Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lord, How Often Must I Forgive When Someone Sins Against Me?

Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent
Reading I
Daniel 3:25, 34-43
Azariah stood up in the fire and prayed aloud:
“For your name’s sake, O Lord,
do not deliver us up forever,
or make void your covenant.
Do not take away your mercy from us,
for the sake of Abraham, your beloved,
Isaac your servant, and Israel your holy one,
To whom you promised to multiply their offspring
like the stars of heaven,
or the sand on the shore of the sea.
For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation,
brought low everywhere in the world this day
because of our sins.
We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader,
no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.
But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received;
As though it were burnt offerings of rams and bullocks,
or thousands of fat lambs,
So let our sacrifice be in your presence today
as we follow you unreservedly;
for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.
And now we follow you with our whole heart,
we fear you and we pray to you.
Do not let us be put to shame,
but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy.
Deliver us by your wonders,
and bring glory to your name, O Lord.”
“One of the most beautiful and sincere prayers in the bible. Expressing the abandonment of 2nd century BC Judaism, this prayer pleads that the contrite heart and humble spirit of the people be accepted by God. This prayer is quoted in the offertory of every Mass” (Vatican II Missal)

The context of today’s reading is a famous scene from the Book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar had set up a huge golden statue in Babylon. All the officials were then summoned together for its dedication. At the sound of many musical instruments all were called to prostrate themselves in worship of the statue. Anyone who refused would immediately be thrown into a mighty furnace.

It was reported to the king that some his officials who were Jews had ignored his command. These were Shadrach, Meschach and Abed-nego. They were immediately summoned before the king and asked to account for themselves. When asked why they had not prostrated themselves before the statue, they said: “Your question needs no answer from us: if our God, the one we serve, is able to save us from the burning fiery furnace and from your power, Your Majesty, he will save us; and even if he does not, then you must know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your god or worship the statue you have set up.”

This reply enraged the king to such an extent that he ordered the furnace to be made seven times hotter. The three men were then thrown fully clothed into the furnace. It was so hot that the men throwing the three young men into the furnace were themselves burnt to death.

However, the three men were seen walking in the flames and they began praying aloud. Today’s passage is a part of their long prayer of praise and thanksgiving, while the king’s servants continued to stoke the fire. The prayer is led by Azariah, the Hebrew name for Abednego, one of the three men.

The king watched in amazement. “Did we not have these three men thrown bound into the fire?… But I can see four men walking free in the heart of the fire and quite unharmed!” Clearly, the fourth figure was an angel of the Lord sent to protect these faithful servants of Yahweh. The king finally ordered the men to be taken from the fire – their clothes not even singed – and had the highest honours showered on them as a tribute to their God: “There is no other god who can save like this.”

It is in this context that we read today’s passage. It begins with a plea for God not to abandon his people, nor to forget his covenant in which he promised so many descendants of Abraham. In faraway Babylon, separated by hundreds of miles from their religious centre in Jerusalem, there is a recognition that they are despised, abandoned and leaderless and without their traditional religious rituals of worship. “No leader, no prophet, no prince, no holocaust, no sacrifice, no incense, no place where we can offer you the first-fruits and win your favour.”

However, they pray that, even without holocausts of rams and bullocks, they can commit themselves completely to their God. “We put our whole heart into following you, into fearing you and seeking your face once more.” They beg to be treated with mercy and gentleness. They at least hope that a truly repentant heart will win God’s forgiveness and they put themselves totally at the feet of God’s mercy and compassion.

In fact it is not necessary to do things “to win God’s favour”. Once we put ourselves completely in his hands he will take care of us, as he did the three young men.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 25
Remember your mercies, O Lord.
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior.
Remember your mercies, O Lord.
Remember that your compassion, O LORD,
and your kindness are from of old.
In your kindness remember me,
because of your goodness, O LORD.
Remember your mercies, O Lord.
Good and upright is the LORD;
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
he teaches the humble his way.
Remember your mercies, O Lord.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Matthew 18:21-35
Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive him?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you,
not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the Kingdom of heaven
may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him
who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left,
he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had him put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”
This passage makes a crucial link between God forgiving us and our forgiving others. Peter asks how many times he should forgive another and offers what he regards as a very generous seven times. Jesus multiplies that by eleven. In other words our readiness to forgive should be without limit.

