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For listener supported My Spiritual Advisor, this is Fr. Mark Kurowski with a reflection for Sunday, 9/13/2020 The 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Please pause this audio and read Matthew 18:21-35.
“When can I take my revenge?”
That is the question that Peter is asking here in this passage from the Gospel of Matthew for today. He knows he must forgive, but at what point does forgiveness stop? When can I get an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Even better, when can I hit back harder in multiples that will destroy the other person?
Unless we have some psychological issues that need to be addressed, we usually do not ask the question as openly as “When can I take my revenge?” What we normally do is we couch it in other ideas. “I have a right!” is always a good excuse. “It is not fair!” “How could you do this to me!” Even, “How many times must I put up with this?” which is really, “How many times must I forgive?” All of these and more are the justifications that we have for not forgiving others and, in fact, are excuses for us to exact our revenge.
This is not new. In fact, the issue of revenge is dealt with in the Scriptures as early as Genesis 4.17-24. Lamech, a descendant of Cain of “Cain and Abel” fame, says this, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.”
It is to this that this teaching of Jesus is alluding. Peter cites forgiveness to the parallel for the avenging of the Lord for Cain if anyone should decide to take out vengeance for Abel’s death. It was this sevenfold vengeance of the Lord that was to protect Cain because the Lord had punished him sufficiently by giving him a life sentence in exile for murder. What Peter is doing in our Gospel lesson is thinking of God’s protection of Cain as the limit. Peter is thinking, “I only need to wait until they sin against me seven times and then, POW, I can exact my revenge!”
To this idea, Jesus takes and reverses Lamech’s rule of vengeance. Where Lamech would kill a man because he got hit in the nose, giving the other an ultimate penalty for a minor offense, Jesus says this is the measure we should use for forgiveness. So, when someone injures us through sin, our response should not be to pound them with violence, but to subdue them with forgiveness.
This is not to say that there is no limit to God’s mercy because this teaching Jesus gives us shows that God does indeed have a limit to his mercy. The story that is told is one that shows for those who have no mercy, there will be no mercy. We ought not be shocked by this.
Matthew 7:2 says, “With the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” There is this famous one in Matthew 6:12, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” This last one has a very interesting situation. Here is why:
We are a unique creature in the hierarchy of being. In the hierarchy of being there is a scale of higher being based upon our will and intellect. At the bottom of being are rocks and dirt. They have no will, they cannot move themselves. They have no intellect. Plant life is next which has some genetic will that is acted upon by the elements which triggers movement and growth. The next higher beings are animals which have intellect and will related to their surroundings. Yet, they are still acted upon by other things, but have no concept of the eternal, the spiritual. The last higher beings on earth are humans who can do things the animals, plants, and rocks cannot. We have intellect that designs things and can do mind experiments. We can will that something be done and do it with great complexity. We, also, can perceive a universe beyond us, and ultimately we perceive there is God. This perception of God shows us that we are not only physical and intellectual beings, but we are spiritual beings. We are beings that are most like God here on earth.
We are the only beings in the hierarchy of being that are subject to the ever changing physical world and also part of the never changing spiritual world. Above us are the angels, spiritual beings, who have will and intellect that are knowledgeable of the spiritual. This is why demons, who are fallen angels, know that Jesus is the Son of God. Angels, incidentally, have will to make one choice. Once they have chosen, it is permanent forever. This is why fallen angels are not redeemable. We, on the other hand, because we are physical and spiritual, have the ability to be converted. Of course, at the top of the hierarchy of being is God, who has all will and all intellect, whose decrees are everlasting and who does not change. He is everlasting to everlasting God.
Why is this important? It is important because when we sin, we sin not only in this earthly world with effects upon others physically and emotionally, but because we are spiritual beings, we also sin against them spiritually in the eternal realm. Like the angels’ choice which is permanent and spiritual, our sins have an impact in the spiritual realm. The spiritual price of our sins is infinite. I would like us to pause on that a moment and think about that: our sins have an everlasting impact. They are not just here and in our heart, they are in the universe screwing things up.
What, do you suppose, could we do in our humanity, to repay that debt to God for screwing up his universe with the impact of our sin? It is a sum that we just don’t even have the minutest ability to pay. All we have left is to throw ourselves upon the sanctuary steps before the altar and beg forgiveness of our debt.
This, my friends, is the same situation of the servant who owed the king ten thousand talents. A talent is about 20 times the average wage of a worker. So, in the United States, if we were to take the hourly wage of $15 per hour, that is $600 per week. It is roughly $31,200 per year. Now, a single talent is 20 times that amount. It is $624,000. Ten thousand talents is $6.2 billion dollars in today’s wages. So, the amount owed to the king is an amazing sum. It is as insurmountable as the amount that we owe to God for a single sin because of the spiritual universal impact of our sins.
It makes sense that the servant would beg for time because that is all he has left. Yet, the response of the king was pity and forgiveness of the entire debt, all $6.2 billion of it. A single sin is worth so much more than $6.2 billion. It disorders the universe and the world in which we live. Look, for those who believe the science of climate change, the sins of polluting the earth are visible and tangible to us. We are disordering the earth and universe causing disease by our selfishness. It is a sin of which we can see the impact physically, but even at that, our sin is out there in the universe causing eternal disorder.
Now, imagine, if you will, God comes to us in humanity, fully human with the ability to change things, and fully divine with all that entails. This God-man comes and takes on our sins with both their eternal and earthly impacts and offers his eternal being inextricably intertwined to his humanity as a sacrifice for our eternal spiritual and earthly debt for our sin. What is our reaction to that?
Everyone in the Church knows that their sins have been forgiven, and the debt of that sin is forgiven. We are a people who all gather here and say, “Lord, thank you for forgiving my sins!” We are the servant whose $6.2 billion debt has been forgiven. Yet, if we follow Peter’s logic, we would only forgive seven times someone who has sinned against us? Remember, Peter is only asking how many times he has to forgive someone who is a member of the Church. That is the context of this passage.
So, we, who have experienced the $6.2 billion forgiveness for the debt of our sin, would then go and only allow someone seven times at forgiveness! No way! We are baptized into Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is fully God. We have been made divine. Would we then, reject our divinity within us? No! One of the marks of a church community should be how forgiving we are because we are all one body of Jesus Christ the Savior from the Sins of the World.
Does forgiveness mean we allow bad behavior to rule? No. It means we treat others with kindness and boundaries. I forgive you, but if you are continually doing the same sin, I am not going to give you the opportunity to do it again. As a therapist friend of mine likes to say, “I can let you into my personal space living room, but you may not come into my personal space kitchen, and absolutely not into my personal space bedroom.” Some people we only meet in our personal space front door. Forgiveness means I am not going to punish you. Especially seventy times seven for a minor offense. Lamech was wrong. Cain was wrong and God forgave him, yet put boundaries around his behavior.
Yet, what is even more important to us is that mercy triumphs over judgment, as St. James says. People of the Church are to be merciful, especially to one another. We know the forgiveness of the Lord for our eternal offenses. Revenge is not part of that equation at all. We then, must give the same forgiveness of others’ trespasses as our trespasses have been forgiven by our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be his name. This is his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
May God bless the preaching of his Gospel in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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Mark Kurowski, M.Div.
Spiritual Director, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Theologian