Forgiveness is its own reward by Bishop Richard Henning
First reading: Sirach 27:30-28:7 Responsorial: Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12 Second reading: Romans 14:7-9 Gospel passage: Matthew 18:21-35
Every day, we pray: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” How is that going for you? Have you forgiven anyone recently? Does it come easily to you? I am guessing that the answer might be that it is very difficult to forgive others and that genuine forgiveness does not occur with the frequency of our words of prayer. On the other hand, if we have ever been forgiven or offered genuine forgiveness, then we know what a profound blessing it is to the pardoner as well as to the pardoned. How is it that such an obviously good thing can be so very elusive?
For any of us who have ever struggled with forgiveness, these readings are a direct challenge. The focus of the readings is on the loving mercy of God, but they also teach us that such mercy is to be shared.
The first reading comes to us from Sirach. This book belongs to a category of relatively late books in Judaism – works of “wisdom literature.” These biblical books are distinguishable from the older narratives of the Old Testament in that they offer advice for good living – and living in a larger cultural world beyond that of ancient Israel and the glory days of David and Solomon. These works look at the universal human experience and attempt to chart the authentic path.
In the more ancient books of the Law, retribution for wrongdoing was established practice. The Scriptures presume that human beings must accept the consequences of acting contrary to God’s law and the prophets frequently reminded the people of the truth of God’s promises – promises of deliverance and promises of judgment. Likewise for relationship among human beings, the law specified the punishment or “price” of sins against a neighbor. The law limited that retribution (“an eye for an eye”), but permitted and presumed it.
Here Sirach does not repudiate the earlier tradition, but the text does look to the human experience for insight. It recognizes the mystery that our embrace of sin will always have consequences for us. There is indeed something of a “slippery slope” when we give ourselves over to temptation. Consider here the clever image of the sinner “hugging” his sins. The passage urges the sinner to comply with God’s law and to do the good. And part of that return to the Lord is a sense of gratitude that flows into magnanimity – mercy received and shared. We might sum up this message as “life is too short to spend it on grudges.”
Psalm 103 offers praise of Divine mercy. This forgiveness, unmerited and gratuitous, constitutes nothing less than love. The verses draw out the insight of Sirach – to forgive for we have been forgiven – into a song of joy and celebration for the forgiving nature of the Lord.
The passage from Romans does not address forgiveness directly, but it does provide insight into the deepening of insight made possible by the Christ event. Here, Paul summons his fellow Christians to recognize that the Christian life is more than a moral code. It is a relationship – a life lived in intimate union with the Christ.
The gospel passage presents a clear and compelling case for our participation in Divine mercy. When asked about forgiveness, Jesus’ response of seventy times seven effectively tells his listeners that the need for forgiveness is constant and ongoing. The Lord goes on to offer a parable that illustrates the unity of Divine mercy and our willingness to forgive one another. It is important to note that the parable is not proposing a sort of exchange. We do not purchase or earn mercy by showing it. Rather, the parable points to the very profound truth of our union with Christ and our participation in His grace. When we know His love and truth, then our hearts are moved to humility, gratitude, and the desire to share the same.
If we are to take anything from these readings it should be this – forgiveness is good for us. It may be difficult and all too rare, but the grace we have received blossoms when we participate in it.