I would like to begin this morning by reading some words of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (1914-2003) the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan of Great Britain and Ireland, a great, wise, and holy writer. His words on forgiveness speak beautifully to the themes of our readings this morning:
Judgement would hold nothing but terror for us if we had no sure hope of forgiveness. And the gift of forgiveness itself is implicit in God’s and people’s love. Yet it is not enough to be granted forgiveness, we must be prepared to accept it. We must consent to be forgiven by an act of daring faith and generous hope, welcome the gift humbly, as a miracle which love alone, love human and divine, can work, and forever be grateful for its gratuity, its restoring, healing, reintegrating power. We must never confuse forgiving with forgetting, or imagine that these two things go together. Not only do they not belong together, they are mutually exclusive. To wipe out the past has little to do with constructive, imaginative, fruitful forgiveness; the only thing that must go, be erased from the past, is its venom; the bitterness, the resentment, the estrangement; but not the memory.Anthony of Sourozh, Creative Prayer, 2004: 72.
Our life on earth is finite, it will come to an end. In the meantime, we need to ask ourselves how we want to live our lives. Do we want to do so in anger, bitterness, resentment, and jealousy? I’d hope not. Such things are not good for the soul.
Our first reading this morning addresses these questions. Ben Sirach, the writer of Ecclesiasticus, knew a great deal about the human condition and the book forms part of the Wisdom tradition of Scripture: wise advice for humanity. Nowadays, many people seem to think that sexual sin is all that matters to God. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sin gnaws away at us, in many ways. It can dim, and even extinguish, the spark of divine life which we receive in our baptism. Sin is a serious business and it affects us, both as individuals and in our life together. It is a subject which should concern us all, because it affects us all.
Anger, wrath, and the desire for vengeance are, by their very nature, corrosive things . They eat us up, growing like a bitter cancer inside us. We often try to repress these strong emotions, but they can erupt in outbursts, or as calculated passive aggression. Is there a way to stop this happening? Yes, there is, and we are told how in our first reading:
Forgive your neighbour the wrong he has done,
and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray (Sir 28:2)
If we want to be forgiven then we have to forgive. It is as simple as that! But there is no room for any half-measures, we cannot hang on to a bit, we need to forgive fully. Can we do this on our own? No, we need to do it as a community, a community which relies upon God to assist us. Only with God’s help, and in His strength can we live lives of forgiveness.
There is very similar advice in this morning’s second reading from the Letter to the Romans. Paul writes that we should not pass judgement — whether someone does something or not. The point is not what we do, but why we do what we do. Are we trying to honour God in our actions? That is what really matters. Are we learning to live as people of love, freed from all that hinders our common life together?
If we consider, for a second, the fact that Christians have often been persecuted for their faith. They have even been sentenced to death for preferring Christ to the ways of the world, and yet these martyrs were not angry with their persecutors or even God. Instead they chose to live out the love and the forgiveness that they had received, and it was this powerful witness which has brought many others to believe and follow Christ. We are called to copy their example and to try live authentic lives together, by forgiving each other, and living in love. To do this we need to put aside any petty rivalries, squabbles, slights, and all the little everyday things which annoy us.
Forgiveness is at the heart of all three readings today, including Matthew’s Gospel where Peter asks Our Lord how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. He wonders if it might be seven times, but Jesus replies, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’. This answer looks back to the establishment of the jubilee year in Leviticus 25:8 – ‘You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years.’ The jubilee of the Old Covenant was all about the forgiveness of debts. This is made real in Jesus. In Him is the forgiveness and the renewal which Israel has longed for. It is radical and powerful forgiveness which can transform us, and the whole world.
Jesus explains his message of forgiveness with the use of a parable. A dishonest servant who owes a debt which he cannot pay, begs for more time. His master, instead, cancels the whole debt. However, when faced with a debtor of his own, this same man fails to exhibit the mercy, the kindness which has been shown to him. For this he is rightly and justly punished, to show us who hear the parable that, as we beg God to forgive our sins, we need at the same time to forgive the sins of others. Just like the man in the parable, we too are all dishonest servants, we all owe God a debt which we cannot pay, but God releases us from our debt. But, despite having been forgiven so much by God we still fail to be loving and forgiving to each other. The point is not to make us feel bad about ourselves, but to remind us of how much God loves us, and to encourage us to be loving in return. This is how we should live as human beings, loving and forgiving each other. This is how we can flourish as individuals and as a Christian community.
The world around us often tells us be angry and to feel aggrieved. When we pick up a newspaper, or turn on a radio or television, or look at the Internet, we usually find news reported in such a way as to provoke a variety of negative emotions. We are encouraged to feel angry, sad, or even afraid. There are many things out there right now to make us feel this way. Such judgement is clearly condemned by this morning’s readings. Being surrounded by a judgemental news culture makes it harder for us to live as Christian people. Often, without thinking, we pick up a negative mindset as if by osmosis, it just seeps in, and before we know it we are thinking and speaking in a harsh judgemental way. It is hard to resist, and that is why Jesus tells us to forgive seventy times seven times, i.e., an uncountable number of times. But, to do so is very difficult indeed. We have to be vigilant not to we fall into patterns of behaviour which may decrease the fullness and happiness of our lives. We have to try together, as a Christian community, to live out the faith which we profess. We will, naturally, often fail in this, but we can always seek forgiveness from each other, and from God, and we can keep trying.
The world may tell us that our endeavour is impossible, yet we know that, ‘with God all things are possible’ (Mt 19:26). These are not idle words, but a promise of Jesus that we can trust, and live out together, as a community of love and reconciliation — real, costly, and wonderful. That is why we celebrate the Cross of Christ: the fact that, for love of us, Jesus bore the weight of our sins upon Himself. He suffered and died for us, to show that there was no length to which God would not go to demonstrate, once and for all, what love and forgiveness truly mean. The Cross is our only hope, the one thing that can save us from ourselves, from all that divides and wounds and which separates us from each other and from God. It is our healing, our salvation, and our sanctification. Through the Cross we are saved and made free, to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen