24th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

If you have been with us for the past three weeks you know that Jesus has been laying out for us the path to being a Christian. Over these past four weeks, including this Sunday, He is showing us what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Four weeks ago, He asked us that famous question “who do you say that I am”[1] and we were challenged to answer that in the depth of our hearts; to really have the faith to say “you are the Christ, the son of the living God.”[2] Three weeks ago He then reminded us that we must pick up our cross and follow Him.[3] It is not enough to say I believe. If we truly believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life”[4] then we will follow Him wherever He leads us. Last week He taught us that it is not enough for us just to follow Jesus. No, if we really love our brother and sister, we will want them to follow Jesus as well. Therefore, there are times when we have to correct a brother or sister who has gone astray. If there are times that we have to correct others you can be sure that there are times that we need to be corrected as well. None of us are perfect. So today, Jesus concludes this little four-part series in the Gospel of Matthew on how to be a Christian, by teaching the necessity of forgiveness.

I don’t know about you, but for me today’s Gospel is a true challenge. Jesus is very clear in the Gospel that we must forgive. There is no excuse as to why we should not forgive others. Yet, if you have ever had someone hurt you seriously, you know hard it is to truly forgive. I can recount people I have worked with. I can recount a woman who came into my office after having her life totally changed when she was hit by a student who was texting and driving or another woman who came into my office whose son was tragically murdered and the murderer was on death row, and she was struggling with how to forgive him. Maybe we haven’t had those extreme things, but we have certainly had injustices in our families, injustices in our workplaces, and injustices with people we have encountered.

I don’t know if you have ever been to that point where as a Christian you know you are supposed to forgive and you want to forgive, but you just can’t seem to get there. No matter what you do you realize that something is missing. That’s because our world doesn’t really know what it means to forgive. Our world tells us forgiveness is something that is totally crazy when the reality is that we have to stop and look at how Jesus shows us what it means to forgive. You see today forgiveness is often equated with just a feeling. If someone wrongs, we have to just sort of figure out a way to cope with the emotion. I’ll tell you I’m sorry so it makes us all feel better. Forgiveness today is reduced to simply forgetting about the wrong and moving on. But not only is it dishonest, but it also only serves to suppress the pain which will undoubtedly come roaring back later in life.

You see, true forgiveness requires honesty. It requires us to admit that a transgression has occurred. True forgiveness requires us to admit the pain and suffering we have experienced, before calling us to an honest recognition that the person who hurt us is actually in debt to us. The person who hurt actually owes us something. When is the last time you heard tell you that? But, while justice demands that those who offend us give us what is owed to us, it belongs to the state to administer justice. We as Christians are not called to justice but to forgiveness, which demands that we release our transgressor for the debts they owe us. That’s what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness is the free and conscious choice to release someone of the debt they owe us, to set another person free. Forgiveness is the choice in our own mid to say yes you hurt, yes you owe me something, but I am not going to collect on my debt. Why? Well for two reasons. You remember last Sunday’s gospel? That challenging gospel that teaches us sometimes we must correct others. Jesus tells us we must correct them because we love them and if we love them, we want what is best for them. Therefore, when someone hurts me, I am still called to love them, to still will the best for them. Therefore, they might in justice owe me something and that is for the state to figure out, but on the personal level, I am called to love them and what is best for them is to release them from that debt as we see in the parable in today’s Gospel.

Forgiveness has nothing to do with our own feelings. It is rooted in the choice to love someone who has hurt us by only desiring what is best for them. Since forgiveness is a choice and not a feeling it is often the case that we can release someone from the debt they owe us and still experience the sting of what they took from us. Forgiveness is not a choice to make ourselves feel better it is the choice to release someone from the debt they owe us. And as we release them from that debt we don’t necessarily put the transgression behind us or pretend that it didn’t happen. No, we enter into the transgression. We acknowledge the truth of what has happened and we do the hard work of healing.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that everything returns to how it was before the transgression occurred; oftentimes that is impossible. Rather forgiveness releasees the transgressor and we move forward with our own healing. Unless we take the first step of releasing the offender of what they owe us we can never move forward with our own healing. Afterall how can we expect to heal in our own lives if we refuse to release the one who has harmed us?

True forgiveness is ultimately rooted in humility. It demands that we step back from the present situation and acknowledge that “no one is strong enough to travel the entire path of salvation unaided. “All have sinned, all needs the Lord’s mercy, the love of the crucified one.”[5] Forgiveness calls us to reconcile that just as we have been hurt by someone, we too have hurt others and that we must have our sins forgiven just as we forgive the sins of others. It’s that line in the Lord’s prayer that we will pray in just a few moments; “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”[6]

Forgiveness at its core, when we struggle to forgive calls us to look at the crucifix and acknowledge that God who committee no sin Himself, to forgive us of our sins. To be a Christian means to follow Christ, which means to become one who has loved as Christ loves. God has loved us so much that when we hurt Him, He forgave us at the price of sending His own Son into the world. Jesus show us that forgiveness is not a word that we utter, but rather the hard work of releasing someone from what they owe us. It demands that we enter into dysfunction, pain, and suffering to address it.

My friends to be a Christian means “to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in us. While it’s hard it’s possible. If we are going to be a Christian, Jesus is clear, we must forgive those who have sinned against us. Why? Because we are called to love our neighbor as yourself, we are called to will the best for them. Secondly, because we too are sinners and we need that mercy and forgiveness from others as well.

[1] Matthew 16:16

[2] Matthew 16:17

[3] Matthew 16:24

[4] John 14:6

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Part II. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006. Pgs 151 – 152.

[6] Matthew 6:12

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