Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
September 13 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Sirach 27:30-28:7 | Psalm 103:1-4;9-12
Romans 14:7-9 | Matthew 18:21-35

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Last Sunday’s excellent homily by Deacon Sharon dealt with how we should handle people who sin against us. First, you go to that person directly and try to resolve the problem. If that doesn’t work, you move on to step two and take someone with you. And if that doesn’t work, the problem becomes a community issue that seemingly could result in the offender being excluded. The Gospel mentions “treating them like a “Gentile” or “Tax Collector” meaning someone outside the community.

So do we, as Christians, kick badly behaving people out of our churches and never welcome them back and restore them to their former status?  No! That’s not how Jesus does business, and as Christians, Jesus is whom we follow….not secular norms, not our feelings…just Jesus.  What Jesus tells us to do is to forgive them.

Hence, it’s no accident that the text of today’s Gospel immediately follows that of last week. It’s what the Christian community is supposed to do after following step three in handling people who sin against us. Jesus commands us to forgive them, seventy times seven.

What Jesus is calling us to do this week is to put our money where our mouth is, to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.  Today’s Gospel illustrates what forgiveness looks like in the Kingdom of Heaven. The king wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One of them owed the king a lot of money, so much that he could never pay it back. So the king wanted to sell him into slavery. But the servant pleaded for mercy. The king, moved by his plea, forgave the debt in full. But the servant was not so merciful with a fellow servant who owed him money.  He assaulted his debtor and had him imprisoned. However, when the king heard about it, he handed the wicked servant over to torture until the debt was paid.

As today’s First Reading tells us, “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail.” The author of Sirach tells us that as we forgive our neighbors, God will forgive us. Our First Reading also reminds us that life is short and that whatever may be important to you in today’s world may not be important in eternity. God implores us to think of the big picture and on a long timeline. Nourishing anger against others is a colossal waste of time, energy, and resources when one considers the entire panoply of human affairs and the eons of history yet to be written.

If we read the Parable of the Wicked Servant in a shallow way,  it appears to be about how God deals with us. God forgives us for our sins if we forgive those who sin against us.  But its deeper meaning is, is, “What goes around, comes around,” or in more earthy terms, “Karma will always get you in the end.”

In today’s world, it’s not hard to imagine a business owner who begs for discounts and write-offs from suppliers and banks but sues customers with outstanding bills. That self-centered business owner is thinking of short-term survival, not long-term success. What will happen eventually is that the suppliers, banks, and customers will no longer want to deal with that business, which will eventually fail.

Business success depends more on personal relationships than it does on available capital. I know this for a fact. I was in business for myself for thirty years.  One of the greatest myths of owning a business is you think you’re in charge of everything and you can tell everyone what to do. Reality is, however, that you are a servant to your lenders, suppliers, employees, and customers. Keeping all of them happy at the same time is what makes you wealthy, not ruthlessly looking out for yourself as the wicked servant in today’s Gospel did. Relationships matter!

Sunday after Sunday, we sing the Creed. Among the things about which we sing is the forgiveness of sins. At least, in theory, the Creed we sing is a statement of our values, a statement of what we hold near and dear to us. But what we hold near and dear to us on Sunday morning is not necessarily what the outside world holds near and dear.

Many people in today’s secular and godless world espouse a heartfelt and serious objection to forgiving the sins of others. Vengeance, or in polite terms, punishing wrongdoers to be sure they pay for their misdeeds, is more important to them.  They think that by punishing people, we are discouraging crimes and other wrongdoing, but in reality, it doesn’t work. Despite the mass incarceration of the “war on crime” in the nineteen-nineties, crime is still with us.  While punishment fuels the emotional needs of victims, punishment simply doesn’t work to stop crime or any other form of misbehavior.

One of the major reasons I left law practice is the unforgiving nature of our legal system. That a wrongdoer admits fault, apologizes, and begs does not matter to the judge on the bench. Even when no public safety threat is present, the wrongdoer still pays a fine and/or is incarcerated. Forgiveness and reconciliation are nowhere to be found, whether the crime is a traffic violation or a murder. This cycle of crime and punishment with forgiveness absent makes the adulation of “the rule of law” very unappealing to me. I left the legal system because I could no longer respect what it was doing to people.

I cannot respect a judge who follows the law in place of extending compassion to people, no matter how legally correct that judge may be.  The same lack-of-forgiveness problem exists even in the civil legal system, where people sue other people for money based on some alleged wrong. Courts don’t only award compensatory damages to redress actual harm; they also award punitive damages – money over and above that which pays for damages to persons or property – to punish the alleged wrongdoer.

The entire legal system today operates as if today’s Gospel were never written. The command of Jesus to forgive seventy-times-seven is meaningless in the equation in our justice system no matter how minor the violation or how sincere the apologies.

