The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK
September 15, 2002
Sirach 27:30-28:7 + Romans 14:7-9 + Matthew 18:21-35
The final verses of Matthew’s “Discourse on the Life of the Church” are the sum and substance of it all
for those who would count themselves among the saved, the faithful, and the loved. From what has just been said, and we heard it last week and the week before, we are not to be soft on sin, and there is no reason to think that “mercy” means looking the other way or that it proposes some kind of “denial” in the face of evil. On the contrary. The church has been given a step-by-step instruction on what to do and how to respond.
The final verses here before Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem address what happens when the sin has been named, and the sinner has been identified. These verses serve as a corrective against a too zealous application of the earlier verses. They serve as check against continuing the wrongdoing by repeating the offence in a spirit of revenge or by an effort to “get even.” Pay attention to the parable. The one forgiven his debt turns right around and does what he has been forgiven for doing. He ends up trading places with the other man! This Gospel is about revenge and the foolishness of calling it “justice.” This Gospel insists that for those who would be “church” for those who would be one with Jesus forgiveness is about the future, not the past. There is no future if the sin is repeated. If someone smacks you in the face and your smack them back, there is no future without the offence. It has just continued. If someone takes a life, and we take one in punishment, we’ve made no progress toward ending the sin.
Forgiveness is about ending the sin, stopping the evil, having a future. This forgiveness Jesus speaks of is a process, not a feeling. To be a forgiver does not always mean that we shall feel good. It means we make a choice to stop the evil in its tracks and not become part of its story. It means we chose to be guided by another force and use another power. As is clear from the earlier verses, forgiveness in the Christian heart is part of conversion. It goes on and on and it has more to do with what we are becoming than what we have been. The reconciliation to which we are called has as much to do with inner peace as it does with external unity. At its most basic level, forgiveness occurs within the heart and mind of the one who was wronged. This level of forgiveness involves replacing thoughts of anger and revenge with a simple desire for the other’s well-being. That is where forgiveness begins. Genuine forgiveness is a movement of grace that takes us beyond the limits of human justice.
Doing the work of forgiveness is an ongoing process we repeat seventy-seven times. It requires courage, understanding, and wisdom: “Gifts of the Spirit” for which we ought to pray. This would be a good time for that prayer, and Matthew suggests it would be a good time to begin – not with the sentimental toleration of hurtful behavior, not with ignoring offence too often and too quickly, but with looking within ourselves to honestly inquire about our own participation or contribution to the conflict, surrendering the fantasy of our own perfection, and humbly embracing the truth that we are all made from the same clay.
Forgiveness then is about the future. It creates for us a reason to hope. It provides for us a taste of the Kingdom. It secures for us a measure of peace and gives us reason to rejoice.