Thursday, June 17, 2010

If You Forgive Others Their Transgressions, Your Heavenly Father Will Forgive Yours.

Thursday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Sirach 48:1-14
Like a fire there appeared the prophet Elijah
whose words were as a flaming furnace.
Their staff of bread he shattered,
in his zeal he reduced them to straits;
By the Lord’s word he shut up the heavens
and three times brought down fire.
How awesome are you, Elijah,
in your wondrous deeds!
Whose glory is equal to yours?
You brought a dead man back to life
from the nether world, by the will of the LORD.
You sent kings down to destruction,
and easily broke their power into pieces.
You brought down nobles, from their beds of sickness.
You heard threats at Sinai,
at Horeb avenging judgments.
You anointed kings who should inflict vengeance,
and a prophet as your successor.
You were taken aloft in a whirlwind of fire,
in a chariot with fiery horses.
You were destined, it is written, in time to come
to put an end to wrath before the day of the LORD,
To turn back the hearts of fathers toward their sons,
and to re-establish the tribes of Jacob.
Blessed is he who shall have seen you
And who falls asleep in your friendship.
For we live only in our life,
but after death our name will not be such.
O Elijah, enveloped in the whirlwind!

Then Elisha, filled with the twofold portion of his spirit,
wrought many marvels by his mere word.
During his lifetime he feared no one,
nor was any man able to intimidate his will.
Nothing was beyond his power;
beneath him flesh was brought back into life.
In life he performed wonders,
and after death, marvelous deeds.
“Having read in the Book of Kings the story of the great Elijah, we now read Sirach’s poetic description and praise of this prophet” (Vatican II Missal)

It is quite normal in our liturgical readings that, after we have been hearing about one of the great personalities of the Old Testament, there is a final encomium taken from the Book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus. We had a similar reading after hearing about David’s life. These testimonies are taken from a part of the book called “Praises of the Fathers”. The book is listed among the so-called ‘apochryphal’ books which are not part of the recognised canon in either the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures of other denominations.

The author of Sirach here recalls the great exploits of Elijah, including his triumph over the priests of Baal and his bringing down fire from heaven when the Lord burnt up the sacrifice of Elijah but not that of the priests of Baal. He was also instrumental in the breaking of a long drought; he raised a dead child to life; and he brought about the destruction of kings (Ahab).

“You heard threats at Sinai, at Horeb avenging judgements.” This seems to refer to the time when Elijah went to the mountain at Horeb and learnt that God was not in violence but in the gentle breeze. This seemed to be a reproof from Yahweh that violent action was not the way Elijah’s enemies were to be dealt with.

Finally, he anointed kings who would do the Lord’s work; he appointed Elisha as his successor; and at the end was taken up to Yahweh in a fiery chariot, the transport of kings.

There is then a subtle reference to his future coming, heralding the arrival of the Messiah:

You are destined, it is written, in time to come
to put an end to wrath before the day of the Lord,
to turn back the hearts of fathers towards their sons
and re-establish the tribes of Jacob.

The coming of the Messiah will see the inauguration of peace (”My peace I give you… John 14:27); it will be a time of reconciliation; and it will see the inauguration of a new family embracing not just the tribes of Jacob but the peoples of the whole world.

Happy shall they be who see you,
and those who have fallen asleep in love;
for we too will have life.

And yes, says the author in a beautiful turn of phrase, “happy shall they be who see you, and those who have fallen asleep in love”. Here there are intimations of immortality. And those “who have fallen asleep in love” surely means in the love of God. However, the Hebrew text is unclear and the sentence may apply to Elisha, whose praises immediately follow.

Elisha was filled with the spirit of Elijah. He wrought many marvels, nothing was beyond his power - even after his death “beneath him flesh was brought back into life”. This refers to a strange event in the Second Book of Kings which took place after Elisha’s death. Just as a dead man was being buried, a raiding party was seen, so the mourners just threw the dead body into the grave where Elijah was buried and fled. But, as soon as the man’s body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up (2 Kings 13:20-21).

