By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Sirach 27:30 — 28:7; Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35
The Book of Sirach is an example of Israelite Wisdom Literature. This type of literature collects wise sayings not just from Israelite sources but from other Middle East sources also. Wisdom books relay knowledge of nature, knowledge of the skills of workmen, tradesmen, scholars, rules of conduct, and generally conveying the experience that helps people cope with life. They are not lacking in religion or relationship to God, but that is not the main thrust of these books. The first reading of this Sunday is from the literary work of Yeshua ben Eleazar ben Sirach. The book is known by two titles: Sirach, so named after the author, and Ecclesiasticus, so named after its title in the Greek Old Testament, ekklesiastikos, which probably meant that it could be read in church, (Greek: ekklesia). The author lived in the late third and early second century B.C. A native of Jerusalem, he traveled widely and devoted his life to scholarly pursuits in Scripture, Jewish religion, and the wisdom of peoples he encountered in his travels. His book probably served as a kind of textbook or teacher’s guide in an academy he conducted for young men in Jerusalem. A tentative date for the composition of the book: 180 B.C.
To cope with life, Sirach’s students needed advice. The whole reading serves as commentary on this Sunday’s gospel, which is about forgiveness. The reading opens proclaiming wrath and anger as hateful things that a sinner hugs tightly. A warning: “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance,” reminding us of our own Our Father prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses just as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sirach bases his call for forgiveness on the expectation of healing of oneself by the Lord. If one refuses mercy to another, he cannot ask mercy for his own sins. This statement summarizes the long parable in today’s gospel. Sirach gives a motive for doing forgiveness: “Remember your last days . . . . Remember death and decay, and cease from sin.” One who thinks of the commandments does not hate his neighbor. A final advice from Sirach: “Remember the Most High’s covenant and forgive faults.” Forgiveness is sometimes difficult, but the reward is internal and external freedom from the burden of hatred and revenge.
The Responsorial Psalm 103, though not extending the theme of our personal forgiveness of others, continues the themes of mercy, forgiveness and compassion the Lord God has for his people. The Lord’s benefits to his people are listed: pardons sins, heals ills, redeems life from destruction, does not always scold, is not angry forever, does not punish as sinners deserve. Especially for those who revere (fear) him, as far as the east is from the west, that far the Lord has removed us from our sins. That is a consoling thought, but can we imitate it in our own forgiveness of those who have offended us? The people’s response summarizes the Psalm verses, “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, rich in compassion.” A call to imitate the Lord.
The second reading, from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, is best understood by placing it into its context in the letter. Paul urges readers and hearers to act with patience and self-denial toward the scrupulous among them. It had to do with meat sacrificed to heathen idols, then sold in local butcher shops. Those with a strong conscience claimed they could eat such meat, since Paul himself had said that idols are nothing. Others with tender conscience could not eat such meat. Neither side should condemn the other. Nevertheless, the strong should not give scandal to the weak because, “None of us lives for oneself and none dies for himself, for we live and die for the Lord.”
This Sunday’s gospel reading is a sequel to last Sunday’s gospel. That gospel outlined four stages for dealing with sinners in a Christian community. First stage: fraternal correction, one on one. Second stage: correction with two or three members from the community to serve as witnesses. Third stage: correction with the whole community assembled for that purpose. If none of these stages are successful, the fourth stage: excommunication. The question arises: Is there forgiveness, any hope of release from excommunication? Yes, this was provided in the guidelines, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. Whatever you unbind on earth will be unbound in heaven. Paul noted in 1 Corinthians 5:5 the purpose of excommunication was “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” We may add, “that his spirit may be saved before the day of the Lord Jesus.” Paul thought that day was imminent. It was not!
In today’s gospel Simon Peter approaches Jesus with a question: ”Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Seven times?” Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Old Testament background: Genesis 4:15, God promises Cain that if anyone kills him, God would avenge him sevenfold. That seems to have the standard for revenge in ancient times. The macho patriarch Lamech, perhaps having too high an opinion of himself, brags to his two wives, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech will be avenged seventy-seven times.” This little ditty is called the “Song of the Sword.” Meaning: unlimited revenge, through all generations. When Jesus tells Simon Peter to forgive seventy-seven times, he reverses the Song of the Sword — no longer unlimited revenge, but unlimited forgiveness. To illustrate the principle, Jesus adds a parable about a king who settled accounts with his officials. One owed him an enormous amount. Threatened with debtor’s prison, he begged for more time to pay. The compassionate king forgave the debt. A fellow official owed a small debt to the forgiven man. When he could not pay the debt, the forgiven man had him put into prison. The compassionate king heard about this tragedy, reversed his forgiveness of the huge debt, and “handed him over to the torturers until the debt was paid.” Too much like the Mafia? Yes, but the lesson is there, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each forgives his brother from his heart.” Frightening?