24th. Sunday of Year (A)
Saint Luke gives us the same saying of Jesus that we have just heard but in a slightly different form:
If your brother wrongs you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry’, you should forgive him. (17:4)
In our Gospel reading Saint Matthew did not mention the fact of the penitent brother asking for forgiveness:
Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?
He would seem to have presumed it.
He would have been right to presume it, of course, because one cannot forgive someone who does not ask for forgiveness, someone who is not wanting forgiveness, for in such a case the original wrong would still hold sway, and even God does not forgive those who do not repent of their sin, because forgiveness – the re-establishing of an original relationship -- has to be received in order for it to be given.
Saint Matthew, however, in his account of this saying of Jesus about forgiveness, is not concerned primarily about the circumstances between the offender and the offended, for, as I earlier mentioned, he does not mention that the repentant sinner came back asking for forgiveness; but rather, Matthew’s great concern is about the relationship between the one offended and God, and in that respect, dear People of God, we must first of all recognize that the ‘huge amount’ owed by debtor no. 1 to the king is ultimately to be regarded as the debt of sins forgiven by God -- a huge amount -- for the sake of His Son’s self-sacrifice as our Saviour on Calvary, and as a huge debt – now of gratitude and gratefulness -- owed by all aspirants to heavenly life in Jesus before the Father.
Bearing in mind that essential fact, Matthew is most insistent about members of his congregation of Pharisee-converts in their personal response to a sinning brother, now a convert Christian brother sinning against a fellow convert. I say Matthew is insistent about this secondary relationship because he here invokes another of his unique memories of Jesus, quoted earlier in his Gospel (5:45), to the effect that, as children of God, you must do, not as the Law of Moses taught or allowed you to do, but as Jesus in His Law of Gospel Grace and Charity teaches you: God never refuses forgiveness when sinners sincerely seek it of Him, and that is what St. Matthew has in mind when he alone quotes that seventy-seven times which means ‘any number of times’, or, ‘times without limit’.
There is, however, a certain strangeness about Our Lord’s parable, in that the cancellation of the whole debt is far beyond any question of forgiveness, concerning the repayment of a debt, or the time of any such repayment. And I do not think that Our Lord was insisting that, His Christian disciples must quite literally always write off the whole debt, wipe the slate clean, so to speak, in such cases. What I am certain about, though, is that He was and still is insisting that we wipe the slate (of our memory) clean in that we truly forgive, without holding onto any grudge or resentment. And here Matthew has a most important and, once again, unique teaching of Jesus for us to note and most carefully remember: God does not and we must not hold grudges or cherish animosity:
He makes His sun to shine and His rain to fall on the righteous and also on the unrighteous; (Matthew 5:45)
such gifts of God are given to all irrespective of their personal sinfulness.
That is absolutely important for us to remember, dear People of God, because our granting forgiveness does not mean that, let us say, the original state of friendship is to be restored immediately; that may take time, or it may be impossible; but what is to be restored immediately is the manner in which we treat the forgiven offender, that is, we treat him or her without any cherished animosity or resentment, that we treat ‘him’ as normally, open-heartedly, and courteously as we treat others, just as God ‘makes His sun to shine and His rain to fall on he righteous and also on the unrighteous’.
Of course, Jesus knew that such an attitude is not humanly possible even when He was deliberately saying those words, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times’, in which the word seven is a figure of plenitude, perfection. Jesus chose those words, I say, to make us realize that the Christian life – life as His disciples and witnesses to Him on earth, aspiring to a heavenly destiny in Him before His Father – is beyond us, of ourselves; it is not something merely human, it is a share in God’s life and gives us a claim on God’s strength. We cannot say as an excuse, ‘It is beyond me’; of course it is, but it is not beyond God for us, with us, in us, and through us. We Christians, above all we Catholics, have the fulness of God’s grace available to us in the Sacraments, and we are meant to live not a merely human life, but a divinised human life, in Christ Jesus, divinised by His Gift of the most Holy Spirit, for the Father, which is what Saint Paul told us in our second reading:
If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord; so that alive or dead we belong to the Lord.
That, dear People of God, should be the ultimate principle of our conscious Christian behaviour: we belong entirely to God in Jesus, and we should strive to react to each situation in life with Him in mind, not ourselves; and for that, our supreme model is blessed Mary at the Annunciation, totally God-centred and self-less! Of course, we may be taken by surprise or even overcome by our native and instinctive self-love, and led into returning evil for evil, but any such happening should be a clear warning to us and we should make sure that such a surprise does not become deliberate and most certainly not habitual!
Such steadfastness in God’s service, however, can only be achieved not by will-power, but by love-power, so to speak; and that love-power is a gift of God, a gift ‘contained’, ‘understood’ in those words of St. Paul, ‘we belong to God’, words which mean ‘we are His possession’, ‘we are possessed by God’, words which, in turn, can only mean that we are those people who have opened ourselves up to Him -- above all in the highs and lows of life, in our troubles and trials, in our joys and delights -- and besought Him, most ardently and perseveringly, to rule supreme there.