The Church, a Place of Forgiveness

Lectio Divina: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

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Roman Rite – XXIII Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – September 7, 2014

Ez 33,1.7-9; Rm 13,8-10; Mt 18.15 to 20

Ambrosian Rite – Second Sunday after the martyrdom of St. John the Precursor

Is 60,16b-22; Ps 88; 1 Cor 15.17-28; Jn 5.19 to 24

1) Forgiveness as correction to claim back a brother.

        This Sunday’s Gospel comes immediately after the parable of the lost sheep of which it is a concrete application. If a brother or a sister has committed a fault in the first place a personal correction must be considered. If he or she does not listen, a witness must be called in. If he or she continues not to listen to the call to conversion, we must turn to the community. If he or she does not even listen to this, we have to, only then, consider him or her as a pagan or a publican, as one who has taken himself out of the community.

        Jesus unites to this teaching on fraternal correction also the one on forgiveness (seventy times seven means always) and on the omnipotence of prayer if it is done in the community even if it consists of only two or three people.  Obviously these people must be at peace with each other.

        Although the Gospel’s passage talks a lot about forgiveness without limit, it is clear that evil must be denounced and those who do it must be corrected. The words of today’s Gospel clearly show how brothers and the sisters can destroy the barriers that the devil builds between them. The Church knows that «sin» has the power to destroy communion and to make salt lose its flavor. A community divided because some «brother or sister has committed a fault» and was not brought back to forgiveness, cannot fulfill its mission in the world. Men will trample the Church in the same way that salt is trampled when it serves no longer any good.

        Jesus teaches us not to remain indifferent «if any man sins,» because it can affect the life of communion with God and with one another and because there is Heaven to be open to men through the Church.

        This is not a simple matter of legal reasons to safeguard the order of the society or of the family. Jesus does not offer his own version of the different levels of judgments in a trial for the good of a Country.  He shows how the mercy of the Father in Heaven is realized in the Church that is on earth. We must have at heart the fate of our brother and our sister as it was well understood by St. Francis of Assisi: «And in this I will know whether you love the Lord and love me, His servant and yours, if you behave in this manner, and namely: that there is no brother in the world who has sinned as it is possible to sin, who, after having seen your eyes,  does not let him return without your forgiveness, if he so requests, and if he does not ask for forgiveness, you should ask him if he wants to be forgiven. And if, as a result, he sinned a thousand times before your eyes, love him more than me for this. You can attract him to the Lord; and always be merciful to these brothers. «(St. Francis of Assisi, Letter to a Minister)

        Even in the first reading of today’s Mass, the text of the prophet Ezekiel highlights this same teaching: the prophet is like a sentinel, and he has the inescapable duty to proclaim the demands of God and to denounce the lies wherever they are. The goal is always to help his brother or sister to become aware of his state of sin so that he or she can repent. The aim is to create a discomfort in sinners, because it is in an uncomfortable situation that often God comes in and pushes the coming back in the communion.

        In light of these brief reflections, we understand the second sentence of Jesus in this passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew: «forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.» We must therefore always forgive, giving a forgiveness without measure, because God has made us the subject of a pardon without measure. Forgiving the neighbor is the direct result of God’s forgiveness toward us. If it is a duty of charity to denounce evil and to correct who does it, it is because you’ve already forgiven and loved the sinner. For this reason you have the right to correct him. In the Christian community sin continues to be present, but at the same time the forgiveness of sins continues even more «stubborn”.

2) Prayer as correction and intercession

        If sometimes even great severity is needed, it must be born from a merciful heart like the one of the Good Shepherd, who after lifting out the lamb from the thorns of the brambles, put it on his shoulders. He corrects it by supporting it. As suggested by the etymology of the word, to «correct» means «to hold together» and not to punish.

       To correct in truth:

        – We must love the other to the point of wanting to carry together with him or her the weight of his or her sins, as Christ did in taking upon himself the sins of the world;

       – We must love in Christ, who calls us to take His yoke sweet and light: the Cross that purifies and    forgives;

        – We need to pray together with Christ. Jesus is not just another among us, but is the one who unites us all in one body, all of us together in the same Spirit. He unites us all in the same forgiving love that corrects, because He sees us sinners not as people to be condemned, but as people that can be forgiven.

        Jesus implored forgiveness, and we join with Him in prayer, above all in the Eucharistic prayer asking to the «Abba, Father» that his will be done so that no one be lost. Praying in communion of charity we exercise-in a sense – the ministry to «dissolve» from the bonds of sin and to «bind» back into communion[1] with the Father and with the «brothers».

        This prayer of «correction» and intercession is exercised in a particular way by the Consecrated Virgins in the world.

        These women, daughters of the Church, know that the Lord does not want the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live (cf. Ez 18,23, 33,11).  God’s desire is always to forgive, to save, to give life and to transform evil into good. It is this divine desire that, in the prayer, becomes a desire of the human person and it is expressed through the words of intercession.

