24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

You probably know that our readings, whether they’re for Sundays, weekdays, or feast days, follow a three year cycle.  Today is the 24th Sunday of ordinary time.  The readings today are the same ones we read three years ago and we’ll read them again in another three years.  The cycle never changes.


Knowing that, it’s amazing how the readings always seem to fit the day where they fall.  Today is a good example.  If nothing else, our first reading and our Gospel today show just how difficult it is for us to follow Christ.  Sometimes the things He asks us to do are almost beyond our nature as human beings.


This weekend we remember the senseless attacks on our nation ten years ago this weekend.  3,000 Americans died on September 11, 2001.  Just a few weeks ago we finally located the so-called mastermind of the attacks, Osama Bin Laden and he was killed.  How did you feel when you heard the news?  For that matter, how did you feel ten years ago.  President Bush vowed that we would find whoever was responsible for the attacks and bring him (or them) to justice.  His approval rating went through the roof.


We’re the United States of America.  Nobody attacks us.  There hasn’t been a foreign attack on American soil since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  We couldn’t let this pass.  Someone had to pay.


But look at today’s readings.  The Book of Sirach says that “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.”

I suppose there are some people who find this an easy lesson to follow, but for most of us, it’s pretty hard.


Then, in Matthew’s Gospel Peter asks Jesus “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  How does Jesus answer.  No, Peter, “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  Then He goes on to tell the parable of the ungrateful servant.


At least, Sirach only told us to forgive.  Jesus really raised the bar when He said we have to forgive seventy-seven times.  Let me see if I get this straight.  Osama Bin Laden’s attack killed thousands of Americans and I’m supposed to forgive him seventy-seven times?  Or am I supposed to forgive him seventy-seven times for each person who died.  That’s like a quarter of a million times!  I might as well just go ahead and get fitted for an asbestos suit because I don’t think I can do that.  If I’m feeling extra-holy, I might be able to forgive him once, maybe even twice, but seventy-seven times, or maybe more than 200,000 times?  He might as well tell me I have to run a marathon.  In fact, that’s a pretty good analogy.


Give me enough time, enough practice, enough motivation and eventually I could run a marathon.  And, I suppose, given enough time, enough prayer, enough spiritual reading, maybe I could forgive Osama seventy-seven times.  I suppose we all could.  Like a marathon, it starts with a single step.  Then you do it again, and again, and again.


I think that’s why today’s readings are so appropriate for this weekend.  We’re being asked to do something so hard, so far out of our comfort zone, that it’s pretty clear that our salvation isn’t a slam dunk.  Like Sirach says, “Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins?”  Jesus says “no”.  The master turned the ungrateful servant over to the torturers.  He says, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.


There’s a difference between justice and revenge.  Jesus didn’t condemn the master for torturing the ungrateful servant.  In those days torture was an accepted form of justice for a servant who did something wrong.  He did condemn the servant because he choked the man who owed him money even though justice had been done when the master forgave his debt.


I’m sure you remember where you were when you heard the news that the World Trade Center towers had been hit.  It’s one of those moments that sticks with you forever.  But where were you on September 16, 2001, five days later?  Here’s a clue.  It was a Sunday.  I’m going to bet that you were in church.  Everybody was in church.  It was like Christmas.  Face it, when disaster happens people think about God, even people who never think of Him any other time.


The crowds stayed big for a few weeks, but gradually things got back to normal.  See, for some people, even the simple act of showing up once a week is too hard.  We all know that weekly mass attendance is just the starting point for a holy life.  Throw in forgiveness, obedience, charity, and all the other things that make a person a good Christian and some folks just can’t be bothered.  It’s just so darned hard.


But we know better, don’t we?  What we also know is this.  We Catholics love to say the Lord’s prayer.  We pray it at every mass, and many of us pray it throughout the day.  What do we ask God?  “Forgive us our trespasses AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US.”


Is that what we really want?  Do we just want God to forgive us in the half-hearted way that we forgive others?  Or do we want Him, the all-powerful Creator of the Universe to forgive us as only He can?  I know that’s what I want.  None of us knows for sure, but I believe that if we give God our best, He’ll give us His best.  And our human minds can’t even imagine just how good that is.


So take the first spiritual step.  This weekend when you pray for those who died on 9/11, and for their families who have to go on without them, say a prayer for the terrorists, and those who would be terrorists.  Pray for a softening of hearts, the end of hate, and peace in the world.  I know it’s not easy, but it’s what God wants us to do.  We can keep the hate going, or we can turn it into something positive.


“If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?”


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