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24th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)

Readings:
Sirach 27:30-28:7
Psalm 103:1-4, 9-12
Romans 14:7-9
Matthew 18:21-35

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for mankind, and that is the reason we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Lord, Forgive us our Sins as We Forgive Those Who Sin Against Us
The Christian's duty to love as Christ loves us has been the theme of the readings for the past three Sundays.  We demonstrate our love for Christ by showing the same mercy and forgiveness to others that God has shown to us. 

Mercy and forgiveness should be at the heart of the lives of those who love God.  However, as the First Reading reminds us, sometimes we stubbornly hold on to our anger and withhold our forgiveness when we feel wronged by someone.  The inspired writer in this Sunday's First Reading summarizes his message in 27:30-28:1, Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.  The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail.  Anger and wrath are abominations to God.  As for those who possess and act out these hateful actions, God will remember their transgressions.  The appeal in the First Reading is to seek peace and reconciliation instead of disharmony and discord.  Anger and discord are the result of a vengeful and unforgiving heart.    

Today's Responsorial Psalm encourages us to be merciful to others just as our Father in Heaven is merciful to us.  St. Thomas Aquinas eloquently expressed the message of our reading when he wrote: "So splendid is the grace of God and his love for us that he has done much more for us than we can ever comprehend" (Expositio in Credum, 61).

In our Second Reading, St. Paul reminds us that we do not belong to a world controlled by sin; Christians belong to Christ. We are no longer our own because we have been purchased by the Precious Blood Jesus shed for us on the altar of the Cross.  Extending our mercy and forgiveness to others is the best expression of our gratitude to Jesus for the mercy and forgiveness He extends to us. 

Jesus repeatedly warned us in the Gospels that when we withhold our forgiveness, our anger and desire for vengeance can become a hindrance to experiencing God's forgiveness for our sins (i.e., Mt 6:14-15; Mk 11:25).  In today's Gospel Reading, Jesus gives an example to His disciples to illustrate the necessity of forgiveness in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.

When Christians face the Judgment Throne of God and are held accountable for any sins committed against love, God will take our selfish desire to withhold forgiveness into account.  We are called to follow Jesus' example of forgiveness when, from the altar of the Cross, He cried out "Father, forgive them ..." (Mt 23:34).

The First Reading Sirach 27:30-28:7 ~ Forgive Others as God Forgives You
27:30 Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.  28:1 The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail.  2 Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.  3 Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD?  4 Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins?  5 If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?  6 Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin!  7 Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High's covenant, and overlook faults.

This book is one of the few Bible Books that tells us the name of the author.  According to Sirach 50:27, the author of the book is Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sira.  The earliest title of the book was apparently "Wisdom of the Son of Sira [Sirach]."  However, the title "Liber Ecclesiasticus," "Church Book," is found in some Greek and Latin manuscripts, probably due to the extensive use the Church made of this book in presenting moral teaching to catechumens.  Jesus ben Eleazar ben Sira lived in Jerusalem and wrote the book between 200 and 175 BC.  The text was later translated into the international language of Greek sometime after 132 BC by the author's grandson who also wrote a forward to the book which contains information about his grandfather, the book (which he testifies was originally written in Hebrew), and the circumstances under which he did the translation.  The Book of Sirach was apparently only known from the Greek and Latin manuscripts until the end of the 19th century.  Then, between 1896 and 1900, again in 1931, and several times since 1956, Hebrew manuscripts were discovered containing about two-thirds of the book, all of which agreed with the Greek texts. 

The Book of Sirach has always been recognized by the Catholic Church as divinely inspired and canonical except for the forward by the author's grandson.  Though not considered inspired Scripture, the forward is included because of its importance in the history of the book.  The Jews dropped the book from their canon in c. the Middle Ages, insisting that only books written in Hebrew could be included in their canon (no Hebrew copy was known at that time).  The Protestants dropped Sirach from their canon after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century AD along with six other books and parts of two others that were also dropped from the Jewish canon.  St. Jerome (342-420 AD) and the rabbis of his time quoted from it and knew the book in its original language.  See the comparison between the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Bible books.

