Daily Reflection
September 15th, 2002
Larry Gillick, S.J.
Deglman Center for Ignatian Spirituality
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Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 27:30--28:7
Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12
Romans 14:7-9
Matthew 18:21-35

In order to be more receptive to God’s Word and Sacrament, picture Peter’s asking Jesus a not-so innocent question.  Just for the sake of the picture, perhaps the other apostles have been picking on him for Jesus’ having named him “The Rock”.  For a few weeks, he has put up with being called “The Rock Who Stumbles Over Itself”.  They may have been putting little stones in his sandals and offering him a rock each night for a pillow.  He’s had it and so, without telling Jesus his hidden agenda, Peter asks for some advice.


“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us….”  In our private prayers and asking for God’s grace, we do not find it necessary to pray for a personal sense of justice.  We are more than adequately equipped to gauge how much injury we have sustained and the proper amount of recompense due us and by whom.  We have a built-in system to weigh insults (minor, slight, can-live-with-it, major and war-alert). 

Forgiveness is difficult to pray for, because we become less aware of how we have been forgiven and the seriousness of our having insulted, injured or rejected others.  We tend to minimize the “as we have trespassed”, and maximize, “those who have trespassed”.  We might pray for the grace to become merciful in our judgements and compassionate in our reception of hurts and unfair treatment.  We could also pray for the grace to the harshness and grudges which are a true response at the time of impact, but which, when held onto overtime, tend to continue injuring us who hold them too close.


We hear a series of rather strict injunctions in today’s First Reading from the Book of Sirach, which is also known as Ecclesiasticus.  There seems to be a bit of quid-pro-quo; when we forgive, then when we pray for mercy, we will receive it.  The final verses catch our attention quickly.  We are encouraged to remember how we will feel as we near death.  We should remember God’s commandments and God’s covenant of love. The message is that God has been personally caring for each human being with forgiveness, guidance and intense love and these reminders will help us in turn to be equally caring, forgiving and loving.

Jesus uses Peter's question about exactly how many times he, and we, are to forgive our brothers and sisters. Of course, Jesus does not give a straight answer with which Peter, and we, could argue.  He describes a story from which Peter, and we can draw our own answer.

An owner desiring to settle all claims and debts has compassion on a servant who had a large debt and was unable to make any repayment.  Upon his total acquittal, the same servant seized his fellow servant who owed him a lesser amount and when that servant begged for patience, he was refused and thrown into prison. 

We get the picture pretty quickly, but Jesus, desiring to emphasize his point, continues.  Other servants report this matter to the owner who confronts the first servant with the reminder of how the servant had been forgiven his debts which were large, but he could not forgive his fellow servant a lesser debt.  The result was that the owner had the servant handed over to be tortured until the whole debt is paid.  Jesus then turns to Peter, and us, and says that this is how things will play out for us when we will be forgiven to the extent we have forgiven others from our hearts.  Ouch!

Seventy times seven is a biblical exaggeration, though my mother on occasion would say patiently (to one of my brothers or sisters of course), “That’s four hundred and eighty-nine.” Jesus was making a reference to the for-everness of God’s forgiveness of us which we are to reflect in our dealings with those who have trespassed against us.

We have the faculty of memory which can be long and exact, especially about our having been injured in some way.  Forgiving is not the same as asking our memory to delete past hurts.  Because we remember so well, we assume we have not forgiven.  We can easily call up the video and sound bites of those incidents which call for forgiving.  We can likewise go through the whole painful experience again in our emotions, but that does not mean we have not forgiven.  This is hard for us. 

Perhaps forgiving is not an emotional release from the awareness of the injury or injustice, but revealed when we live with the limps, bumps and dents with less anger dominating our spirits and actions.  Memory can seem to hurt us, but it also is part of our spiritual freedom from resentment.

We can pray with the memory that we have been forgiven by God and hopefully by others.  We may have to be more exact about how we have trespassed against others and how we have received compassionate mercy from them.  This may help us reduce the immensity, in our hearts’ eyes, of the injuries done to us. 

There may be injuries we just can not forgive right now and so we pray for patience with ourselves. Our severity of judgement most often injures ourselves and not those who originally hurt us.  We are to remember that though our memories are long, life is short.  We are to pray with the reality of God’s commandments, God’s covenantal love and according to the Gospel, if we take our resentments to the grave, then God will not take them away after death.  Does that make God severe? It seems that with our own grudges in one hand and our severe sense of justice in the other, there would not be any room for God to offer peace and eternal welcome. 

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