when suddenly the crew hears an awesome crashing sound below deck. They know what it is. A cannon they are carrying has broken loose and is smashing into the ship's sides with every list of the ship. Two brave sailors, at the risk of their lives, manage to go below and fasten it again, for they know that the heavy cannon on the inside of their ship is more dangerous to them than the storm on the outside. So it is with people. Problems within are often much more destructive to us than the problems without. Today, God's word would take us "below decks" to look inside ourselves concerning the whole matter of forgiveness. 

Stephen M. Crotts / George L. Murphy, Sermons For Sundays: After Pentecost (Middle Third): The Incomparable Christ, , CSS Publishing Company, Inc.
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 Debts in Roman Society 

In the ancient world cruel treatment was practiced against debtors, often without regard to the debtor's ability or intention to repay. In Athens prior to the establishment of democratic rights, a creditor could demand slave labor of his debtor or of members of the debtor's family as surety of payment.

 Roman law provided punishment by imprisonment to the debtors. The reason for imprisonment and cruel treatment was to force the debtor to sell whatever property he might secretly own, or to have the debtor's relatives pay his debt. 

The creditor would demand slave labor of the entire family so that the debt might be worked off. There were legal restrictions to prevent extreme cruelty, but in spite of the laws the entire system of debts and sureties was recklessly abused in the ancient world. 

The prophets frequently condemned violations of the laws. 

James R. Davis, The Unmerciful Servant
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Saved by Forgiveness 

Since nothing we intend is ever faultless, and nothing we attempt ever without error, and nothing we achieve without some measure of finitude and fallibility we call humanness, we are saved by forgiveness. 

David Augsburger
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 Forgiveness Is Not Innate 

William Willimon writes: "The human animal is not supposed to be good at forgiveness. Forgiveness is not some innate, natural human emotion. 

Vengeance, retribution, violence, these are natural human qualities. It is natural for the human animal to defend itself, to snarl and crouch into a defensive position when attacked, to howl when wronged, to bite back when bitten. Forgiveness is not natural. It is not a universal human virtue."

Will Willimon

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 Two Million Dollar Mistake 

John D. Rockefeller built the great Standard Oil empire. Not surprisingly, Rockefeller was a man who demanded high performance from his executives. One day, one of those executives made a two million dollar mistake. Word of the man's enormous error quickly spread throughout the executive offices, and the other men began to make themselves scarce, not wanting to cross his path. One man didn't have any choice, however, since he had an appointment with the boss. So he straightened his shoulders and walked into Rockefeller's office. As he approached Rockefeller's desk, he looked up from the piece of paper on which he was writing. "I guess you've heard about the two million dollar mistake our friend made," he said abruptly. "Yes," the executive said, expecting Rockefeller to explode. "Well, I've been sitting here listing all of our friend's good qualities, and I've discovered that in the past he has made us many more times the amount he lost for us today by his one mistake. His good points far outweigh this one human error. So I think we ought to forgive him, don't you?"

 Dale Galloway, You Can Win with Love, in The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart, Charles Swindoll, Word Pub., p. 215.

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 What God Can Do with Forgiveness 

By the grace of God we can use forgiveness as a positive, creative force bringing light into a darkened world. Nobody does that kind of thing better, of course, than God. Who could imagine 2,000 years ago that the symbol of the Christian church would be a hangman's noose, an electric chair, a guillotine? Those analogies may be necessary for us to keep from being too sentimental about "the old, rugged cross." A cross is a terrible thing. It was indeed a symbol of suffering and shame. Humanity nailed God's own Son on a cross. What barbarity! What unspeakable evil! Yet God turned that cross into the means by which you and I may find our salvation. That is what God can do with forgiveness. What can you do? 

King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
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 Forgiven: Too Poor to Pay
(A good sermon closer) 

When the books of a certain Scottish doctor were examined after his death, it was found that a number of accounts were crossed through with a note: "Forgiven--too poor to pay." But the physician's wife later decided that these accounts must be paid in full and she proceeded to sue for money. When the case came to court the judge asked but one question. Is this your husband's handwriting? When she replied that it was he responded: "There is no court in the land that can obtain a debt once the word forgiven has been written." 

And that is the good news that the Gospel offers us this morning....