The message of the inspired writer in the First Reading is summarized in 27:30-28:1, Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.  The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail.  Anger and wrath are abominations to God, and as for the sinners who possess and act out these hateful actions, God will remember their transgressions.  The appeal in this passage is to seek peace and reconciliation instead of disharmony and discord that are the antithesis of love and the result of a vengeful and unforgiving heart.   

In verses 3-5, Ben Sira asks three rhetorical questions:

The answer to the first two questions is "No."  The answer to the third rhetorical question was already given in verse 2:  Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.  Forgiveness for the sin of anger against a covenant brother/sister cannot be expiated until the sinner seeks reconciliation with his or her covenant brother/sister (Ex 23:4-5; Lev 19:17-18).  It is for this reason that we seek out our covenant brothers and sisters, extending them our love, in the greeting of peace at Mass.

6 Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin!  7 Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High's covenant, and overlook faults.
Verses 6-7 are a warning that one must be willing to offer forgiveness and to let go of the sin of an angry and a vindictive spirit before it is too late and death removes the possibility of reconciliation.  In verse 7, the words "Think of the commandments" is a reminder of the commandment from the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19:17-18 ~ You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart.  Though you may have to reprove your fellow man, do not incur sins because of him.  Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  I am the LORD.  Jesus alluded to the command from Leviticus 19:18 in Matthew 5:43 and quoted from it in Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:3 (using the Greek Septuagint translation) as the second of the two most important commandments of God:

The point of this teaching for the disciples of Jesus Christ, in the past and the present, is that we demonstrate our gratitude to God in our actions.  God has shown us His mercy and compassion by forgiving our sins, and we demonstrate our love when we show the same mercy, compassion, and forgiveness to others.  A spirit of forgiveness is a high-point of the Christian life.  Those hearts attuned to God's compassion are the hearts that can bear witness to the truth that love is stronger than sin. 

St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (347-407), wrote concerning today's passage,  "Although you may not deliberately do harm to your enemies, if you fail to show goodwill to them and leave the wound open on their souls, you are disobeying he commandment laid down by Christ.  How can you ask God to treat you with good grace, if you yourself do not show mercy to those who have sinned against you?" (De compunction, 1.5).  And the Catholic Catechism teaches: "Forgiveness is the fundamental condition of the reconciliation of the children of God with their heavenly Father and of men with one another" (CCC 2844).

Responsorial Psalm 103:1-4, 9-12 ~ God is Merciful
The response is: "The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion."

1 Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all my being, bless his holy name.  2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.
Response:
3 He pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills.  4 He redeems your life from destruction, crowns you with kindness and compassion.
Response:
9 He will not always chide, nor does he keep his wrath forever.  10 Not according to our sins does he deal with us, nor does he requite us according to our crimes.
Response:
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.  12 As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us.
Response:

This psalm, attributed to David, praises God for all the blessings He bestows upon the psalmist and the covenant people (verses 2-4, 9-12).  The survey of all that God has done for His people (summarized in verses 9-10) concludes by acknowledging the immensity of God's love for His people in verses 11-12.  St. Thomas Aquinas eloquently expresses the message of this passage: "So splendid is the grace of God and his love for us, that he has done much more for us than we can ever comprehend" (Expositio in Credum, 61).

The Second Reading Romans 14:7-9 ~ Living For Christ
7 None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.  8 For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's.  9 For this is why Christ died and came to life that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

From the time of our Christian Baptism, we no longer belong to the world, and we no longer belong to ourselves.  We belong to Christ!  We are no longer our own masters because Jesus has redeemed us by the shedding of His Precious Blood.  In 1 Corinthians 6:20, St. Paul writes, You are not your own property then, you have been bought at a price.  So use your body for the glory of God.  We have become Christ's servants, committed to Him body and soul.  Therefore, we live and die for the glory of God because He is the Lord of our life and our death.  We also live in the Body of Christ which is the Church; it is a communion of love communicated to us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. 

