A “THING” FOR FORGIVENESS – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 19, Year A; Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (RC)

September 17, 2023

Revised Common Lectionary
Exodus 14:19-31 or Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 or Psalm 103:(1-7) 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35


Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Sirach 27:30 – 28:7
Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12 (8)
Romans 17:7-9
Matthew 18:21-35

Jesus seems to have a “thing” for forgiveness.

That’s because the God whom Jesus called Abba also has a “thing” for forgiveness. And mercy. And compassion.

Today’s Psalm celebrates this very quality of God: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8). This song of praise is filled with words and phrases that express the overwhelming breadth and depth of God’s mercy. “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him” (Ps 103:11). God’s mercy for sinful people knows no limits.

The Gospel reading we hear today challenges us to extend forgiveness and compassion just as lavishly as this God of never-ending mercy. The passage begins with a query from Peter: “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive”? Perhaps thinking Jesus would be impressed by his generosity of spirit, Peter suggests an answer to his own question: “As many as seven times?” (Mt 18:21) After all, within Jewish culture, the number seven signified perfection.

Not good enough, says Jesus: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:22). Jesus then launches into a parable that suggests that Peter may have been asking the wrong question. The story is concerned less with how many times to forgive than with the spirit of compassion that should guide our every encounter.

The story invites us to consider how we ourselves have been on the receiving end of God’s abundant merciful love. If we reflect honestly on our lives, we will recognize our need for forgiveness—that we have injured others, strayed from our commitments, ignored those in need, neglected to stand up for justice. Yet no matter what we’ve done or failed to do, God—like the king in today’s parable—is ready to wipe out our sin and set us free from shame and guilt. Just like that.

So far, so good, right? The parable then turns the question on us: Are we ready to forgive as freely and as generously as God has forgiven us? God’s vision for the world is based on the transforming power of forgiveness. When we come face to face with our own wrongdoing and ponder the depth of divine love that sets us free, we begin to see others as God sees them—and to love them as God loves them. The question, Jesus suggests, is not the number of times but the depth of our forgiveness. You must, he teaches, “forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Mt 18:35). We are to forgive as God forgives.

Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, during the Sermon on the Mount, we heard this same teaching as Jesus spoke about prayer. He taught his followers to ask, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12). When we say the Lord’s Prayer together or alone, we stipulate that we are onboard with this divine plan for forgiveness and have put it into practice, both as individuals and as a community. Jesus singles out this one petition of the prayer for comment: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14-15).

Imagine a world in which the spirit of this teaching permeates personal relationships, neighborhood contacts, criminal justice, political activity, and international relations—not to mention church life. Forgiveness does not imply surrender to injustice or abuse, but it does provide an alternative way of framing relationships in a spirit of openness and with concern for the good of all, including those who have done wrong.

God has forgiven us. Now we are called to be like the God who has a “thing” for forgiveness.

A Hymn for Today: “God, How Can We Forgive”

Forgiving a deep hurt can be extremely difficult. Hymnwriter Ruth Duck, FHS, expresses the Christian struggle to forgive while recognizing the depth of forgiveness that we receive from God. Listen here.

God, how can we forgive
when bonds of love are torn?
How can we rise and start anew,
our trust reborn?
When human loving fails
and every hope is gone,
your love gives strength beyond our own,
to face the dawn.

When we have missed the mark,
and tears of anguish flow,
how can you still release our guilt,
the debt we owe?
The ocean depth of grace
surpasses all our needs.
A priest who shares our human pain,
Christ intercedes.

Who dares to throw the stone
to damn another’s sin,
when you, while knowing all our past,
forgive again?
No more we play the judge,
for by your grace we live.
As you, O God, forgive our sin,
may we forgive.

Text: Ruth Duck, b. 1947. © 1996, The Pilgrim Press. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857.

Image Credit: Forgiveness, Wikimedia Commons

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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