Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 11 September 2011
Sirach 27:30-28:7; Psalm 103:1-4, 9-12; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35
We are able to experience the release of divine forgiveness in our own lives to the degree that we forgive others. Here is an application of the principle that has cropped up twice in the readings in recent weeks: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Paul reminds us that no person is an island. We don’t live or die for ourselves alone. And if that is true of interrelatedness on a human level, it is true also of our relationship with God in Christ. In the chapter from which this excerpt is taken, Paul tells us that our relationship with God and how we live out our faith and our convictions, is not just a matter between us and God but it is also worked out in how we take account of others.
Sirach paints a picture of a person hugging anger. And one can be certain that anger returns the embrace! When we harbor anger, we become entangled in and trapped by the judgmental and bitter attitude that we are extending to others. And when those cords are wrapped around us, we are not free to embrace the freeing forgiveness that God extends to us. “Can anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?” I believe in the unmerited grace of God. We don’t earn the right to be forgiven by first of all finding within ourselves the strength and grace to forgive someone else. But the experience of freedom from our own guilt and freeing others of the resentment we hold against them are two sides of one coin. Sirach, in his typically dour manner, expresses it negatively: hate not your neighbor. The positive way of saying that is that the principle of love obtains here too. It does not mean that what the other person did does not matter, or that we forget it, but that we out of loving respect for them and for ourselves, cut the cord of resentment and anger that binds us together. If we do not do that then, paradoxically, those who have hurt us the most remain the most influentially powerful forces in our lives.
Jesus’ parable presents the wisdom contained in Sirach in a striking story form. Two things in particular strike me about the parable of the two debtors, related to the order in which the two scenarios happen. If the debtor is worried sick about paying his debt, you could understand his desperation to get the bit that is owed him by the other poor man. It is precisely because he has been set free from his own debt that his harshness with his colleague is so despicable. Secondly, the king didn’t wait initially to see whether the person could muster up a gracious enough attitude to someone else before he decided to cancel his debt. I think that there are two aspects to divine forgiveness of our sin. There is the guilt before God, and that is unreservedly cancelled. But there is also the crippling effect it has upon our own psyche, and it is that which we cannot be released from if we do not simultaneously release others from the accusation against them that we harbor in our heart. That’s why the image of ‘torture’ at the end of the parable which on one level is so shocking, on another level is so appropriate. The ungrateful debtor remains bound because he has refused to release another. When we behave as he did we are not open to the healing forgiveness of God being actualized in our lives.
We cannot give what we have not first received. The psalm reminds us of the unreservedly extravagant forgiveness of God. It is precisely because God is like this and sets us free that we have the capacity within us to forgive others. Don’t try to find your own strength to forgive in the mistaken belief that that will give you the right to receive forgiveness from God. Rather open yourself to the divine forgiveness and acceptance which already floods your life, connect with the freedom which that brings, and allow it to flow through you to cut loose those that you have unwittingly bound to yourself with cords of unforgiveness.
Here is the text of the reading from Sirach 27:30-28:7, which is not in everyone’s Bible:
Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor’s injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
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?
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
who will forgive his sins?
Remember your last days, set enmity aside;
remember death and decay, and cease from sin!
Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor;
remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.