Sept. 17, 2017: 24th Sunday A
On one Sunday morning mass at St. James Catholic Church in St. James, the pastor delivered a powerful message about the justice of God. He pointed out that justice is due to those who disrespect others. This fire-and-brimstone homily deeply touched a number of boys and their parents sitting in the congregation that morning. The pastor was directing his homily to a particular group of boys who disturbed the peace and disrespected private property the previous day. He ended his homily with this command, “To the parents of these boys, I expect you to serve justice!!” What did these boys do to earn such displeasure from their parish priest? More on that later.
When you hear someone say that justice needs to be served, what comes to mind? Perhaps, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’? Our first reading from the Book of Sirach puts it this way, “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. 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?” Some of us would interpret this to mean that if we want God to forgive us our own sins then we must forgive our neighbor. So out of fear of God’s retribution, we should forgive. But is this the true meaning of forgiveness that Book of Sirach and the Gospel are trying to convey? Or, is it more accurate to say that we will never truly see how much patience and compassion God extends toward us because anger and vengeance blinds us and prevents us from being the light of Christ.
Should we allow another person’s mood and attitude affect the way we live our lives? Should we allow someone who is not sorry about what they’ve done to us affect us to the degree that we can no longer enjoy the happiness and freedom given to us by Christ? How sad it is, then, for us to live a life trapped by unforgiveness and resentment while the offender is oblivious to our suffering. Our Lord gives us a way out of this madness. Just as Our Lord loves us where we are, we need to extend that same magnanimity to others. Holy Spirit gives us the ability to bear our trouble calmly without meanness and pettiness.
Let’s go back to the fiery Sunday sermon. What did the boys do that upset the priest? Around 7AM Saturday morning, six boys in the neighborhood rode their bicycles to a wooded private property. They promptly began shooting squirrels on the trees. There were so many on the property that each boy went home with 6 to 8 squirrels. Many boys’ moms that night made the family dinner with the catch. The next morning during the homily at Sunday mass, the priest said, “This morning I want to talk about why a cemetery is sacred ground, a peaceful and prayerful place. Our faith teaches us that when someone passes, we place them in their final resting place with reverence, and they should remain there in peace, with the Lord. This is hallowed ground! How dare any of you disrespect it by shooting shotguns while hiding behind church graves! To the parents of these boys, I expect you to serve justice!!” One boy’s mom leaned over to her son and asked, “Are those the squirrels we ate last night?” That Sunday, each boy got their justice accordingly from their parents. I wonder though, if the priest could have let go of his anger at being disturbed Saturday morning and could have been more merciful. What stuck with the boys from that Sunday morning homily 60 years ago was that God metes out justice to those who offend him. Was that the good news of Jesus Christ?
A sobering thought is that every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask our Heavenly Father, “Forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are good at asking God for our offenses, but how well do we forgive the offense of others? When we cannot let go of our anger against the person who offended us, we are in effect saying, ‘God, I refuse to see your Son in this offender.’ At the very core of Jesus’ life and ministry is His deep awareness of His Father’s presence and love in all creation.
We were never promised that our life as Christians was going to be a life of peace and comfort. In this life we will have many joys, but we will also have trying times of illnesses, death, divorce, and disappointments from people offending us. What we are promised is that Our Lord will accompany us during difficult times. At the heart of Jesus’ embrace of the Cross was His love for each of us, even in our sinfulness. At the heart of our Christian life, then, is our love for each other --- to bear patiently the wrongs of others, to hope that those who offend us will be touched by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the future, and that they will come to know how much God loves them. On this side of the earth, we live with the joy of knowing Heavenly Father’s love for us. It’s the same love that encouraged Our Lord’s life on earth even when he was misunderstood and persecuted.