Nine-one-one is the phone number in our part of this world for contacting emergency help. Nine-eleven is a number which recalls emergency-memories for most of us. We recall with ease where we were and what we were doing when we first heard there was a plane crash and then it was a crash into a building and then there were two crashes and then a third!
Memories comprise our histories of what hurt and what was delightful, for the most part. Religions have much to do with remembering and basing our invitations toward the future. Trusting has both feet firmly planted in memories. Our Jewish ancestors recited faithfully the remembered deeds of the Calling-God and so were encouraged to keep on the walk of faith. We are asked to do the same.
As we journey from one Eucharistic liturgy to the next, we can pray with the good and the hard coins in our memory bank. We can pray with our fears of being hurt again as well as praying with the sunnier days and hours, the people and places which all bring us to the moment of prayer and to the liturgy today.
Usually the First Reading of our liturgies lead indirectly or symbolically from the Hebrew Scriptures to a Gospel story or teaching. Today the reading is from Sirach, a book of wisdom sayings. The reading is really a prologue for the story Jesus is telling about being forgiven and the merciful result in the life of the forgiven.
The Author encourages the practice of forgiving by referring to the reality of the “last days”, that person’s own death. If that does not work, remember the commandments and that you are a member of the convenanted people within which God has forgiven the community as well as each member.
“Remember” is the theme then. Remember and then be a memory for your neighbor and God will remember you in your need for mercy. Anger, hate, vengeance are mentioned as sins which are relational disturbances between us and God and ourselves and others. Relational tranquility is meant to reveal the peaceful relationship God has with us and we are to extend that graceful relationship in our encounters with others. Christianity deepens this way of relating with God and others.
The Gospel for today extends the First Reading’s emphasis on forgiving. Peter, who seems to be the interviewer of Jesus, often proposes a direct question wanting to know exact numbers and qualifications. Peter assumes a place in the community composed of brothers and sisters. He also assumes that there is some kind of sinning going on and he wants to know how far his mercy should extend. It does sound as if Peter has not yet experienced himself as a sinner. I wonder if he has really entered the community yet or been in any kind of relationship. Jesus’ answer is not exact, but even more devastatingly clear. Simply, there was a king, he forgave a man a great debt who turned and didn’t forgive a fellow debtor for a smaller amount. Peter wanted a certain number and Jesus gave him a certain picture.
The final line Jesus speaks is quite dramatic. The king of the story, throws the unforgiving-forgiven debtor into the slammer until the debt be paid. I wonder how the debtor can pay when he is locked away, but that isn’t the issue here. The issue is that God is like that. If we do not forgive others their sins against us, God is going to throw us into the eternal slammer with no way out. How is that for a clear picture?
Sinning is an authentic cultural and psychological and historical truth. It seems that the closer one grows to an awareness of a God, the closer one becomes aware of violating that relationship. The more we picture that God as loving, the more we experience our violations of, or, disregard for that love. Our problem is that individually and communally, we are jealous of God and our “sins” have to do with manipulating or dominating or falsifying so that we grab the power. Sin is not breaking the law, it is breaking our image of ourselves in some act of disgust about who we are. It is breaking the relationship by asking God to allow us to operate outside our true limitations and pretend for a while that what we decide is true, is actually true.
Will God forgive us if we do not forgive others? There are just human hurts which are theoretically forgivable of course, but emotionally impossible to forgive and forget. Are the abused going to be abused by a kinglike God Who sends those persons to the ever-lasting prison? God cannot ask the impossible from us, so we have to be careful about our hearing the end of the Gospel story.
Interpretation is the issue. That last line catches our ear and imagination. Jesus used such images to get the attention of His listeners and stress a particular practice or principle central to His teaching. Peter wanted a standard, a mechanical formula. Jesus is asking him and us to be aware of how selfishly sinful we can be and so can others. Jesus is asking us to live with both our own and others sinfulness as much as is possible. Not forgiving usually hurts the unforgiver. Some feel that because they have not forgotten the injury, they have not forgiven the hurter. What is important here remains the centrality of community, family, relationships. I had no problem forgiving until I entered the Jesuits and by so, entered more deeply into community and the experiencing of my own selfishness and that of others. The closer we get to others, the closer we get to our own deepest truths.
“O God, how much we value your mercy! All mankind can gather under your protection.” Ps. 36, 8
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