Recently, I caught an interview with a Holocaust survivor. He was in his 90’s and if I remember correctly, he was the only one in his family to survive. What struck me at the time were his comments on forgiveness. When asked by the interviewer about his approach to his captors, he offered that his journey to forgiveness was an act of self-healing. He shared that he had lived with hate for many years and discovered that he was the one keeping himself in prison. Forgiveness, according to this Holocaust survivor was a journey to “self-healing, self-empowerment, and self-liberation.”
Today’s Gospel, taken from the end of the 18th chapter of Matthew is Jesus’ fifth discourse, or teaching, to his community. Scholars suggest that this discourse is connected to Chapters Nine and Ten where Jesus is teaching the disciples about mission, his disciples are named and summoned into mission. We come to the end of this chapter which began with Jesus teaching on becoming like little children and encouraging us to take great care not to cause any harm to the little ones. We hear about the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd leaves the 99 to go find the 1. Being in community is that important to the shepherd. Each of us counts in the eyes of God. Today’s text corresponds with Jesus reminding the community about how they are to behave towards each other. We are to live in harmony with the community, always in right relationship because this is our true freedom. One commentary I read recently suggested that perhaps Jesus knew well the challenges of living in community and how our personalities would clash. We hold on to unforgiveness like a dear friend. When we are out of step with our true nature, we are essentially off-balance and out of harmony with God’s desire for our lives.
We are reminded of a debt that is impossible to repay and like the unforgiving servant, we can often impose that debt of unforgiveness on others. We put them in prison even while we know we have been released from our debt. Does this make sense? Jesus’ warning is clear, we have been forgiven and so we must make every effort to offer that freedom to others. This is how we are to conduct ourselves; this is true liberation.
The Book of Sirach reflects the same idea in our first reading, taken from the Wisdom writings of the Hebrew Bible. It offers a reflection of Jesus’ teachings which would not be new to his audience. In our journey to forgiveness, we learn more about life and ourselves. It asks us to offer mercy to each other and in so doing we can recognize mercy for ourselves. The psalmist endorses this, “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and rich in compassion.” Similarly, Paul’s words to the Romans build on this, “no one lives for oneself… whether we live or die, we are the Lords” (v.7). As Christians, we are all called to live in unity. Jesus offers us his final teaching on how to be community. We must be awake and prevent our humanity from getting in the way of abundant life. (John 10:10)
May we live in such a way as to recognize the gift of mercy and offer that to others. Come, Lord, change our hearts and make us truly united in your Spirit. Amen.
Jean Bowler is a retreatant at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center in Sierra Madre, California, and a member of the Office of Mission Effectiveness Board of Holy Cross Province.