        With the prayer of intercession one lends his voice and even his own heart to the divine will: the desire of God is mercy, love and desire for salvation. This desire of God  finds in these women (and also in each of the Christians) and in their prayer the possibility to manifest itself in a concrete way in the history of mankind to be present where there is need of grace.

         Let the teaching of the Church, a place of forgiveness, and the example of the consecrated Virgins teach us to open our hearts to the increasingly boundless mercy of God, so that in our daily prayer we have the desire of the salvation of humanity and we ask for it with perseverance and faith, the Lord who is great in boundless and surprising love.

        Giving to them the Book of Liturgy of the Hours, the bishop addresses the consecrated Virgins with these words: «May the prayer of the Church sound without interruption in your heart and on your lips as a constant praise to the Father and live intercession for the salvation of the world» (Rite of the consecration of Virgins,), because the first and indispensable commitment of the consecrated Virgins is that of prayer, as it is specifically requested during the rite of consecration (see. Rite of the consecration of the Virgins). For this reason, every member of the Ordo Virginum must keep in mind that prayer is not only a personal and generous response to the voice of the bridegroom and a humble request for help to remain faithful to their holy purpose and to the gift receiv
ed, but also a profound participation to the life of the Mystical Body of Christ, tireless intercession for the Church and for the world.


Patristic Reading

From a homily by Saint John Chrysostom, bishop

(Hom. De diabolo tentatore 2, 6: PG 49, 263-264)

Five paths of repentance

Would you like me to list also the paths of repentance? They are numerous and quite varied, and all lead to heaven.A first path of repentance is the condemnation of your own sins: Be the first to admit your sins and you will be justified. For this reason, too, the prophet wrote: I said: I will accuse myself of my sins to the Lord, and you forgave the wickedness of my heart. Therefore, you too should condemn your own sins; that will be enough reason for the Lord to forgive you, for a man who condemns his own sins is slower to commit them again. Rouse your conscience to accuse you within your own house, lest it become your accuser before the judgment seat of the Lord.That, then, is one very good path of repentance. Another and no less valuable one is to put out of our minds the harm done us by our enemies, in order to master our anger, and to forgive our fellow servants’ sins against us. Then our own sins against the Lord will be forgiven us. Thus you have another way to atone for sin: For if you forgive your debtors, your heavenly Father will forgive you. Do you want to know of a third path? It consists of prayer that is fervent, careful and comes from the heart.If you want to hear of a fourth, I will mention almsgiving, whose power is great and far-reaching. If, moreover, a man lives a modest, humble life, that, no less than the other things I have mentioned, takes sin away. Proof of this is the tax-collector who had no good deeds to mention, but offered his humility instead and was relieved of a heavy burden of sins.Thus I have shown you five paths of repentance: condemnation of your sins, forgiveness of our neighbor’s sins against us, prayer, almsgiving and humility.Do not be idle, then, but walk daily in all these paths; they are easy, and you cannot plead your poverty. For, though you live out your life amid great need, you can always set aside your wrath, be humble, pray diligently and condemn your own sins; poverty is no hindrance. Poverty is not an obstacle to our carrying out the Lord’s bidding, even when it comes to that path of repentance which involves giving money (almsgiving, I mean). The widow proved that when she put her two mites into the box!Now that we have learned how to heal these wounds of ours, let us apply the cures. Then, when we have regained genuine health, we can approach the holy table with confidence, go gloriously to meet Christ, the king of glory, and attain the eternal blessings through the grace, mercy and kindness of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

[1] The term communion translates the Greek word koinonia, which translated the Hebrew word Khābūrah. Both indicated, in origin, a cooperative, a society, such as the one engaged in fishing like that of Peter, James and John. At the time of Jesus Khābūrah indicated, among other things, the community of at least ten people gathered to celebrate the Passover. The apostles gathered together with Jesus during his last supper formed a Khābūrah: the participation in the Paschal Mystery of the Lord laid the foundations of the communion. In fact, in the Passover celebrated by Christ at the Last Supper something new happens: the God that had become flesh, provoking scandal and rejection, becomes so close to man so to be made flesh to eat and blood to drink. The communion between men is grounded in the communion with Jesus. By virtue of his Paschal Mystery, the Son of God partakes himself to his apostles that, united to Him, become children of his own Father.

For this reason, the communion is not the result of the efforts of man, of his ability to mediate, not the result of a vote of confidence of the majority. It is not established in the corridors of political power and it is not founded on human affinities or common ideals. Communion is a gift of the Holy Spirit, the breath of eternal life, that on Pentecost morning broke in the room where the Virgin Mary and the Apostles gathered and took up residence in them giving birth to the Church. Since that day, in the course of history, the Spirit of the Risen Christ breaks down the barriers of race, language and culture, and unites Christians in his love that has conquered sin and death.

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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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