Shakespeare has one of his characters say rather cynically that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”. Unfortunately that is often the case but as Christians we might make a special point of remembering the good things that people did in their lifetime, as this reading does.*
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Psalm 97
Rejoice in the Lord, you just!
The LORD is king; let the earth rejoice;
let the many isles be glad.
Clouds and darkness are round about him,
justice and judgment are the foundation of his throne.
Rejoice in the Lord, you just!
Fire goes before him
and consumes his foes round about.
His lightnings illumine the world;
the earth sees and trembles.
Rejoice in the Lord, you just!
The mountains melt like wax before the LORD,
before the Lord of all the earth.
The heavens proclaim his justice,
and all peoples see his glory.
Rejoice in the Lord, you just!
All who worship graven things are put to shame,
who glory in the things of nought;
all gods are prostrate before him.
Rejoice in the Lord, you just!
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Matthew 6:7-15

Jesus said to his disciples:
“In praying, do not babble like the pagans,
who think that they will be heard
because of their many words.
Do not be like them.
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This is how you are to pray:
‘Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy Kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.’

“If you forgive others their transgressions,
your heavenly Father will forgive you.
But if you do not forgive others,
neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”
Into yesterday’s passage on how we are to worship God through prayer, alms and fasting, Matthew puts a related piece of teaching how we ought to pray. This clearly seems to be an insertion and today we deal with it separately.
Jesus tells his disciples not to pray like many of the Gentiles. They go in for long prayers, hoping that eventually God will hear them. That is quite unnecessary, Jesus says, because our Father already knows our needs before we ask. If that is the case, why then should we bother praying at all? We do not pray to tell God what he already knows; we pray so that we will realise more deeply our needs and our total dependence on him.
Jesus then goes on and tells his disciples how they should pray. He teaches them, in effect, what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, or the ‘Our Father’. We have become accustomed to reciting this prayer very often - at every Mass, whenever we say the Rosary and at many other times.
The prayer in this form (Luke has a shorter version) contains seven petitions. Seven is a favourite number for Matthew. In listing the genealogy of Jesus he divides it into three lists of seven (chapter 1); there were probably seven Beatitudes in the original text (chapter 5); there are seven parables of the Kingdom (chapter 13) and forgiveness is to be offered not seven times but 77 times (chapter 18); there are seven ‘Alas’ when denouncing the Pharisees (chapter 23). Finally, the gospel itself is divided into seven main sections (Infancy, five discourses, passion).

The text of the Lord’s Prayer should not be seen as just a formula for vocal recitation. It is, rather, a series of statements and petitions in which we affirm our relationship with God, with the people around us and with the world in general. It is a statement of faith and it is, as we shall see, a highly challenging and, therefore, even rather dangerous prayer.

Let us take a brief look at the petitions one by one:

1. Our Father:
The challenge and the danger begin right in the first two words. We address God as Father, the source of life and of everything that we have; we have nothing purely of our own. But God is not just ‘Father’; he is ‘our‘ Father. And that ‘our’ includes every single person who lives or has ever lived on this earth; not a single person can be excluded.

In addressing God as ‘our Father’ we are acknowledging that every human person, including myself, is a child of God and therefore that we all belong to one huge family where we are all, in a very real way, brothers and sisters to each other. There is no room here for rejection, or hatred, or prejudice or contempt of any kind based on race, nationality, colour of skin, gender, sexual orientation, social class, religion… If I am not prepared to accept every single person as a brother or sister, I will have problems even beginning to say this prayer.

2. May your name be held holy:
Other forms are ‘Hallowed be thy name’ or ‘Holy be your name’. Of course, God’s name is holy no matter what we say or think. We make this prayer for our sake more than for his. Here we are praying that God’s name be held in the deepest respect by people everywhere. That is not the case: some people despise his name and others do not even know it. We pray that the whole world will know God’s name, which is to say, to know and recognise God as their God and Lord, their Creator and Conserver and the final end of their lives on this earth. It is, in fact, another form of the next petition.

3. Your kingdom come:
We have already spoken about the nature of the kingdom. It might be more accurate to say, ‘Your kingship come’. In other words, we pray that every person in our world may put themselves consciously and willingly under the kingship and lordship and the love of God. We do this, above all, by our working together to make this world the kind of place that God wants it to be - a place of truth and love, of justice and peace, of sharing and caring. In one sense, of course, God is Lord irrespective of our relationship to him. But it is clearly his will that people, on their part, should accept that loving lordship as the centre of their lives. And that is the work of the Church and of every single Christian, indeed of every person anywhere - to help people recognise the kingship and lordship of God and to accept it as the key to their present and future happiness.

