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Homily for the Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sirach 27:30-28:7 Matthew 18: 21-35 Saint John Baptist de la Salle September 17, 2023

Monday, September 11, 2023, marked the 22nd anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. We said we would not forget, but we have. While there was some mention of what had happened on TV, there was a lot less than in years past. We have already moved on to other things. This made me think of what President Roosevelt said about the attack on Pearl Harbor: "This is a date that will live in infamy." Yet there are those, in this day and age, who do not know where Pearl Harbor is or who did the attacking. How easy it is for us to forget, for we have other, more important things to occupy us.

There's the war in Ukraine, and racism and hatred are on the rise; meanwhile, presidential politics play an overwhelming role in the things we have to think about. Few remember that Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, was elected to office on an antislavery ticket. In 1863, Lincoln issued a proclamation freeing Southern slaves, and two years later the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited slavery anywhere in the United States. Lincoln was opposed to all forms of slavery, especially people becoming slaves of their own anger and resentment. Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, had some trouble with a major general who accused him in abusive terms of playing favorites. Stanton complained to Lincoln, who suggested that he write the officer a sharp letter. Stanton did so and showed the strongly worded statement to the President, who applauded its powerful language. "What are you going to do with it?" the President asked. Surprised at the question, Stanton said, "Send it, of course." Lincoln shook his head. "You don't want to send that letter," he said. "Put it in the stove. That's what I do when I've written a letter when I am angry. It's a good letter, and you had a good time writing it, and now you feel better. Now, burn it and write another."

Lincoln could have been following the advice in today's First Reading, which underlines the futility of vengeance: "Wrath and anger are hateful things. We nourish anger and hatred against one another. Then we demand healing and compassion from God for ourselves. Can we seek pardon for our own sins while we hold anger in our hearts?" Nursing anger or cherishing resentment is dangerous for our health, indeed fatal. In today's Gospel, Matthew continues to deal with relations between Christians, focusing on the need for forgiveness between members of the community. Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive another person, then answers his own question by suggesting "seven times." There was a Jewish tradition that taught, "God forgives three times and punishes the fourth time." It was not believed that people could be more gracious than God, so forgiveness was limited to three times. According to that tradition, Peter's willingness to forgive is generous; but according to Jesus, it is simply not enough.

In his reply, Jesus reverses the understanding of the old law of vengeance. Just as in the old days there was no limit to hatred and vengeance, so among Christians there is to be no limit to mercy and forgiveness. However, people had forgotten, and so Jesus has to tell them a story. The Parable of the Unforgiving Official is told in order to underline the need for forgiveness. When a King calls his Court Official to take a look at his accounts, it shows that he is missing ten thousand pieces of gold, a colossal sum of money. The sum is deliberately extravagant, running into millions of dollars, to heighten the contrast with the few dollars owed to the Official. When the King orders the sale of the Official and his family into slavery, the Official pleads for time. The King feels sorry for him and decides to forgive the whole vast debt. The Official, however, learns nothing from his experience, for he refuses to give a fellow worker time to pay a small debt; instead, he has him thrown into prison. When this heartless behavior is reported to the King, the grant of full forgiveness is taken back, and the unforgiving Official is thrown to the torturers.

What should we learn from this story? Well, the answer is quite simple. There is no kind of anger in God, neither for a short time nor for a long one. Indeed, if God could be even slightly angry, we could never have any life, peace, or being. Anger and hatred are not part of God, nor can they be part of us. Sadly, most of us have already forgotten, for racism and hatred are still in our midst. Apart from anything else, the unforgiving Official is condemned for loss of memory. Forgetfulness of our own sins leads to a lack of compassion. When we remember how our sins have gone unpunished by God, that should lead us to forgive others. Through forgetfulness of God's compassion, we can end up becoming cruel to each other. That is why at the beginning of each Eucharist, we are invited to be mindful of our own sins. Only when we do that can we pray the "Our Father": "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." The purpose of calling our sins to mind is not to paralyze us, but to remind us that we all live in the gracious forgiveness of God. To forget that is suicide. Whoever we are, we remember our sins because we need to remember always to forgive.

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