Twenty-fourth Sunday (A)
(Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:7; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35)
Our Gospel reading today is very familiar, but don't let that fact lead you into a semi-dormant, 'we've heard all that before' attitude of mind for, being the Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit, even today’s short passage from the Gospel leads us to a fount of ever-flowing, purest, water. So, let us drink deep now as we direct our particular attention to the first two verses of the Gospel reading:
Peter approached Jesus and asked Him, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times”.
That is the main part of the Gospel reading, as is shown by the fact that the following parable of the Unforgiving Servant was told by Jesus in order to bring out graphically the meaning of the words He had just spoken; although for Jesus there may perhaps also have been a more Personal desire to show His Father as the king and supreme authority deciding such a fundamental issue, all the more especially because that issue formed so prominent a part of the ‘Our Father’ prayer He Himself gave us all at His disciples’ request:
I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants…
Why did Jesus answer as He did:
I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy-seven times?
Let me say first of all that this was no mere use of words, neither was it any expression of emotional religiosity, on the part of Jesus: His words are both relevant in their historical, and supremely important in their theological, significance. They were not spoken just to emphasise the need for us to have a forgiving spirit, that would indeed have corresponded partly, but by no means fully, with Jesus’ intentions. The words He so emphatically used are part of the Scriptures inspired by the Holy Spirit of Wisdom and Truth which have become yet more significantly important and meaningful by their being specially picked out, spoken, and used by the Lord Himself. We should, therefore, try to recognize as closely as we can, just what attitude Jesus was wanting to instil in, what blessing to bestow on, Peter and Mother Church today and throughout all ages; and to do this, we must follow Jesus by bearing in mind the witness and teaching of the whole of Scripture.
Not seven times, but seventy-seven times, those words are to be found first in the book of Genesis (4:23-24), as one of Israel's millennial traditions:
Lamech said to his wives: "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; wives of Lamech, listen to my utterance! For I have killed a man for wounding me, even a young man for bruising me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times."
According to the Scriptures, Lamech was the great-great-great-grandson of Cain. In the verses preceding the words I have just quoted we read of great progress being made in the quality of life for the family of Cain: a city had been built by him, and we heard of livestock being raised, of artisans making tools of all kinds from bronze and iron, and -- for times of public rejoicing and personal pleasure -- there were players of harp and flute. As we would say today, the economy was flourishing. But, just as we experience today, with the growth of prosperity and greater opportunities to seek and find what is necessary and good but also what is pleasurable and even addictive, there came also an alarming growth in wickedness and sin. Cain the original sinner had begged God’s protection lest he himself be killed in revenge for his murdering of his own brother Abel, an action he learned to regret. However, when we look at his great-great-great grandson Lamech, we find him actually glorying in and boasting about the fact of his having killed a man for merely wounding him, even of killing a young man or boy for simply bruising him. Obviously Lamech, if and when provoked, would not hesitate to kill; and his characteristic violence, once aroused, was unrestrainable to the extent that he recognised no distinction between young and old: indeed, it was his insanely proud boast that whoever crossed him would pay for it, and that he alone, Lamech, not God, would decide both the price to be paid and the person to pay it. He vaunted the irrevocability of his decision and the inevitability of its fulfilment by invoking and yet, at the same time, managing to downgrade, the traditional tribal and family reverence for the founding father by those words:
If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.
Such devilish pride, coupled with a vicious and vengeful attitude, characterised Lamech, and that was the way he ruled his family; nor was he alone in that, for the society of which he was part developed along similar lines until, eventually, it called for its own destruction by the God-sent flood.
Lamech had been a ‘puss-laden’ boil of pride and violence in the old, pre-flood, world; and we ourselves -- or at least some of us -- have ‘in our days’ seen, heard of, similar things in, for example, Sicilian society and the Balkans, Palestine and Northern Ireland, and with the Tutsis in Africa. And going via Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe, and Idi Amin, we can soon touch back to Stalin's horrendously vengeful cruelty towards his own people and Hitler's totally consuming hatred for all things Jewish. And yet, most sadly, there are not a few regions in our world even today where like cancerous growths of pride and violence can still be found proudly proclaiming and promenading themselves.
With such things in mind we can begin, perhaps, to appreciate something of the importance and the significance of Jesus' reply to Peter’s question:
Peter approached Jesus and asked Him, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?",
and we may also learn to admire and rejoice in the wisdom of Jesus who knew both the full beauty and power of the teaching of the Scriptures, and also the full extent of human frailty and sinfulness as it would develop over the succeeding ages.
Peter and the disciples had been cleansed by the word Jesus had spoken to them and they were to receive new and heavenly life by the Holy Spirit Who would be poured out upon the Church after their Lord's Death and Resurrection; in the meantime, they were being trained to proclaim and proffer His redemption to the whole of mankind, which, despite its own native frailty, was soon be re-destined and endowed anew for heavenly fulfilment in Him. The flood-waters of destruction and death which destroyed the gross evil and wickedness of Lamech and his world, were never to be repeated; men might continue to destroy themselves by their steadfast pursuit of pride and pleasure, but the Flood would be replaced by a far greater outpouring of waters, this time the healing waters of grace from the Holy Spirit of life, Gift of God and most sublime fruit of the tree of Jesus’ Cross. Jesus wanted Peter and the Apostles -- as He also wants us -- to realize that on taking up their saving mission in the Church for the whole world, they must have total, absolute, confidence in the presence and power in their lives and in the Church of Him Who can overcome the power of any and every future upsurge of evil; as for the persuasion of such evil, there is the beauty and wisdom of divine life and love in Jesus to lead to salvation all those of good will.
We are all sinners redeemed by Jesus, and even the best of us are only earthenware vessels, as St. Paul says:
We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)
But, being thus aware of our own inherent weakness and repeated failings, we can all recognise and -- in our measure and at any given time -- perhaps even feel traces of the passions and fears ruling, and gradually destroying, some of our brethren. Therefore, we are supremely well-placed, and should be well disposed, to show in our lives that forgiveness which is at the root of all God’s dealings with us: we recognise the evil afflicting some of our fellows and we thank God with all our heart for the fact that His grace alone protects and preserves us. In other words, forgiveness should be our characteristic Christian virtue, whereas unforgiving vengefulness would constitute for us a most outrageous sin and comprehensive defeat at the hands of Satan, as we heard in our first reading:
Forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you, and when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath (resentment); who will forgive him his sins?
That is why, when Peter questioned Jesus mentioning the number seven which, for the Jews, was a number of completion and perfection since God had created the old world in seven days:
"Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?"
Jesus replied so firmly:
I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
This sort of thing goes back to the very beginning and reaches to the very heart of man, Jesus is hinting. Recognize the signs of your adversary, Satan, whose deceits of old brought about the destruction of those he led astray into pride and viciousness, Lamech above all. For you are called to be – in Me -- a new creation, and the perfection of that new creation will so great that seven is no longer suitable, only seventy-seven can suggest something of the supreme wonder of heavenly life beginning here on earth for you and in you. The devil is still at work, still trying to undermine and disfigure God's new creation and your souls too but, having seen in Lamech whither Satan would lead you, be firm against him and strong in Me and, by My Spirit in you, be prepared to forgive whoever may have, wherever and whenever, wronged you,
not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
To help and enable us to do this work -- which alone is befitting the new creation He has made of us, and the new perfection He to which He calls us -- He the One Who loves us is always Personally present to us in Mother Church, seeking to encourage and sustain us in our daily endeavours in love of God and service of men through the gift of His own Most Holy Spirit: the Spirit of both the Father and the Son, the Spirit of our adoption as crowned heirs of the heavenly Kingdom and children of our heavenly Father.