24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
September 17, 2017
As I reflected on today’s readings, two themes emerged in my mind: mercy and forgiveness.
Mercy is rooted in love, and is demonstrated by the way we forgive, so you can see how these two themes are connected.
Today’s Psalm (PS 103) gives us a good description of what “Mercy” looks like. It describes the Lord as “kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion,” and calls us to act in the same manner, being:
- Kind hearted – respecting all God’s creation
- Merciful – loving both friend and enemy alike
- Slow to anger – exercising patience and caring
- Compassionate – being empathetic and considerate of others
You could say that “forgiveness” is the way we reflect God’s mercy and love. That’s what I want to focus on today: Our willingness to forgive others; and our willingness to forgive ourselves. Both are necessary to be kind, merciful and compassionate like God.
Today’s Gospel (MT 18:21-35) speaks about the importance of forgiving others. In this, we hear the familiar story of Peter asking Jesus “How many times must I forgive someone?”
It helps to have some context to this question. You see, in Jesus’ time, rabbis had a general rule of thumb about forgiveness: They thought that a sinner could be forgiven as many as three times. That was considered generous and merciful.
But Peter challenges this rule of thumb and proclaims that he is willing to forgive someone seven times (more than double what the rabbis were willing to do.) While this may appear to be a bold move, there is a problem: Peter, too, sets limits on forgiveness. That’s not what Jesus wants.
So Jesus shocks Peter by telling him “No, not seven times, but 77 times” (or as sometimes translated, “70 times seven times.”) The number doesn’t really matter. It is a symbolic way of saying that there is no limit to the depth of God’s love and mercy. So don’t set limits!
After this, Jesus reinforces his teaching with a parable about forgiveness.
Which leads to some very simple reflection questions – some things to chew on this week:
- Are you willing to forgive others? Even those we find to be difficult and challenging?
- Do you set limits on forgiving? Are you only willing to forgive someone if the other person is willing to forgive you? (I have heard so many stories of rifts caused in families because one family member wouldn’t forgive another until he or she forgave first. It’s silly and destructive behavior.)
- Who are the people in your life who need and deserve your forgiveness?
What we learn from today’s Gospel is that God places no limits on forgiveness – so why should we? Forgiving others is a way to unburden our hearts and minds, and be more like God.
As important as it is to forgive others, it is equally important that we forgive ourselves – to be willing to accept God’s grace and love – to be forgiven.
Many years ago (Not sure of the year, but I remember that our two daughters were still very young) I had an interesting experience learning how to forgive myself.
I had gone to church on a Saturday afternoon to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I met with the priest and confessed my sins. The priest gave me my penance (a few extra prayers to pray) and prayed the formula that absolved me of my sins – pretty ordinary stuff as far as Reconciliation goes.
But, as I was heading toward the door, the priest stopped me and said: “Wait a minute. You don’t look like a guy whose sins have been forgiven. You should see your mopey, glum! A man who has just had his sins forgiven should be smiling from ear-to-ear!” The priest told me to sit back down to talk some more.
The priest told me that I shouldn’t leave the confessional dragging a heavy bag of guilt and shame because I hadn’t lived a “perfect life.” The priest coached me to let it all go, that God’s mercy is greater than our sins.
So the priest suggested a revised penance (that was a first!). He suggested I go home and take a warm bath. He told me to let the feeling of the water remind me of God’s abundant grace and unending mercy and love. “Then,” he said, “when you get out of the tub, dry yourself and drain the tub. Be conscious of God washing away your sins and how the sins of your past were flowing down the drain.” He told me to “find comfort and peace in God’s mercy and forgiveness.”
So, I went home to take a bath …
I filled the tub in the hall bathroom (the bathroom with a tub lined with rubber duckies and assorted bath toys for our daughters) and then I put on my swim trunks (did I mention there were little girls at home?).
I climbed into the tub for a relaxing soak along with all of the bath-time toys.
A few minutes into my bathing experience, I heard giggling at the door. I looked up and saw my two daughters who giggled more, then ran down the hall shouting, “Mommy! Daddy is in the bathtub!”
Soon thereafter, my wife arrived at the doorway to the bathroom, took an inquisitive look at me in the bathtub and asked, “What in the heck are you doing.“ I shrugged and replied, “Penance!” Then, as she has done so many times during our 34 years of marriage, my wife shook her head and walked away.
As silly and funny as this experience was, I learned a lot from my dip in the tub. I learned that:
- We need to be aware of God’s presence in our life – especially in the person of the priest who stands in the place of God to forgive our sins.
- We need to remember that when the priest says that he absolves us of our sins that those sins are gone – down the drain, never to return again.
In further reflection, I think that accepting forgiveness is akin to accepting compliments. When someone pays us a compliment, there is a tendency to not acknowledge the compliment, or to respond how we could have done better. But the best thing we can say when receive a compliment is the same thing we can say when we receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. In both cases we should simply respond: “Thank you.”
One final thought on today’s readings … Notice the recurring statement in the parable from each of the servants who owe a debt. They respond by saying, “Be patient with me.”
We too need to be patient. We need to be patient with others as they work through the issues in their lives. And we need to be patient with ourselves as we work through our own brokenness. We are perfectly imperfect. “Patience and progress” should be our mantra as we grow in holiness.