Too bad we can't make Sunday's second
reading (Rom 14: 7-9) our first. Paul's advice to the Romans, "None
of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself," holds the key
for interpreting the passages from Sirach (27: 30-28:7) and Matthew (18:
21-35), which address our obligation to forgive others.
Sirach summarizes his theology in two lines:
"Should they nourish anger against their fellows and expect healing
from Yahweh? Should they refuse mercy to their fellows, yet seek pardon for
their own sins?"
Matthew's Jesus delivers a parallel statement
to His disciples: "So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of
you forgives your brothers and sisters from your heart."
Why does God's forgiveness of us depend on
our forgiveness of others?
Most of us learned about forgiveness within the
structure of sacramental confession. Drilled in the things necessary for
being forgiven by the priest in the confessional, we were careful to
adequately examine our conscience, tell all our serious sins by kind and
number, be sincerely sorry for them, and quickly perform our penance.
We were taught that, when we successfully
completed those requirements, God forgave our sins. To forgive those who had
sinned against us was, at most, something we did for "extra
The only problem with such a legalistic, secure
approach is that both Sirach and Jesus turn an element - which many of us
consider incidental - into an essential part of the process of
As I mentioned above, their reasoning is based
on Paul's comments to the community in Rome. He immediately follows his
statement about living for oneself with the remark, "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."
Paul is trying to get his readers to look at
themselves from a perspective most people never notice. As a good Jew, the
Apostle deeply believes in the statement in Genesis 1:27: "God created
man in His image, in the divine image He created him; male and female, He
Archaeologists have never discovered a statue,
fresco or bas-relief of Yahweh. We know from the Ten Commandments that Jews
were forbidden to create an image of their God. They believed Yahweh had
already taken care of that by creating human beings. We are the
"idol" or likeness of our God.
I remember, as a child, asking one of my
teachers, "What actual part of me mirrors God?" I don't remember
the exact response, but it wasn't very satisfactory. Years later, as a
student of Scripture, I learned that the part of me which best demonstrates
I'm made in God's image and likeness is the part that forgives others.
As the late Scripture scholar Sister Suzanne
Schrautemyer once observed, "The only thing of God we humans can
consistently imitate is God's forgiveness." If we're not forgiving
people, we can't be God's people.
Notice how Matthew's Jesus completely
reverses Lamech's boast in Genesis. "I have killed a man for wounding
me," the bully brags, "a boy for bruising me. If Cain is avenged
sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold." Jesus commands His followers
to forgive one another "not seven times, but 70 times seven
If we're to reflect God's likeness to those
around us, it's essential that we forgive. To refuse pardon has dire
consequences. Among other things, we're announcing to everyone that God
How can we expect to be absolved by someone
who, as we've already demonstrated by our lifestyle of non-forgiveness,
doesn't forgive? Unless we show by our acts of forgiving that God
forgives, we're really up a creek when we sin.