Living in harmony in this communion of love, if one member of the Body suffers then all suffer together, and if one member is honored then all the communion of believers, in heaven and on earth, rejoice.  As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:26-27, If one part is hurt, all the parts share its pain.  And if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.  Now Christ's body is yourselves, each of you with a part to play in the whole.  Concerning Romans 14:7-9, Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote, "The saints, therefore, do not live and do not die for themselves.  They do not live for themselves because, in all that they do, they strive for spiritual gain: by praying, preaching and persevering in good works, they seek the increase of the citizens of the heavenly fatherland.  Nor do they die for themselves because men see them glorifying God by their death, hastening to reach him through death" (Pope St. Gregory V: In Ezechielem homiliae, II, 10). See CCC# 946-948; 953

The Gospel of Matthew 18:21-35 ~ The Necessity of Christian Forgiveness and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
Our passage from the Gospel of Matthew for this Sunday is from the last two sections of Jesus' discourse that began in Matthew Chapter 18.  This part of Jesus' discourse concerns the obligation of the disciples to forgive brothers and sisters in the covenant family who have wronged them. 

Matthew 18:21-22 ~ Forgiving a Covenant Brother
21 Then Peter approaching asked him, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?  As many as seven times?"  22 Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times." 

St. Peter approaches Jesus and wants a clearer definition of how many times he is obligated to forgive someone who has wronged him.  The number Jesus gives Peter is significant, but it is not a number to be taken literally; Jesus gives a number that has a symbolic value.  The Greek number can be read as either seven times ten plus seven times = 77 times, or it can be understood as seven times ten times seven = 490 times.  In both cases, seven is the number of perfection, fulfillment, and completion.  It is also the number of the Holy Spirit and the number of covenant.  Ten is the number of divine government.  Taken together the numbers symbolize the spiritual perfection and fulfillment of divine government within the covenant with God.  The answer, in any event, is that Peter's forgiveness should be limitless.  See the document "The Significance of Numbers in Scripture."

What generates St. Peter's question to Jesus in verse 21 may be an exchange not recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.  In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus is teaching the disciples about forgiveness and says: "Be on your guard!  If your brother sins rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, 'I am sorry,' you should forgive him" (emphasis added).  If you approach Matthew 18:21-22 in light of the Luke passage, the interpretation is quite different.  In the exchange in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is speaking about the forgiveness between brothers/sisters within the community of believers and the command is to forgive seven times, using the number which symbolically expresses fullness and completion.  Perhaps St. Peter, as the spokesman of the disciples, is asking the question because he is looking for clarification since the rabbis considered three times forgiveness to be sufficient (Mishnah: Yoma, 86b-87a).  In any event, Jesus tells Peter he must forgive not seven times, as Jesus told the other disciples, but seventy-seven times or seventy times seven times—exercising the spiritual perfection and fulfillment of the Church's divine government.

When Peter asks for clarification on the perfection of brotherly forgiveness, one might ask why is Jesus' answer to Peter such a greater symbolic number than what Jesus gave to the other disciples in Luke 17:3-4?  The simple answer is that forgiveness to the repentant brother should have no limit.  However, considering Peter's status as the Vicar of Christ, Jesus' demand may be greater because the Church must be unlimited in offering forgiveness for sins even to the greatest sinner who seeks mercy—a requirement beyond the mere human capacity for forgiveness.

To illustrate His point, Jesus tells the disciples a parable.
Matthew 18:23-35 ~ The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
23 "That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.  24 When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount [a myriad of talents].  25 Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property in payment of the debt.  26 At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.'  27 Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.  28 When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount [one hundred denarii].  He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, 'Pay back what you owe.'  29 Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'  30 But he refused.  Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.  31 Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair.  32 His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant!  I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.  33 Should you not have pity on your fellow servant, as I have had pity on you?'  34 Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.  35 So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart." [...] = literal translation from the IBGE, vol. IV, page 54.

Jesus continues His teaching about forgiveness within the covenant community of His Kingdom of the Church in a parable that is an extension of His exchange with St. Peter.  In verse 24, the first servant owed the Master an incredibly large amount of money.  In ancient Greek, a "myriad of talents" is equal to ten thousand talents with a single talent being worth six thousand denarii.  A single denarius was equal to a day's wage for the typical laborer.  Therefore, the money owed the Master was an impossible sum for the servant to repay.  In contrast, the money the second servant owed was one hundred denarii which is equivalent to about 100 days of labor.  It was not an impossible sum to repay (Mitch and Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, page 234).

