Seventy Times Seven

Twenty-Four Sunday-A

The first reading on the twenty-fourth Sunday from the book of Sirach is the source for much of this reflection. This book of the Old Testament is not acknowledged by Protestants but is viewed by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Churches as a reliable and canonical text. The theme of Sirach is an ethical treatise on human life, and today’s message focuses on the often-difficult aspect of human existence—forgiveness.

Sirach states, “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. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your sins will be forgiven.”  The wisdom of this sentence is without argument. However, it is hard to apply it when someone has sinned against us precisely because we tend to focus on the one action alone and quite conveniently forget we are all sinners who have caused harm to others and need forgiveness and mercy ourselves.

When we have this amnesia, we risk going to a dark place where vengeance becomes the motivating factor, hardening our hearts. Then, our ability to love is threatened. We can’t contend that we love the person who sinned against us if we refuse to forgive, nor can we say we love God because forgiveness is an expression of love. St. John reminds us, “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.”

When Jesus provides an answer to Peter’s question about whether seven times a day he must forgive his brother, Jesus responds by saying he must forgive seventy times seven times.  In other words, if we are unwilling to forgive our neighbor, we will have broken two commandments by not loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. That places us in the same predicament as the one who offended us, a sinner who needs God’s mercy and forgiveness. 

But we rarely think about it that way because of the emotional and perhaps physical harm another has caused us by his sin. Then we rationalize by telling ourselves there must be conditions to my forgiveness. No one wants to be a doormat, and if we so easily forgive, it invites another to commit the same offense in the future by walking all over us today.  Or, we think we are better than our sinful brother and demand our forgiveness be tethered to a promise they will never do it again. These rationalizations keep us from reconciliation, leading to a heart of stone incapable of realizing our need to reconcile our lives with God.

When someone sins against us, it does have an effect, but it is not the reason to forgo forgiveness. When Christians refuse a tit-for-tat response, they fulfill their duty to love God and their neighbor. We often erroneously think our lack of love somehow hurts the other, when in reality, the lack of forgiveness only hurts ourselves. The transgressor has probably moved on while we ferment the vengeance years later.  The continued victimhood we keep resuscitating by refusing to forgive is an ongoing self-inflicted wound that continues to harm us long into the future.   

The rarely-read part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses this issue so perfectly. “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense, but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory into transforming the hurt into intercession.”  

And in another place in the Catechism, “Christian prayer extends to the forgiveness of enemies, transfiguring the disciple by configuring him to his Master. Forgiveness is the high point of Christian prayer; only hearts attuned to God’s compassion can receive the gift of prayer. Forgiveness also bears witness that, in our world, love is stronger than sin. The martyrs of yesterday and today bear this witness to Jesus. Forgiveness is the fundamental condition of the reconciliation of the children of God with their Father and men with one another.”

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