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The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Homily - Deacon Bill Finnegan

I would like to begin my homily today with a question, a quiz if you will - When was the last time you heard these or similar words: “If my brother sins against me”?  Think about it; you don’t have to answer out loud; just see if you can remember.

It was last weekend at Mass when the Gospel began, “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”  Thus Jesus told us, through Matthew last week, that when someone sins against us we are to first go to them privately, point out the sin and seek reconciliation.  There were other steps in the process last week that Deacon Bill preached about, but I am not going to repeat them – since you have been using them all week to resolve problems.  That first private step, if it is successful, presumes that the person admits the fault, seeks forgiveness from you and you grant it.  You forgive your brother. 

It is with this situation in mind that Peter poses the question at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading.  He asks, “Lord, if my brother sins against me how often must I forgive him?  As many as seven times?”  Peter is dealing with a repeat offender here and he wants Jesus to tell him when it is sufficient to stop forgiving.  When exactly is enough, enough? 

Today we have the expression, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!”  Peter seems to be operating from that model, except he’s willing to go all the way to being fooled seven times before he feels shamed.  Remember, to the Jewish people “7” was a big number – after all God created “all that is, seen and unseen” in 7 days!  But Jesus throws Peter a curve, as He so often does.   7?  “Not seven times but seventy-seven times!”  (I actually prefer the old translation that read “seventy times seven times”.  Not sure why they changed it, but that adds up to 490 times!)  What Jesus is saying is that you just keep forgiving and forgiving until you lose count – and then you forgive some more.  How many of us are willing to do just that – to forgive the same person over and over and over again?

The Gospel continues with Jesus telling the parable of the unforgiving servant, sometimes referred to as “the merciless servant”.  We know the story well.  The master forgives the first servant a “huge” debt when he begs for “patience” in repaying; but then the first servant is merciless when the second servant who owes him “a much smaller” amount begs him for “patience” using the same words.  The moral of the story is that you will be forgiven in the manner that you, yourself, forgive.  Here’s another question to ponder – How patient will God be with us based on how patient we are with others, when they wrong us?

You know, most of us pray to God asking for such forgiveness every day when we pray The Lord’s Prayer = The Our Father.  We ask the Father, “to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others who trespass against us”.  But are we truly forgiving of others who wrong us?  And how many times do we forgive?  Do we take those words to heart, or do they just come out of our mouth out of habit?  Shortly, we will pray the prayer together, “at the savior’s command and formed by divine teaching”.  Listen to the words you are praying and take them to heart this week.

The first reading today is from one of the lesser known books of the Bible – the Book of Sirach.  (This is one of the seven – there’s that number again – books that are in the Catholic Bible that are not in the Protestant Bible.)  The theme of the reading is the same as that of the Gospel = forgive and you will be forgiven.  In the reading, your neighbor did not love his neighbor = you!  He committed an unspecified injustice against you.  But you are asked to act with justice to him; you are asked to Love Your Neighbor by forgiving him.  Not an easy request – but who said being a good Jew in the time of Sirach or being a good Catholic today was going to be easy?

There is another expectation of you – if you listened carefully to the first reading.  It is the expectation that you “pray” regularly.  Sirach says, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, you own sins will be forgiven.”  Notice he says “when you pray” not “if you pray” – there is a presumption that you have a prayer life.  Do you?  Spending some time each day in prayer will make you more in tune with the concepts of love and justice, and yes even of forgiveness.

There is also a beautiful logic to this reading, that all of us should be able to understand.  This logical thinking comes in the form of 1 statement and 2 questions:

The statement – “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance!”

The questions –

“Could anyone nourish anger against another & expect healing from the lord?”  “Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, [and] seek pardon for his own sins?”

This makes perfect sense to me, how can we be vengeful, angry, merciless – like the first servant – and expect healing, pardon or forgiveness from God?  The less we love and forgive our neighbor, the more we sin against him/her and against God.

In both of these readings, Sirach and Matthew are trying to convince us to change our ways before it’s too late: Sirach through logic; Matthew through the parable.  And both remind us that if we don’t change our ways, that we will be dealt with harshly when we die.  Sirach says, “Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin.”  The Act of Contrition, as I learned as a child, included that sentiment in the words, as I asked for forgiveness, “because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell”.  Jesus says (in Matthew), recalling the anger with which the master finally dealt with the first servant, “So will My Heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

Last Thursday was the parish feast day, the Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross.  The Crucifix, the Cross with the Corpus, the Body of Christ, upon it is a symbol of our salvation.  Jesus died on the Cross that we may have life eternal.  It is also the symbol of forgiveness.  Remember one of the Seven Last Words of Christ, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Jesus, as He was dying, forgave those who placed Him on that very Cross.  He also forgave us for our sins.  He & the Cross are the symbols of forgiveness.  Keep that in mind as you ask, “Lord, if my brother/sister sins against me, how often must I forgive him/her?”  As Jesus did, just forgive!  Don’t count how many times, just forgive and forgive again.  Whatever it takes (7x, 77x, 490x).  Never stop forgiving.

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