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September 17 2017  (A) Twenty-Fourth Sunday of the Year

A. THE BIBLE as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Forgiveness; No Revenge. A Message for faith and civil communities.

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:7). Forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you, and when you pray, your sins will be forgiven.

Ben Sira (commonly known as Ecclesiasticus) composed his work in Hebrew about the year 180 B.C. His grandson translated it into Greek and added a prologue to it. In this he says that his grandfather had devoted himself especially to the Law (Pentateuch) and the prophets and the other books of Hebrew tradition. Ben Sira belonged to Israel’s wisdom tradition, with which he combined the Pentateuch (with the Law of Moses) and the prophets. He had travelled extensively in foreign lands, observed what is good and evil in human behaviour, sought the Lord in prayer and reflection and has given us the fruits of all this in his writing. One of these reflections is in this present reading.
Some think of the central message of the Old Testament as being “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Quite the opposite is the case with this present text on how not to indulge in anger or vengeance; on forgiving one’s neighbour, and the requirement of this for forgiveness and compassion from the Lord, and the linking of forgiveness to prayer. In this it is very near Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels (Matthew 6:12, 14-15; 18:32-35; Mark 11:25; Luke 11:4), which makes it an apt choice to go with today’s Gospel reading.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm102[103]). The Lord is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy.

Second Reading (Romans 14:7-9). Alive or dead we belong to the Lord.

This brief text is part of Paul’s exhortation to the Roman Christians to have harmony among themselves in the community, to accept, to welcome, one another just as God has welcomed them all, and to avoid judging one another for their variant practices, with Christian teaching. In this context he gives this present reading, on the influence each one’s life and death has on others and how all we do in our life or death should be for the Lord, both Lord of the dead and the living.

Gospel (Matthew 18:21-35). I do not tell you to forgive seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Today’s Gospel reading, like last Sunday’s, is part of the fourth great speech, or discourse, of Christ, and on Instructions for the Church (Matthew 18:1-35), on relations and attitudes within the Christian community, this time on forgiveness. This section is introduced by a question from Peter, the leader of the community, as to the extent of forgiveness towards an offending member of the community. Peter asks whether this as it is as often as seven times, to get the answer that it is much more often, endless (expressed as seventy-seven times). The whole discourse then ends with a parable to illustrate this and goes beyond it, noting that failure to forgive is failure to act like God and will merit eternal torment: “That is how my Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart”.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Forgiveness; No Revenge. A Message for faith communities and civil society.

The biblical and Gospel message, while primarily addressed to believers, may also have much to say to leaders of civil society. This need not surprise us since all humanity are children of our Father in heaven and most of their life is lived out in civil, rather than in faith or religious settings. Rational beings, with our without faith in God, are reflective and concerned about mutual relationships in society. Early Jewish wisdom tradition, although the possession and activity of believers in the God of Israel, drew its reflection on human behaviour not from the Law of Moses or revelation but from human experience. Whereas Ben Sira, Ecclesiasticus, from a later period of this wisdom movement read and reflected on the Law and the Prophets as well as earlier Wisdom literature, we can surmise that what he has to say on forgiveness, rather than revenge, was influenced by his observation of human behaviour rather that as deductions from revealed teaching. We can then reflect on today’s readings as message to religious communities and civil society.
While the Father in heaven is generally associated with pity and compassion, we can see from today’s Gospel reading he can be very demanding with regard to seeing one of his central messages put into practice among believers in him. Jesus himself had said that of old a prevailing message may have been “an eye for an eye” (Matthew 5:38), whereas his message was  not to resist an evildoer. In the Sermon on then Mount he stresses various aspects of this a number of time: resist anger, be reconciled with one’s brother or sister before offering sacrifice; loving one’s enemies, praying for those who hate you. It is all a required part of faithful service of the loving Father in heaven. Jesus himself gave the example of understanding and forgiveness on the cross. This was new teaching, a new emphasis, which is clearly seen as central in the Gospels and other New Testament writings. The message of this emphasis and of today’s parable should be kept before the Christian community, but as most pastors will know the application of it with regard to reconciliation in individual cases has to be prudently undertaken, with due respect to human psychology.
With regard to reconciliation in civil life, and in cases of strife and post-war situations, it is good to see that civil society has learned the value of what Israel Wisdom tradition and the Gospel message has stressed. Strife-resolution is now part of most organized societies, and on many occasions it is those who were once involved in organized military activity that have been active in promoting it. So may it long continue. Blessed are the peace-makers.