By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Sirach 27:30-28:7; Response: Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12; Second Reading: Romans 14:7-9; Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35
The Old Testament source of our first reading is known by two names. The first is from its Greek title: Ecclesiasticus. This indicates that it was read in the assembly or synagogue or, later, in church. The Greek word for a gathering place where people are called together is ekklesia. The second name of this book is the name of the author: Sirach. The full title: Wisdom of Yeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira (Sirach). Sirach lived in the late third and early second centuries B.C. He was a native of Jerusalem (see Sirach 50:29). He had travelled extensively (see Sirach 34:9-12). He had a remarkable grasp of the Scriptures. In this book, he brought together his experiences and knowledge, and wrote them down in Hebrew, “in order that those studiously inclined . . . might make all the more progress in living according to the Law” (the Scriptures). Thus, the words of his grandson in the Prologue of the book. He translated his grandfather’s work into Greek sometime between 135 B.C. and117 B.C. The date of the original composition of the book is about 180 B.C. Sirach became a highly respected scribe and teacher who conducted an academy for young men. Thus, his advice is addressed 19 times to “My son.” His aim was to demonstrate the Jewish way of life as superior to the Greek culture that was pervasive in the countries of the Middle East, especially in Egypt.
Recalling that the whole book is called the Wisdom of Sirach, all the various forms of advice given by the author are also forms of wisdom. Our first reading begins with a warning against anger: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” Revenge: “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance.” How? He will remember every detail of their sins. The advice on forgiveness finds an echo in the Our Father: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice, so when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” The theme of forgiveness runs throughout the reading in the sense that forgiveness by ourselves will bring about being forgiven, which in turn brings healing from God. Sirach gives a final but chilling motivation for forgiveness: “Remember your last days, death, and decay.” Final advice: “Remember the commandments ... and overlook faults.” We may assume he means not just the Big Ten, but all 613 commandments the scribes identified in the Torah.
Psalm 103 responds directly to the warning against anger in the first reading. We see this first in the people’s response: “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, rich in compassion.” The psalmist implies that the Lord has a right to be angry with us. Instead, he pardons our sins, heals our sickness, saves our lives from destruction, and crowns us with kindness and compassion. The Lord has a right to scold us, but he does not nag us about it. Even if angry, he won’t hold on to his anger. Nor does he deal with us as our sins deserve. A consoling thought closes the psalm. His kindness is infinite. As far as east is from west, that far he has removed our sins from the record.
Although the second reading makes some sense if disconnected from its context in the Letter to the Romans, it becomes more meaningful when one knows the context. Paul urges readers and hearers to be patient and practice self-denial with scrupulous fellow Christians. It had to do with meat sacrificed to pagan gods, then sold in butcher shops. Those with strong consciences claimed it was OK to buy and eat such meat. Paul himself had taught that pagan idols or gods don’t even exist. They are nothing. Others with tender conscience claimed that it was sinful to eat such meat. Neither side should condemn the other. Those of strong conscience could abstain rather than scandalize the weak. Why? The answer is in our reading. We do not live or die for ourselves, but for the Lord. Jesus gave up a lot for us, even his life. Let’s imitate his self-denial.
Last Sunday’s gospel laid out the rules for correction of an offender against the Christian community. Today, we would call such a community a parish. If all else failed, the final step was separation from the community by the community or by its representatives. Today, we call it excommunication. Some Christians call it shunning. The question therefore arises: Is this separation intended to be permanent? In today’s gospel reading, Matthew answers that question. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? How about seven times?” Peter is trying to be generous. Not enough for Jesus. His answer: “I say to you, not seven times, but seven times seventy-seven times.” That’s a lot of sevens. Seven is a favorite biblical number to express perfection. Jesus’ answer means that forgiveness among Christians must be without limit. In Genesis 4, Cain murdered his brother Abel. After the Lord inflicted a visible penalty on him, Cain was worried that someone would kill him. The Lord said, “If someone does that, I will revenge you sevenfold.” That may not have been much consolation to Cain, but he brought it on himself through jealousy and murder. But that is not the end of the story.
Cain marries and has descendants. Lamech, one of Cain’s descendants, had two wives. This redneck said to his wives, “Listen to me. I killed a man for wounding me, a boy for striking me. If Cain is avenged seven times, Lamech will be avenged seventy-seven times.” Not the kind of man one wants for a neighbor! Revenge without limit, through generations. What has Jesus done with this story? Complete reversal! Christians do not take revenge. They forgive without limit. Many Christians do not even know this teaching; and if they do know, do they practice it? There are examples of this kind of forgiveness in our own Christian community. There are also well-known examples among the Amish. Matthew attaches a parable. A servant owes a huge sum of money to a king. He appeals for mercy. The compassionate king forgives the whole debt. The servant just forgiven meets a fellow servant who owes him a small debt. He could not pay. He had him put into debtors’ prison. A report reaches the king. The huge debt is reinstated. The torturers would work him over till all was paid. The final lesson: “So will my heavenly Father do to you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”