Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Bishop of Lake Charles
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Lake Charles, Louisiana
September 11, 2011
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:35
Recently a gentleman described to me his encounter while crossing the street one day. A driver thought the man had walked in front of his vehicle while crossing the street, stopped his truck, got out and wanted to fight over the offense. Not too long afterward someone else told me of an encounter on the golf course that prompted a golfer to pick a fist fight with a perfect stranger who had accidentally cut into his field of play. Both men could not believe how quickly they had almost become victims of someone else’s anger.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that a great deal of anger in our society today. There is also a great deal of violence. We see both in our entertainment on television and at the movies. We read regularly of them in our newspapers and hear them reported in the news. There are fights at sporting matches and restaurants, at schools and work places. Some might argue that there is plenty to be angry about, the economy, job loss, the pressures of work competition, family problems. All of this is quite true, yet we must mourn the loss of civility, much less Christian charity, in our society. Is belligerence necessary, to what end and to what purpose? To all this anger and violence, the first verse of today’s first reading offers a simple explanation: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight” (Sirach 27:30).
There is sin in the world, and the root of sin is selfishness, a selfishness that results from original sin. We are fed a constant diet of selfishness. We are told that it is only what “I” want that matters, what will fulfill the real “me,” what will help “me” achieve “my” goals, “my” ends. We dispose of human life as though it were rubbish because it interferes with “my” future. Doesn’t God want me to be “happy”? How often do we hear this? And, of course, the answer is characteristically “yes,” and what God wants is always what “I” want. How radically different and how diametrically opposed is this to the mind of Christ!
I am reminded of the words of St. Paul: “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). And this brings us to the Gospel of today’s Mass.
It is the “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.” The Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a king who settled accounts with his servants. A servant is brought in who owes a huge amount of money which he cannot repay. Threatened by the king with being sold along with his family and property to pay back the debt, the servant pleads for forgiveness, which the king gives readily. However, that same servant, now forgiven, finds a fellow servant who owes him a much smaller amount. He seizes him by the throat and demands repayment. That servant pleads for mercy, but the servant who had been forgiven the larger amount won’t hear of it. Instead, he has the debtor thrown into prison until the whole amount is paid. When the king finds out, he deals harshly with the unforgiving servant. He calls him a “wicked servant” (Matthew 18:32) (3) and has him severely punished. “So will my heavenly Father do to you,” Jesus concludes, “unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart” (Matthew 18:35).
The lesson of forgiveness is only learned by those who have been forgiven. And to be forgiven, one must acknowledge one’s sinfulness. This is why, I think, the Sacrament of Penance is so important. When we confess our sins and realize fully what it is that is happening—namely that God is forgiving us for our selfish acts offending Him and our neighbor, then how can we truly grow angry with our neighbor? How can I seek revenge or ruin a reputation or provoke a fight when I realize how much God has done for me in Jesus Christ? This is what having the “attitude” of Jesus Christ means.
Of course, we cannot avoid being offended. Certainly there will be times when someone hurts us, and we will become upset. There may even be times when demanding justice is required. We are all human beings, after all. However, anger or wrath is a capital sin, and we cannot allow this vice or passion to dominate us when we realize how much God has forgiven us. This is a chief lesson of this Gospel.
I recall people coming to me when they were very upset and said they just could not bring themselves to forgive the person who had injured them. The hurt was too deep or the offense too great. I would ask them, “When is the last time you went to confession?” The answer was they seldom went or hadn’t gone in a long time. I suggested that they might want to start. If they had not heard the words “I forgive you” spoken to them, then how could they speak them to someone else?
The tragedy in the Gospel is that the servant had in fact heard the words “I forgive you” spoken to him, but he hadn’t learned the lesson. Have we received forgiveness? Have we learned the lesson?