by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Then the master said: “You wicked servant, I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?” And in his anger, the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt. “And that is how my heavenly father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.”

Matthew 18: 21-35

Naomi Levy is a Jewish Rabbi who lives with her husband and family in Venice, California. She has written extensively on the place of prayer in one’s life and is much sought after as a public speaker. In the last 25 years she has published five bestsellers, suitable reading for people of all faiths. While Einstein and the Rabbi is probably her best-known book, I recommend highly To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength and Faith in Difficult Times (1999). In this, she relates the story of a mother who brought her six-year-old son, Joey to her office. The young lad was pale and shaking markedly. Rabbi Levy welcomed him with a hug and invited him to tell her what was troubling him. Joey told her that his friend Andy had died recently in a car accident. That led to an extended conversation between Joey and Rabbi Levy about death and the impact the death of a close friend can have on us. However, the rabbi sensed that there was something particular that Joey wanted to talk about. Eventually, the young lad blurted out: “When we were playing together last week, I kicked Andy on purpose.” “And now you feel bad about that?”, Rabbi Levy asked. As the tears ran down his face, Joey sobbed: “Yes”. “ And if Andy were still alive, what would you say to him?” she asked. “I’d say ‘I’m sorry I kicked you.’”

Rabbi Levy wrote that as soon as Joey said those words, he looked visibly relieved. Just being able to express his regret seemed to lighten his load.

While young Joey needed some help to articulate his problem, he had already experienced how hurting somebody else could eventually come back to hurt him. He had discovered how painful it can be when guilt ties us up in knots.

Today’s readings take us on an exploration into the wide-ranging ramifications for a community when some of its members inflict physical and emotional hurts on one another. What we read and hear today from Ben Sira and Matthew is more than a clinical analysis of offending and its consequences. It will engage us at an emotional level simply because it will confront us with hurts we have inflicted and memories of those we have endured. None of us has lived free from hurting our sisters and brothers or from being hurt by them. We have all known the anger of being the target of insult, slight and injury and we have all found ourselves plotting retribution, for no other reason than to get some kind of satisfaction or compensation by brooding over what has been done to us. Ben Sira knew this aspect of human behaviour and named it for what it is: “Resentment and anger are foul things, too, and both are found in the sinner.” (Sirach 27: 30) And then he observed how we human beings like hugging to ourselves thoughts and feelings of vengeance.

Astute observer that he was of the among whom he lived, Ben Sira proceeded to add that we all play a role in creating the communities to which we belong, be they our families, sporting clubs, worshipping communities, political parties or nations. We cannot feed anger and resentment within ourselves and, at the same time, look for forgiveness and acceptance from family members, colleagues, and God. The simple truth Ben Sira expounds is that we will get from others only what we’re prepared to give.

Another integral aspect of this topic is the longing for reconciliation we all experience on occasion. We know our tendency to cling to anger and to harbour grudges. We also know the desire to forgive and be forgiven that wells up in us. We know, too, the internal struggle required to reach those goals. It is one thing to realise that, we have been created in the image of a God of boundless mercy, and quite another to accept that we have a responsibility to reflect something of God’s mercy to one another. Coming to accept forgiveness and mercy from God and from our sisters and brothers can also be something of a struggle.

I well remember a story I heard from an Anglican pastor about one of his congregation who could not bring himself to participate in the weekly parish communion service. The Pastor took the risk of visiting the man in his home and commenting to him that he couldn’t help noticing that he didn’t come to communion. “I can’t do it”, the man said. “I can’t come to the table. You see, I’m, a Vietnam vet, and during the war there I killed a man. I don’t think God could ever forgive me for that.” The Christian communities to which we belong are somehow meant to help us realise that we are abundantly forgiven by God. They do this through the way in which they create a climate of tolerance of one another and forgiveness of each other, especially when our eccentricities and oddities become so apparent that we get on one another’s nerves. Forgiving and being open to be forgiven are practices that are meant to be integrated into the way in which we live each day. This calls for a commitment to be mirrors or instruments of God’s mercy to one another. We have to let go of any inclination we might have to leave mercy to God. In her novel Adam Bede, George Eliot attributed to her main character, whose name provided the title of the novel, these words: “We hand folks over to God’s mercy, and show none ourselves.”

In the parable that is at the centre of this Sunday’s gospel-reading, Jesus used the most extravagant exaggeration to illustrate that by asking how many times he was expected to forgive those around him, Peter was operating out of a mentality of keeping the score. His question reflected the teachings of the rabbis of his time. They taught that faithful Jews were to give an offender three times. If a fourth offence occurred, forgiveness was to be denied. Peter probably thought he was making an impression on Jesus by extending the limit to seven. Jesus countered with a number that suggested that there was to be no limit to our readiness to forgive and supported that with a parable that clearly indicated that our approach to forgiveness was to be like God’s – limitless!

At the conclusion of his book Becoming Human, Jean Vanier, theologian, philosopher, and founder of the L’Arche Community Movement, wrote that foundational to forgiveness is a three-fold conviction that we all have intrinsic value and share a common humanity, that each of us has a capacity to change and to grow, and that peace and unity are what every human being longs for. Such conviction is essential to the building of every worthwhile community. I ask myself if that’s a conviction that finds expression in my life.