In today’s readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the theme is forgiveness.
The first reading emphasizes that we are to forgive others of their sins and not nurse anger against them, or take vengeance. This is not only for the good of the other, but also for ourselves. The reading says, “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins?” (Sir 28: 3-4). This passages is not about some sort of economic transaction between oneself and God, in which one forgives another in order to receive forgiveness—this would hardly be a truly heartfelt forgiveness. Rather, the key to forgiveness here is that the other is “like himself.” When we recognize our own weakness and our own sinfulness, rather than making another the sinner and ourselves a morally perfect person, then we can forgive. When we see that the other who has harmed us is not all that different from ourselves, then anger gives way to compassion. We can genuinely then share in God’s mercy and compassion for both others and for ourselves, for the mercy is the same.
In Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus tells us to forgive others for their sins not a limited number of times, but an unlimited number. As in the passage from Sirach, the parable reminds us that we are in debt to God for our sins, but God forgives them. So, for us not to forgive others would be the height of hypocrisy, just as a person who had just had his own debt forgiven ought not then be demanding about another fulfilling that debt.
I’m struck by how the Gospel passage emphasizes both an internal movement of the spirit and a relational aspect to forgiveness. We are to “forgive from the heart”–not just say words that forgive, but feel it as well. Again, keeping in mind our own experiences of being treated with mercy, compassion, and understanding by God can be a cognitive act that helps to soften an angry heart. We can actively nourish forgiveness by how we pray and reflect on our own experiences of being recipients of divine mercy and compassion. Forgiveness is also interpersonal, that is, not just an internal feeling but an external expression of that interior movement. The master forgives the servant with an outward sign of the master’s interior mercifulness.
In applying this passage to our own lives, we can spend some time reflecting on past shortcomings where we have received and known God’s mercy and forgiveness. We can reflect on the merciful love that God continues to extend to us in all our weaknesses. And we can consider how we can extend that same compassion and forgiveness to others, in mind, heart, and deed.