When anyone asked the earliest Christian preachers what they had to do in order to die with Jesus, they weren't given a set of nails and a cross, and told to go out and imitate Jesus' physical death. They were simply given the message we find in Sunday's three readings.
Paul reminds Rome's Christian community of Jesus' basic belief about dying (Rom 14: 7-9). "Brothers and sisters," he writes, "none of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord."
Like the historical Jesus, those who make a decision to give themselves over to God's will will certainly eexperience the daily death such dedication involves. We can't make someone else's plans the focal point of our existence and not have to die to our own plans.
Nowhere do our focal point and God's focal point diverge more than in the way we relate to others, especially those who have hurt us.
Already in ancient Judaism, the authors of Scripture encouraged their readers not to seek revenge (Sir 27:30-28:9). "Forgive your neighbor's injustice," Sirach tells his community in the first reading; "then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven....Remember your last days, and set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin! Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High's covenant, and overlook faults."
Sirach's advice is even more significant because neither he nor his community believe in an afterlife as we know it. He isn't against revenge because he's afraid we'll suffer in purgatory or hell because of it. He's against revenge because such actions will make us miserable right here and now. He knows Yahweh doesn't want us to have that kind of pain.
Matthew, writing for a Jewish/Christian community, presumes his readers are familiar with the Hebrew Scripture (Mt 18: 21-35). That's why only his Jesus tells Peter to forgive not just seven or seven times seven times, but 77 times. In this context of forgiveness, the number is an obvious reference to Genesis 4. There, history's first bully, Lamech, tells his two wives, "If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold."
Of course, in no place of the Hebrew Scriptures is anyone ever permitted to take such horrendous revenge. That's why Lamech's boast -- "I have killed a man for wounding me, a boy for bruising me" -- is so ridiculous.
But on the other hand, Jesus' replacement of revenge with forgiveness seems to be just as ridiculous to those who try to follow Him. If it weren't hard to carry out, Matthew wouldn't have included the 77 command in his Gospel. Along with Jesus, the evangelist asks, "Is there anyone who will actually die enough to forgive someone that much?"
Jesus has no problem providing us with an example of a prodigal forgiver. He's convinced that God forgives us more than 77 times. Yet our reluctance to forgive others implies we've never been forgiven ourselves. That's why Jesus tells the unbelievable parable of a servant for whom the king writes off the equivalent of a million-dollar debt, while that same servant later throws someone else in jail because he owes him a few hundred dollars!
How could anyone act in such a selfish way? Jesus believes that's exactly what we do when we refuse to "forgive our brothers and sisters from our heart."
My great-aunt once told me that when she entered the convent more than 80 years ago, she was given a hair shirt and a small whip. She was expected to use both as a way to join herself to Jesus' suffering.
If she entered the convent today, her religious superiors would probably just give her our three Scripture passages.