The notion of accountability without punishment has never occurred to legislatures, courts, or police officers. And this is true on both the political right and the political left.

Take the reactions of both factions to the recent street demonstrations over police misconduct. The leftist demonstrators are correct in protesting brutal police behavior. However, the remedy they propose is vengeful, not forgiving. What they propose is not Christian. They call for the offending officers to be prosecuted and punished. The rightwing people upset at the leftist demonstrators for destroying property think the same way. What they propose is not Christian. They want to punish the rioters. Neither side wants to forgive the other. The result is we have a very polarized country with no end in sight for the ongoing unrest. The vengeance mindset, on both sides, makes conflict mediation and healing impossible. The war in the streets is going to continue unless both sides ditch their justice-is-punishment mentality.

The simple fact is you absolutely cannot force anyone to take responsibility for their actions by punishment. Accountability must come from within by way of admission of one’s mistakes and an apology to those affected.

Apologizing, however, is not simply saying “I’m sorry”. It’s easy to say that, but do you mean it? Are you just saying that to gloss over the seriousness of what you may have done wrong? The key is whether your sorrow over your wrongdoing is accompanied by a change in attitude manifested by a change in behavior.

Today’s Gospel is not the only place where Jesus talks about forgiveness. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us,

“Be on your guard. If a brother sins, you must rebuke the offender, but if there is          repentance, you must forgive.”

Repentance is not saying “I’m sorry”. Repentance is a change of direction at both the level of your heart and in your actions. Jesus conditioned forgiveness on the offender changing, not continuing offensive behavior.

Repentance, that is, a change of heart and actions, comes before forgiveness. In the context of our current social unrest over police misconduct, here’s what repentance looks like. It means misbehaving police officers admitting that their actions were wrong, expressing sincere regret for the harm caused, and a commitment to change their orientation towards life by actions as well as statements.

Imagine Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd admitting he was wrong in what he did, giving speeches persuading other police officers not to do likewise. And imagine him begging forgiveness from George’s family by reciting Psalm fifty-one, whose opening two verses are, “For I acknowledge my faults, and my sin is ever before me. Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness, and forgive me all my sin.” Imagine him offering to pay George’s funeral expenses and for grief counseling for the family. When that happens, George’s family should forgive Derek. Yes, nothing can replace George in their lives, but if they are truly Christians, they will accept an apology and amendment of life from Derek and forgive him.

Some police departments have, in fact, apologized for the inappropriate actions of their officers and have instituted reforms to prevent future harms. That’s a step in the right direction. The victims of the misconduct and their families should, accordingly, offer forgiveness and become part of the solution instead of part of the problem by their vociferous calls for justice by way of punishment and backing up their demands with violence or threats of violence.

Now, let’s look at the peaceful demonstrations that have turned into riots like we are seeing in Portland and elsewhere.  Our conservative sisters and brothers are calling for massive authoritarian crackdowns that usually lead to even more violence. Should the people who destroy property and injure people be unconditionally forgiven based on the righteousness of their cause? Absolutely not! I don’t buy into the notion that violence is somehow excused as “the language of the unheard.” Violence is wrong, pure and simple, no matter who does it.

Should people who riot be forgiven? Absolutely they should after they pay for the damage they caused and choose to work for the change they seek without engaging in violence. Moreover, an apology for damage and changing one’s way of seeking the transformation of unjust situations may result in those you are trying to convince to adopt your views listening to you rather than tuning you out altogether.

The point is that forgiveness is not an entitlement free of accepting personal responsibility. Forgiveness is not something you can expect free of having to apologize for your actions and make amends to the person you wronged.  The outcome of forgiveness should be reconciliation, that is, repairing the damaged relationship between perpetrators and victims.

Justice must become restorative rather than punitive.  In fact, some of the more enlightened criminal justice systems are starting to include meetings between perpetrators and victims. Those programs focus on repairing the damage caused by the wrongful action and restoring, insofar as possible, the well-being of all those involved. Restorative Justice considers how harm can be repaired and the role of the person causing the harm in repairing it.

Churches can lead the way in showing the world what restorative justice looks like. Some clergy in their counseling of people practice the same warped view of forgiveness we see in the psychotherapist profession. Therapists, and unfortunately some clergy as well, tell clients that we can or should forgive people, but not necessarily reconcile with them. But for Jesus, forgiveness is only part of what we’re supposed to do.

Jesus wants us to reconcile with one another. Jesus wants us to heal one another. More than anywhere else, that’s how a church should operate and set an example.  All of us as our Baptism promised to follow Jesus. And those of us who have been ordained as Deacons and Priests made vows at our ordination to model our lives after that of Jesus.

