Homily – September – 2023

17th SEPTEMBER 2023

 Readings  Sirach 27:30-28:7  Rom 14:7-9  Gospel Matthew 18:21-35

 I inaugurated the Year of the Holy Spirit in the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn a few weeks ago.

The Holy Spirit is central to our Christian lives.  Indeed, over the centuries the Church has often been referred to as, “The community of the Holy Spirit.”

In these days, under the leadership of Pope Francis, we are recapturing the great mandate of the Lord when at the Ascension he commanded His Disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Both in the Archdiocese and globally, the Church is recapturing one of the great insights of the Vatican Counsel II but it is still rather hidden, “All the baptised, preach all the Gospel, to all the people, all the time.”

This is essential work for evangelisation.  Pope Francis reminds us and will, especially over the next month when the International Synod on Synodality opens, that this a Synodal journey (walking together) and a Marian journey of faith (where we treasure and ponder like Mary on all that the Holy Spirit is doing amongst us.)

Just to remind you, evangelisation in the Catholic Church is a mother with three children – Encounter, Discipleship, Mission.

In today’s Gospel from Matthew 18, in this year of Matthew, the Gospel focuses on an important aspect of the Discipleship dimension of evangelisation.

It pertains to behaviour within the community of the Holy Spirit.

Forgiveness is to be at the centre.  This is something that we all need to be reminded of as we continually trip each other up, either deliberately of unintended, on our journey together in faith.

In the First Reading today this is given an introduction by the great Catechist of the Old Testament, Ben Sira.  He states that we are to, “Forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you, and when you pray, your sins will be forgiven…do not bear your neighbour ill-will…overlook the offence.”  It seems simple, but we all know it is very difficult.

In the Gospel of today this topic is brought to the direct attention of Jesus by St Peter.  St Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me…seven time?”  To this minimalist but very common approach to forgiveness Jesus gives a maximal response.  He declares immediately, “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.”  In other words, every time!

To draw this out, Jesus introduces a favourite parable of Matthew – The parable of the Two Debtors.

The Master is about to discipline his servant for owing an extraordinary amount of money.  This is described in today’s Scripture as “ten thousand talents.”  This doesn’t mean a great deal to us in our dollar and cents world.  However, at the time of Jesus this type of money was millions of dollars.  After pleading for compassion, the Master gives him this and cancels the debt.  Immediately afterwards, this servant goes out and encounters a fellow servant who owed him “one hundred denarii.”  This is simply just a few dollars.  Yet inexplicably, although being forgiven by the Master this servant fails to forgive his fellow servant.  He proceeds to prosecute him for such a minor grievance.  Ultimately, the Master hears of this and sends for the servant who he now describes as “wicked.”  The Master cannot understand that being forgiven, he himself is not forgiving.  He asks, “Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?”

It is interesting that this topic of forgiveness is introduced by St Peter in a rather academic way.  Later in the Scriptures, at the time of Christ’s final torture and execution, St Peter has as personal experience of what forgiveness means.

Of the many Mosques, Synagogues and Christian Churches in Jerusalem, the one that celebrates this in a beautiful way is a Church called Saint Peter in Gallicantu.  The site of the present Church, which is only a couple of hundred years old, is built on three or four Churches underneath.  Indeed underneath these Churches are the ruins of the Chief High Priest, Caiaphas, who arrested Jesus, and according to one of the Scriptures, kept Jesus here in prison overnight until he was condemned by the Sanhedrin the next day.

Underneath Caiaphas’ house were dungeons.  These have just somewhat recently been rediscovered.

Interestingly the name given to the whole site is offered to St Peter.  There is a rooster made of metal on the top of the dome of the existing Basilica.  It recalls that Peter denied even knowing Jesus three times as predicted by Jesus earlier.  One of the Scriptures says that on the third betrayal the Cock crowed and Jesus passing by and looked at Peter.  This look of love and forgiveness tore Peter to the heart.  He left the scene and wept bitterly, according to the Scriptures.  In his repentance and in receiving the forgiveness of the Lord, in the Lord’s deepest need, he was transformed.

I often think that perhaps of all the physical tortures of Jesus the greatest torture He experienced was the denial of His best friend in these three moments.  The Church now built on top of the others that recorded this geographical scene over the centuries, is filled with great serenity and peace.

When I visited this Church it was well and truly before the huge crowds came in pilgrim groups for their visitation.  The Church was quiet and only a few pilgrims were there.  Sitting in this more recent Church, there was a great interplay of serenity and tranquillity – the feeling one has when one is forgiven.  It seems to me it was the meeting of divine mercy and forgiveness verses a mere human minimalism regarding forgiveness.

There seemed to be the divine triumph of kindness and mercy over the human fickleness of argument and dissention.  Divine vulnerability in the suffering death of Jesus now meets the divine vulnerability of human beings to produce a feeling of divine human intimacy.

I believe, architecturally this particular Church is able to explain human forgiveness splendidly.

Although this seems far removed from these rather personal and heart felt reflections, forgiveness and mercy also have a certain toughness.  It has social dimension and structural dimension in our political life and personal life.

A good example of this is that which is going to challenge us over the next few weeks regarding the referendum vote for the Voice to Parliament.

To our indigenous peoples and to Australia as it matures, this is such an important referendum.  There has been much political comment so far and predictably it has brought people into “hard yes” or “hard no” stances.  The Bishops of Australia are asking the people of Australia to go deeper than just the political commentary on the matter.  There are profound ethical and moral issues involved here.  The understanding of forgiveness and making peace with people in today’s Scriptures can help us to set a spiritual panorama for our own considerations.

The Bishops of Australia will not be directing Catholics to vote one way or the other but they are directing Catholics to make sure they move towards an informed conscience vote on the matter.  It is imperative that we read as much as we can on the “yes” and “no” arguments and in the light of our faith make a considered and informed decision on how we as individuals will vote.

The stakes could not be higher.

Let us not forget the great prophetic words of Pope St John Paul II in 1986 when he visited Aboriginal leaders from throughout Australia at Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.  He declared that Australia will never become the place God wants it to become until Aboriginal people have found their proper place in society and that the rest of society comes to accept this.  This presents the real challenge at hand and requires our careful discernment in the times ahead.

Finally, let our “Gospill” for today be the Responsorial Psalm.  It seems to summarise forgiveness from God’s point of view beautifully.  The response is, “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and rich in compassion.”  Let us repeat this often as we reflect on forgiveness, both in our personal and social lives.