Yesterday I wrote about how sometimes words are not enough, but perhaps I should have qualified my statement, saying instead that hunan words are sometimes not enough. God’s Word is another story.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, many all across the world were asking “where is God?” and in the years that followed equally as many struggled with what the morally just response might look like. Today’s scripture provides us with a startling and powerfully appropriate set of readings that help illustrate what a response might look like to that question.
It is completely coincidental, so it might first seem, that the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 would fall on a Sunday and that these readings, which because today happens to be a Sunday in Ordinary time, appear once every three years so happen to fit today perfectly. God does answer our prayers, concerns and questions — just not always as we might want, and just not always as quickly.
The readings for today, which come to us from the book of Sirach (also known as the Wisdom of ben Sirah), Romans and the Gospel of Matthew, speak directly to our situation as survivors and mourners of a tragedy that so deeply affected our communities, nation and world ten years ago and since. The Scripture given to us today may difficult for some to hear, especially amid the noise of suffering and the drone of pain. But we must hear it nonetheless.
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 own sins will be forgiven.
Could anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?
Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself,
can he seek pardon for his own sins?
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
who will forgive his sins?
Remember your last days, 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 27:30 – 28:7)
From the opening words, “Wrath and anger are hateful things,” to the closing, “…hate not your neighbor,” we are reminded of what it means to be called the Body of Christ and to bear the name of the one who gave His life for the life of the world. There is nothing more that needs to be said that the wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures, of a community’s covenantal relationship with its Creator, reveals to us in the first reading.
It speaks for itself, and it speaks to us.
In what is an unusual consistency, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans also speaks to our hearts today, continuing the theme of remembrance and response. Paul’s words are words of comfort and edification, reminding his audience that it is because of what Christ has done for us in His life, death and resurrection, that we have hope and the dead are not lost.
Brothers and sisters:
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;
so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
For this is why Christ died and came to life,
that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Romans 14:7-9)
The Gospel really challenges us today. The words of Jesus ring out like the clearest bell sounding a call to action, a call to peace, a call to prayer that is so much easier to hear, with its beautiful tonal quality, than it is to live, with its demand that we move beyond ourselves to live as those created in God’s image and likeness.
Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
What follows is Jesus’s very concrete illustration of what this means in practical, daily terms, as he tells the story of a King and an ungrateful servant. The servant is forgiven his debt, but goes and unjustly holds another accountable for a far more insignificant debt. The king, gracious in his forgiveness, sees what the ungrateful servant has done and punishes him severely.
Jesus warns that we are in the place of the servant, we have been forgiven so very much by God each and every day. It is now our turn to forgive others, as impossible as that might seem at times.
The message for the community of faith today is clear: forgive, forgive, forgive! We can take comfort in the words of the Apostle Paul, knowing that those we pause to remember today who have passed from this life to the next are with Christ and await us someday in hope. But we must also listen to Sirach and Jesus, as we know deep within, that who we are as human beings, and especially as Christians, will be revealed in how we respond to the call to forgive.