4. Your will be done on earth - as in heaven:
This, in a way, is simply another way of saying what we have already asked for in the previous two petitions. For that is the will of God that people everywhere recognise the holiness of his name and submit themselves gladly to his kingship and lordship in our world. We do that most effectively by identifying totally with the mission and work of Jesus to bring life, healing and wholeness to our world. To do the will of God is not simply to throw aside what we want and accept God’s will even when it is totally contrary to our own. We are only fully doing God’s will when we can see clearly that what he wants is always what is the very best for us. And we are only fully doing his will when we fully want what he wants, when our will and his will are in perfect harmony. Then we do what he wants and we do what we want. We are praying here to reach that level of oneness.

5. Give us today our daily bread:
It does not look like it but this also is a highly dangerous prayer for us to make. First of all, we are only asking for what we need now. Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus will tell us not to be anxious about the future. We are asking for what we need today; tomorrow is another day. We take care of one day at a time.

But there is one little word here that is highly dangerous. It is the word ‘us’. Who is that ‘us’? Just me and my immediate family? or my parish? or my neighbourhood or my town or my country? Surely it is the same as that ‘our’ in the first petition - it includes every single person. I am praying, therefore, that every single person have bread to eat today. We know, of course, that there are millions of people (some of them in rich countries) who do not have enough to eat or who suffer from malnutrition and poorly balanced diets. In praying that all of ‘us’ have our daily bread, are we expecting God to drop manna from the skies or are we not reminding ourselves that the feeding of brothers and sisters is our responsibility? If people are hungry or badly fed, it is not God’s doing; human beings are responsible in most cases (outside of natural disasters).

This petition prayer can also include the Bread of the Eucharist. But in sharing that Bread together we are saying sacramentally that we are a sharing people and we will share our goods and blessings with others, especially those in need. Otherwise our Eucharist becomes a kind of sacrilege.

6. And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us.
Again is this not another dangerous prayer to make? We are asking that God’s forgiveness to us be conditional on our readiness to forgive those we perceived to have hurt us in some way. That is a daring thing to do. And forgiveness does not simply mean uttering a few words. Forgiveness in the Scripture always includes reconciliation between offender and offended. In fact, I would go even further and say that the fully Christian person is never offended, cannot be offended. The true Christian has a rock solid sense of their own security and their own inner worth which no other person can take away. When such a person is the recipient of some attack, be it verbal or physical, their first response is to reach out to the attacker with concern and sympathy. It is the attacker who has the problem, not the one attacked. Most of us have a long way to go to reach that level of inner peace. ‘If what you say about me is true, I accept it; if it is false, then it is false. Why should I take offence?’

7. And do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one (or from evil).
In the end, we acknowledge our weaknesses and our total dependence on God’s help. We pray that we will not find ourselves in a situation where we fall seriously. We ask to be protected from the powers of evil with which we are surrounded.

Some texts conclude with “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever. Amen”, which is used by many Christian denominations and is now included in the Catholic Eucharist after the Lord’s Prayer but separated by a prayer for peace. It is believed that this conclusion, not found in most MS., was introduced for liturgical reasons.

Finally, in addition to simply reciting this prayer in the rapid way we normally do, we could sometimes take it very slowly, one petition at a time and let its meaning sink in. Or we could just take one petition which is particularly meaningful to us at any time and just stay with it until it really becomes part of us.*

*Living Space
The Irish Jesuits


Sarah in the tent said...

'To turn back the hearts of fathers toward their sons, and to re-establish the tribes of Jacob.'

In the Prodigal Son, we have a son's heart turning back to his father and the situation is all too recognizable. But the notion of fathers' hearts having to return to their sons is much more remarkable.

The idea of reestablishing the tribes of Jacob makes me think that, while John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy of coming in the spirit and power of Elijah, the 12 Apostles and other Church Fathers came in the spirit and power of Israel's Patriarchs, as prophesied here.

In a sense, when we pray the Our Father, we are asking the supreme Father to turn His heart towards His sons and daughters and re-establish us as His people.

Anonymous said...

A second, a minute, an hour, a day, a season, a year, a century, an era…functional, necessary words to mark “time”. But “time” can be marked in another way. When time is seen as the manifestation of God’s mercy, it is each one of us who become its mark. In the grand scheme of things then...
“You are destined, it is written, in time to come
to put an end to wrath before the day of the Lord,
to turn back the hearts of fathers towards their sons
and re-establish the tribes of Jacob.

…will become personal, and praying the Our Father, even more meaningful.