Keeping in mind that this is an allegory about the Church that is Christ's Kingdom, and each of the elements are symbolic:

  1. The Master is God.
  2. The servant who was deeply in debt to the Master is every Christian who comes to God in repentance asking for His mercy and forgiveness.
  3. The second servant who owed the first servant is any Christian who seeks forgiveness for having wronged a fellow Christian.
  4. The fellow servants of the household are the community of believers.
  5. The place where the debt is paid is Sheol/Purgatory.

Both servants/Christians begged for mercy.  The first servant asks the Master/God for mercy on account of his huge debt (debt of sin).  The second servant asks the servant to whom the Master/God had granted His mercy and forgiveness for the same compassion and mercy for his debt to (for having wronged) his fellow servant.  When the first servant refused to forgive the debt of the second servant, the Master/God's anger is justified since He offered the first servant/Christian sinner His bountiful forgiveness.  The Master/God's mercy was more than the servant/Christian deserved, and yet the first servant/Christian sinner was not willing to extend even a small portion of the forgiveness he received from his Master/God to his brother servant/Christian.  God the Master then judges the servant/Christian who refuses to forgive; his lack of forgiveness has cut him off from the Master/God's forgiveness.

Jesus gave this same teaching about being shown God's mercy and the requirement to extend the same mercy to others three times in the Sermon on the Mount:

  1. In the Beatitudes, Jesus said: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (Mt 5:7).
  2. In the Lord's Prayer Jesus said: "... and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors..." (Mt 6:12).
  3. In the verses that serve as a summation of the Lord's Prayer Jesus said: "If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions" (Mt 6:14-15).

The prison/torturers that the unforgiving servant was handed over to by the Master in verse 34 cannot be Hell/Gehenna as some have suggested.  Prison is temporary, but Hell/Gehenna is forever.  In the ancient world, prison was always a temporary confinement for someone who broke the law.  Criminals were either executed, or they were condemned to confinement until the debt/crime was "paid in full."  Jesus is very direct when He refers to eternal punishment.  He either refers directly to Gehenna (Mt 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33) or indirectly to Gehenna as the place of "wailing and grinding of teeth" (Mt 13:42, 50), or the place of unquenchable fire (Mt 7:19; 13:40, 42; 18:8, 9; 25:41).  This passage uses none of those descriptions.  Verse 34 states the debt can be paid and when the whole debt is paid the servant can be released.  There is no release from the Hell of the damned, but there is release from Hades (abode of the dead in Greek and Sheol in Hebrew), what we now call Purgatory, once one is purified of one's sins. 

Jesus uses the metaphor of prison and debt payment in referring to Sheol/Hades in His teaching about forgiveness in Mathew 5:25-26 ~"Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him.  Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.  Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny" (emphasis added; also see Lk 12:58-9).

St. Peter also refers to Sheol/Hades as a prison in 1 Peter 3:19: In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark ... referring to Jesus' descent into Sheol/Hades from His tomb (also see 1 Cor 3:10-15; CCC 633 and 1030-35).  The prison imagery for Sheol/Hades in 5:25-26 and the judicial imagery in both 5:25-26 and in 18: 34-35 connect these passages to the Church's judicial power to bind and loose sins in holding the keys to Sheol/Hades and heaven (see Mt 16:18-19; 18:18; Jn 20:22-23).  Withholding our forgiveness from those who seek it will not cost us our eternal salvation, but it will require the fiery purifying love of God in our penance owed for our sin-debt in Purgatory (see 1 Cor 3:12-15; CCC 1030-32). 

However, our lack of love can reach a point that puts our eternal salvation in jeopardy, as Jesus taught in Matthew 25:3-46.  It is best to remember St. John's advice in 1 John 4:20-21 ~ If anyone says, "I love God," but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.  This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Catechism References:
Sirach 27:30-28:7 (CCC 2844)
Psalm 103 (CCC 304)
Romans 14 (CCC 1971); 14:7 (CCC 953); 14:9 (CCC 668)
Matthew 18:21-35 18:21-22 (CCC 982, 2227, 2845); 18:23-35 (CCC 2843)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017