In the fifth chapter of Matthew, right after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us explicitly,

“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother        or sister has something against you,  leave your gift there before the altar and go;      first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

That applies to everyone, laity, and clergy.

Even though some people say they forgive those who wrong them, the notion of reconciling their relationships is often nowhere to be found. Instead of reconciliation, some people turn to their pride and self-esteem to soothe wounds to their hearts and egos. The seriousness of the sin does not matter to them. While I can understand not immediately forgiving someone who murders a friend or relative, some people will never forgive another person even for mere words that should go in one ear and out the other.

The notion that some sins cannot or should not be forgiven is a purely secular notion that flies in the face of the teachings of Jesus and is antithetical to God himself. Forgiveness recognizes who God is.  The refrain from today’s psalm tells us the most important part of who God is: “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and rich in compassion.” Words that describe God in that way appear throughout the Old Testament, particularly in the psalms. In today’s psalm, we learn that God pardons all of our sins, heals our ills, redeems your life from destruction, and crowns you with kindness and compassion.  Shouldn’t we all act that way towards other people?

Apologies and forgiveness both arise out of love. Both redeem life from destruction. Both crown our lives with kindness and compassion. Apologies and forgiveness are both sacrificial.

The love from which apologies and forgiveness arise is a selfless love that communicates that someone other than yourself is important to you. It means you sacrifice some of what’s important to you for the good of someone other than you.  It’s not surprising that a forgiving God acts from love. As the First Epistle of John tells us, “God is love, and love is from God.”

Forgiveness requires that you look beyond your own interests, as the king in today’s Gospel did. It requires putting away your pride. And so also for the person who apologizes as well. An apology is a sacrifice of your pride.  Look at the parable of the prodigal son in Luke’s Gospel. The returning son said to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Saying that required the son to ditch his personal pride, to take his ego down a notch. He sacrificed his pride to restore his relationship with his father, and the father did likewise. That story tells us that relationships with people are more important than all the money in the world.

Forgiveness is what makes ongoing human relationships of all kinds possible.

A world without forgiveness would be a lousy place to live.

A world where no one forgives is a world that glorifies the selfishness of every person looking out after their own ego and their own interests to the exclusion of others. Do we really want that?

A world where no one forgives is a harsh world where relationships between people mean nothing.

A world where no one forgives would have you holding bitterness and anger toward every person who has hurt you even a little throughout the course of your life.

Would you have any friends?

How long could marriage possibly last?

Do we really want to live in one big jail, imprisoning us inescapably in our mistakes?

A forgiving world is not a paradise.  A world with forgiveness is still risky, still full of natural consequences for mistakes. In the case of the prodigal son, he will not inherit anything upon his father’s death because he got it already and spent it foolishly.

Jesus came to earth to break through the cycle of sin involving indifference and hatred through his sacrificial life and death and resurrection from the dead. As he hung on the cross, Jesus beseeched his Father to forgive those responsible for his crucifixion, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” as recounted in the Gospel of Luke.  Later, Jesus also reached out to Saul who persecuted him by persecuting his followers. Jesus repurposed Saul into Paul as an amazing ambassador of his reconciling love inside and outside the churches he founded. When we become a forgiving person, we allow Jesus to repurpose us to build up the Kingdom of Heaven.

Apologies and forgiveness introduce empathy into a relationship.  To apologize and to forgive both require empathy, that is, the ability to place oneself in the shoes of another and experience the situation as felt by the other person. That goes for police and protestors, crime perpetrators and crime victims, and family members with each other, particularly spouses. As today’s Second reading tells us, “None of us live for oneself…for if we live, we live for the Lord.” Only a true understanding of the other person’s viewpoint can bring about a true apology and true forgiveness. A mere willingness to apologize and to forgive is not enough. You cannot truly apologize, and you cannot truly forgive until you see the side of the person involved.

Empathy is what gives you the compassion to truly love the other person. In becoming human, Jesus demonstrated to us what empathy looks like. Empathy is mercy. Mercy the one word that summarizes today’s Gospel. As Pope Francis tells us in his book, “The Name of God is Mercy,”

“The mercy of God is his loving concern for each one of us. He feels responsible; that is, he desires our wellbeing and he wants to see us happy, full of joy, and peaceful. This is the path in which the merciful love of Christians must also travel. As the Father loves, so do his children. Just as he is merciful, so we are called to be merciful to each other.”

God sees us with complete compassion. God understands our sufferings and fears which played a part in our wrongdoing. When we can see someone else from God’s eyes, it’s not a problem to forgive that person no matter how great the injury they caused us. I’m not saying it’s easy or instant. But it is possible, and it is the right thing to do. AMEN.