Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A
by Fr. Claude Perera, OMI


First Reading: Sirach 27:30—28:9
To expect God’s mercy, one must show mercy to others.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 103:1-4,9-12

In praise of God who is kind and merciful.

Second Reading: Romans 14:7-9
Both in life and death, we belong to the Lord

Gospel Reading: Matthew 18:21-35
The obligation to forgive one another as God has forgiven us

Background to the Readings and Homily

The OT is full of references to God’s mercy and forgiveness. But that is not the case when it comes to references in which Israelites forgiving one another. Forgiving an offender was almost unheard of in the Mosaic Legislation. On the contrary, instead of forgiving as offender, the Mosaic Law penalized the culprit by inflecting the same damage in return (Lv 24:19-21). These practices continued up to the lifetime of Jesus (Mt 5:38-39). However, in the intertestamental literature which were written during the last two centuries immediately preceding the OT, the situation changed. In some of those writings like the Books of Sirach (also called the Book of Ecclesiasticus), and the Book of Wisdom there is a reference each to forgiving the offenders by men. What you heard in today’s first reading from the Book of Sirach is that one instance. 

The author of Sirach said, “Pardon your neighbour any wrongs done to you. This is almost unheard of in the OT. Isn’t this a preparation for the Sermon on the Mount? Sirach has already initiated the Sermon on the Mount. Furthermore, remember what Jesus said in the Our Father, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sirach has said the same thing, “If anyone nurses anger against another, can one then demand compassion from the Lord? Mere creature of flesh, yet cherishing resentment-who will forgive one for sinning? And when you pray, your sins will be forgiven. Showing no pity for someone like oneself, can one then plead for one’s own sins? Remember the commandments, and do not bear your fellow ill-will, remember the covenant of the Most High and ignore the offence.” We do not deserve forgiveness if we do not forgive one another. That is a condition we impose on ourselves each time we pray the Our Fathetr.

Today’s first reading ended saying, “Remember the last things, and stop hating, corruption and death, and be faithful to the commandments.”  After all, we all have the same beginning and same end. We are born with frailty and proneness to sin. There are no angels among men. The mistakes another makes are also the same mistakes we ourselves also make. It may be that the other one did it after me. Who are we to judge the other? If God has forgiven us, who are we to retain the guilt of others? How can we expect God to forgive us when we are not ready to forgive our neighbout? The neighbour is also a child of God as much as I am.     

Today’s Gospel follows immediately after last Sunday’s one in which Jesus taught the disciples the way to handle disputes and conflicts within their community. In today’s gospel Peter, wanted to know how many times one must forgive another. Peter reckoned it to be seven times, but Jesus corrects him saying not just seven times, but 77 times. This is a Hebrew idiom which must be understood beyond arithmetic. It means very many times, uncountably or any amount of times. Then, Jesus instantiated it with the parable of the unforgiving servant who though benefitted from master’s generosity and forgiveness was not ready to forgive his own debtors, for which he was mercilessly penalized. Rather than imitating the king for his benevolence and forgiveness, the servant confronts a fellow servant who owed him a much lesser debt—an incomparable pittance and harassed him demanding the repayment. He was inclement towards his fellow servant and sent him to the prison.

Why do we forget our own fallibility, and harp on another’s? This is being hypocritical. We have double standards. We have one way of judging us in a pacific and soft manner when we ourselves make mistakes, and a different way, a diametrically opposed way, when others commit the same mistakes. Religion is not simply a question of performing rituals. Rituals should be both preceded and followed by justice, honesty, and mercy. Jesus like the prophets of the OT was the supreme harbinger of interior religion. Today’s liturgy challenges us to go into our roots, lest we stand condemned by our own evil deeds. The final drastic result was that the first servant receiving the same original penalty.  

Sometimes, we try to quantify forgiveness as Peter did. God’s forgiveness is endless. God constantly forgives us to the extent we repent. In that case, why do we tell those who offend us, “I will not forgive you next time?” Every time, we are offended, we must be ready to forgive. This does not mean that we allow ourselves to be duped. Even if we are being duped, we got to ask why a person keeps teaching us. There could be a deep-seated problem in his personality or something that went wrong in early childhood. That needs to be addressed compassionately, if we are caring people, without being too easily judgmental and writing off a person for life.