Forgiveness and mercy are not well understood or practiced in our day.
It’s like the Church knows all that was going to happen in some weird way and arranged the lectionary readings for times such as we live in.
Our readings today are not different. I want to offer my own reflection on the texts for this Sunday. Our readings (leaving out the Epistle) were:
Psalm 103:1-4, 9-12
Let’s consider our Gospel reading first. I feel like we need some context. At the beginning of Matthew 18, the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.
Can we just take a second and realize that the disciples just weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed?! I mean, for real. These guys had been learning from and living with Jesus day in and day out for quite awhile, watching Him heal sick people and multiply fish and bread…and then they ask dumb questions like this.
If I’m being honest, it kinda gives me comfort. If these dudes don’t get it after all this time, I don’t feel so bad about myself when I don’t “get it” at times either. But, thanks be to God He uses guys like Peter and guys like you and me.
Anyways, context is important so we need to look at it. They ask Jesus who is the greatest. Jesus, being all Jesus, tells them stories rather than give them a direct answer. He brings a child among them and tells them to be humble like a child. Then He tells them to pluck out their eyeballs and cut off their hand rather than be tempted to sin (that seems a little harsh). Then He tells the parable of the lost sheep and how to respond to those who refuse to repent. Then He gives them the authority to forgive sins.
It was a pretty serious conversation.
Now we pick up where our reading today begins. Peter, after just hearing all this, opens up his big mouth and says, “How many times should I forgive someone who sins against me?”
I would have paid money to see the look on Jesus’ face when that bone-headed question came out of St. Peter’s mouth.
So Jesus, being all Jesus, tells another story. He tells a story to compare Peter’s (and our) understanding of forgiveness and mercy to the heavenly understanding of forgiveness and mercy. Do you see that?
See, our understanding of forgiveness and mercy is based on self.
What do I get out of it?
What’s in it for me?
What’s the least I have to do?
That’s all implied in Peter’s question. In effect, he’s saying, “Jesus, tell me the least I have to do.” He didn’t ask that Jesus make him humble like a child and free him from sin and fall on his face saying ‘I’m not worthy’ when Jesus gives him authority to forgive sins. No, Peter wants to know what’s the least I gotta do?
We’re exactly the same as Peter. I mean, if we’re being honest with ourselves. We’re not really interested in knowing what Jesus wants from us, not really. We just want to get by with the least we can do. We don’t really want to be humble like a child; we don’t really want to radically obey Him and be willing to give up anything (even a limb) if it meant being closer to Him; we don’t really want to know about forgiveness and mercy. If we did, we wouldn’t be like Peter or the wicked servant in the parable.
But we are.
What is Jesus saying to us then? How are we to respond?
Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom of God is different. In the Kingdom, the King is overly kind and generous, forgiving us a debt we cannot possibly pay. In the Kingdom, we forgive as we have been forgiven. There are expectations of us if we are part of the Kingdom. He expects us to forgive as He forgives. After all, the petty things that people say to us and do to us pale in comparison to the cosmic treason we have committed against our Creator, our Lord and King!
Sirach 8:2-7 reminds us,
“Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does a man harbor anger against another, and yet seek for healing from the Lord? Does he have no mercy toward a man like himself, and yet pray for his own sins? If he himself, being flesh, maintains wrath, will he then seek forgiveness from God? Who will make expiation for his sins? Remember the end of your life, and cease from enmity, remember destruction and death, and be true to the commandments. Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbor; remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook ignorance.”
Who God is and what He demands of us as we follow Him aren’t always easy. But let us remember who God is!
King David reminds us in Psalm 103 that the Lord forgives iniquities and heals our diseases (vs. 3), He redeems our life from the Pit and crowns us with mercy and compassion (vs. 4), He will not always chide nor keep His anger forever (vs. 9), He does not deal with us according to our sins (vs. 10) but, in His mercy, removes our sins as far as the east is from the west (vs. 12)!
Oh Church, look upon the mercy of our great God! See how He has forgiven us in the blood of the Son! By our faith in the perfect and spotless slain Lamb of God, our sins are removed and we who were once servants who could not possibly pay the debt we owe are now called children of God; sons and daughters of the Most High!
Oh Church, let us give Him thanks and praise for His everlasting mercy! He does not deal with us according to our sins but according to His great love which He has shown to us in Christ our Lord!
Thanks be to God!