Today’s readings challenge us by presenting
images of God that might at first look confusing. Each image, which
seems to contradict the other, is given to us from the Scriptures
and must be given careful thought. Much about the Christian faith
is profoundly paradoxical – it appears contradictory when
in fact the seemingly opposite poles are in fact mutually informing
and supportive. Today’s readings give us an opportunity to
In the prophetic text of Ezekiel, God requires that the prophet
basically notify the people that their nation (household is an intimate
term for a whole people that in itself is remarkable) is about to
be destroyed and they are about to be sent into exile. The prophet
is to perform a ritual exit in front of them with the expectation
that they will ask him what he is doing. Even when they don’t
ask, God orders him back to TELL them what God is about to do. The
people have grievously sinned and God is calling them to accountability
for their sins. This is the picture of a harshly judgmental God
it would seem.
In the Gospel, Jesus is confronted with what might seem to be a
perfectly sensible question: if someone offends me over and over
how often do I have to forgive him or her. Jesus gives an absurd
response – implying that this is clearly a poor question.
The absurdity of the response is a code for an infinite number of
times (seven being the symbolic number for completion of totality).
So the answer is that one is to forgive over and over with no expectation
of “cutting it off.” Then Jesus uses this occasion to
tell a story about a man who is forgiven a huge debt and then turns
around and demands a smaller debtor to repay him. The implication,
of course is that all of us are the constant (and therefore huge)
sinner, while God is the infinite forgiver. So the image of God
as one who forgives constantly and patiently is established in the
actions of the ruler.
But then . . . yes, but then, the constant sinner goes out and does
not forgive a much smaller indebtedness of his co-worker and therefore
God’s forgiveness is withdrawn. In other words – because
he didn’t imitate God’s compassionate self he becomes
incapable of receiving what God has to offer.
The image of God as demanding and harsh in both the first reading
and again at the end of the second reading, is really an image of
a God who wants to forgive all – who works to forgive all
– but his implacability comes into play when the human who
is made capable of responding to his companions fails to do so.
We see the “anger” of God in the fact that the Israelites
do not even ask what God is up to in the prophet’s little
drama. They don’t “get” that God is giving them
a chance to repent. And the debtor doesn’t realize that the
forgiveness God extended to him makes him capable of forgiving others
with the same generosity.
We are confronted then with images of God as caretaking and forgiving,
followed by an implacable (and harsh) judge. Does this mean that
God is inconsistent? Not at all; His consistency is his radical
respect for our personal human freedom. He gives us every support
to be faithful to His desires, which are for our joy and peace with
him and with each other. God is only experienced as a harsh judge
when we freely choose to be harsh and uncaring with our brothers
and sisters. If we could read the whole account of Ezekiel we would
see that God’s warning and eventual enactment of judgment
against the Israelites is based on their failure to love their brothers
and sisters, especially the poorest and the weakest among them,
about which they have been warned over and over.
We receive God’s opportunities of forgiveness. Every time
we sin God offers us the capacity to be forgiven and therefore to
forgive others. Every gift of creation that we have received God
has given to us to enjoy and to share with those who have less.
If in our freedom we refuse forgiveness or refuse to care for the
poor and dispossessed among us, we can expect God’s harshest
judgment - he will judge us and punish us as we judge and punish
others. That which we measure out will come back upon us.
Today’s liturgy then, as summer slowly moves to fall, reminds
us that in the days of our wealth, power and control, we need to
pay attention to our own real limitedness by attending to those
who need our forgiveness, those who need our compassion, those who
need our generosity – if in the time of harvesting, when we
will be held accountable, we hope for a God who will treat us likewise.
Do not forget the works of the Lord! Ps