The reason is that that is the way God himself acts towards us. Supposing we only had seven chances of being forgiven our sins in our lifetime? Supposing we were to confess our sins to a priest and were told: “Sorry, you have used up your quota.” Don’t we expect that every single time we genuinely repent we can renew our relationship with God?

Jesus is simply telling us that, if we are to be his followers, we must act on the same basis with other people. To make his teaching clear he tells the parable of the two servants. The one with the huge debt is forgiven by the king. He then proceeds to throttle another servant who owes what is, in comparison, a paltry amount.

As indicated in the parable, there is no real proportion between the offence of our sins against an all-holy God and those made against us by others. And every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we commit ourselves to this: “Forgive us our sins JUST AS we forgive those who sin against us.” It is indeed a courageous prayer to make. Do we really mean what we say? Do we even think about it when we pray it?

We could make a couple of extra comments:

- This teaching does not mean turning a blind eye to a person who keeps on doing hurt to us. Forgiveness is more than just saying words; it involves the restoring of a broken relationship. It involves the healing of both sides. It may be necessary to make some proactive but totally non-violent response. Our main concern should not be ourselves but the well-being of the other person whose actions are really hurting him/her.

- Forgiveness is not purely a unilateral act. It is only complete when there is reconciliation between the two parties. It is difficult for me fully to forgive when the other party remains totally unrepentant. Even God’s forgiveness cannot get through in such circumstances (remember the Prodigal Son whose healing only began when he came to his senses and returned to his Father). The injured party has to work on bringing about a healing of the wound of division between both sides. Only then is the forgiveness complete. That may take a long time.


Sarah in the tent said...

Our Lord warns us that, unless we go on to forgive others, the forgiveness that we have already received will be revoked. Have I understood this correctly?

Might this mean that, if I go to confession and receive absolution for failing to give God his due, but then become angry with another lady on the flower rota because she hasn't given me my due, my original absolution is forfeit???

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Sarah,I'm glad to see that you ended your first comment with a question mark. The forgiveness we have already received from God cannot be revoked, since God can neither change or be changed. But, like the servant in today's Gospel, if I am unwilling to forgive someone who has offended me, I turn my back on God's forgiveness, and it becomes ineffective until and unless I open my heart to the words of the Lord's prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about divine forgiveness:

2845: There is no limit or measure to this essentially divine forgiveness, whether one speaks of "sins" as in Luke (11:4), or "debts" as in Matthew (6:12). We are always debtors: "Owe no one anything, except to love one another." The communion of the Holy Trinity is the source and criterion of truth in every relationship. It is lived out in prayer, above all in the Eucharist.
God does not accept the sacrifice of a sower of disunion, but commands that he depart from the altar so that he may first be reconciled with his brother. For God can be appeased only by prayers that make peace. To God, the better offering is peace, brotherly concord, and a people made one in the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sarah in the tent said...

Thank you for your answer, Father. I found the bit about torturers rather worrying!

If the second servant had paid back the first servant on time, the first servant would not have fallen into arrears, nor would he have had such a frightening experience with his master. So I can understand his anger.

People sometimes say that you only really have love when you give it away. Perhaps it's the same with forgiveness.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Sarah, you wrote: "People sometimes say that you only really have love when you give it away. Perhaps it's the same with forgiveness."

It is certainly the same with forgiveness: Just as God expresses His love for us by forgiving our sins, so too he asks us to forgive one another:

Matthew 6:9-15
This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

And don't forget the last line of that saying of Jesus:
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

And remember, that last part is not a "real threat"; it's a way a parent encourages a child to behave.