Homily for the Twenty-fourth Sunday, year A.
Our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world as man, not to condemn the Old Testament but to fulfil it. He came to explain the law and the prophets, to lead us beyond mere words, beyond the letters of the Law into the spirit of the law. The New Testament does not contradict the Old; while the Old Testament helps us to understand the New Testament, the New gives meaning to the Old. That is what we see today in our readings, both the Old and the New Testaments talking about forgiveness.
In our first reading from the book of Ecclesiasticus, out attention is drawn to the danger of un-forgiveness. It reminds us that un-forgiveness, resentment, anger and vengeance are foul things. They are capable of blocking the free flow of God’s mercy to us, they paralyze our confidence to stand before God to ask for mercy. Un-forgiveness is a key that closes the doors of mercy and opens the doors of unhappiness and limitations, hence the need to forgive always.
Among the Jews, it was rabbinic teaching that one must forgive his brother three times, but the fourth one is punished. In other words, one can only forgive three times, and if the same person offends you the fourth times, you were free to punish. The first chapter of the book of Prophet Amos seem to provide proofs for the authenticity of this rabbinic teaching; in this chapter God severally talked about punishing the fourth time offence is committed. And Peter seemed to have held onto that believe until Jesus clarified it.
In our gospel passage this morning, Peter went up to Jesus and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times? Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times. At first, this may appear to be a contradiction, the New Testament contradicting the Old, but it is not. It is rather an explanation or clarification of the Old Testament. Peter who knew what the rabbinic teaching about forgiveness was, went to Jesus to ask how many times he was to forgive. He knew what the “law” says, that one could forgive three times, but the fourth time is punished. He went to Jesus not just to ask, but he quickly added, as often as seven times? He thought he was been generous, been nice. The law says three times but I want to forgive seven times before I revenge any wrong done to me. He thought he had done enough, more than required even. But Jesus made him understand that his best was not good enough. Seven times is not enough, no; not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Peter was taught to continue to forgive.
Jesus told them the parable of the unforgiving servant, how he was forgiven by his master but refused to forgive his fellow servant, and that provoked the anger of the master to re-arrest him and throw him into prison. A critical mind would question that master; why didn’t he continue to forgive since he was so much interested in forgiveness? Why did he throw the unforgiving servant into prison? Well, that is why it is called a parable, we are only interested in the message it carrys, that un-forgiveness leads to hell.
The Lord’s teaching about forgiveness is very difficult, in fact, it is almost impossible. To truly forgive demands a lot of faith, sacrifice and courage. I am not in doubt at all that un-forgiveness affects he who refuses to forgive, but that does not remove the fact that to truly forgive demands a lot of faith and courage, it is not easy. In practicing what Jesus expects of us, we may be called fools by neighbours or even considered as weaklings. We may be considered as fearful, those who cannot stand up to their right. This name calling may discourage us from practicing the virtue of forgiveness, yet it is another way our Christian faith is been put to the test, to see how Christian we truly are. It is my prayer that God may give us that faith and courage we need to let go of every hurt.
Like Peter, many Christian think they have done enough, or they are doing more than required. They have actually forgiven and are tired of forgiving, but the word of God cannot be diluted. This reminds me of a brother priest who told me how confused he was when one of his parishioners lost her husband and two children to the Boko Haram insurgence, he said he did not know how to begin to tell her to let go. But he had to say it, even though it is a very difficult teaching. Many of us here have made a lot of sacrifices, forgiven and forgiven again. But have we actually done enough compare to how often God forgives us? Not really; we can only continue to pray and ask God for the grace to do his will.