Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.' Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” Matthew 18:21–35 (NAB)
It is fitting that the readings today occur on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on New York City, the Pentagon, and the crash of United Airlines flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Our nation remembers the deaths at New York City’s World Trade Center terrorist attacks that left 2,606 people dead; from the crash of American Airlines flight 11, which killed 87; from United Airlines flight 175, which took the lives of 60; from the crash at Pentagon, which claimed 125 souls; from American Airlines flight 77, which saw 59 others lose their lives, and from the crash of United Fight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, which killed 40 others. A total of 2,977 died that day, not counting the 19 hijackers who also perished.
Placed before the altar today is a New York City fireman’s helmet, given me by my uncle George; although he was not one of the 343 fireman killed in the 9/11 attacks that day, because of his rescue work and clean-up participation at Ground Zero in the days and months ensuing, he would later die of respiratory failure. Along with cousins and uncles who are or were NYC fireman and policeman on that day, he and they are special heroes to me.
There are no words I can offer, and nothing could ever match the heroism and service of these brave souls; nothing said that would further hallow the heroism of those who sacrificed, on that fateful day or later on foreign sands as we struck back to protect our nation from the further onslaught of terror; only borrowed words can bring remembrance and honor also to those who daily provide security and emergency response in our cities, states, and for our nation. Their sacrifices, and those of their families, can never be calculated by others, and can barely be understood. We can but only say “thank you” in appreciation for their incalculable sacrifices.
Good fortune and an opportunity by my employer allowed me to work a bit with the Wounded Warrior Project at Fort Carson, tutoring our wounded warriors in technology. Far exceeding any slight service I could offer them, they have provided me the clearest insight into the horrific costs of armed conflict, the terrible price often demanded for the freedoms and liberties we enjoy, the ennobling faith that these men and women have in our nation, and our commitment to pay any price to see that they receive every opportunity at training and a career when they return to civilian life. Last year we lost more of our armed forces to suicide than from combat wounds; surely they deserve our prayers and encouragement at every turn.
It is for those far wiser to offer insights and lessons about the meaning of 9/11, and no doubt on this weekend we will also have our own private reflections. I am reminded of a reality all recognized that terrible day—that it was love that caused those firefighters and rescue workers to race into burning buildings to rescue others. “That’s what we do,” my uncle said, but he really meant, “that’s who we are.” “Greater love hath no man than he lay down his life for his friends”, were the words of the Master in the Upper Room, and it was that same greater, higher love that lifted those heroes up flights of stairs into those “upper rooms” of the World Trade Center that day as well.
In the horrors of New York, Arlington, and Shanksville, it was as if God was giving us a living parable—God as the loving First Responder. God like the firefighter who rushes into a burning building to save someone—and only God knowing that a sacrifice for the rescued will soon be paid in death and blood. That's how much God loves us. He knows that hatred and intolerance will always destroy; He knows that human sin will always devastate ourselves and others; yet we are not left alone in the crumbling towers of our own self-destroying sins and weaknesses. The Word becomes flesh not only in Bethlehem’s manger, not only on Golgotha’s hill, not only—if we find faith—at Ground Zero’s utter senseless devastation—but God is there to provide hope, salvation, comfort, and forgiveness in our lives as well. He can become flesh in our flesh through our conversion, through the sacraments, and through His many untold graces. And He can become real as we forgive.
Which brings us to our second lesson this morning, one drawn from Jesus’ parable about the one forgiven who could not forgive. The Apostle Peter asks Jesus if he should forgive seven times (a biblical number for perfection); Jesus responds by multiplying that number by orders of magnitude. Jesus’ response, “Seventy times seven”, is not a finite limit, either; the forgiveness we extend to others should reflect the extent to which we have been forgiven by our Master. Oftentimes we would rather preserve our grievance than seek to forgive, and yet in Jesus’ words we see that forgiveness needs to issue forth from the one sinned against even before the one who sins ever realizes the magnitude of the offense. It is how we can forgive the absolutely unforgivable, as we can pray the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Those who offend may never come to their senses and realize what they have done, but there is remaining the danger that if we hold on to an offense against us it will fester and grow by our failure to release it in forgiveness and by endlessly recounting it to others.
In this parable of Jesus, we should not try to tease out a neat solution for reconciliation and forgiveness in every situation; we should not infer that in cycles of domestic violence or sexual abuse forgiveness without repentance and the creation of safety is acceptable. These are complex matters that cannot be reduced to a single simple formula or parable. Jesus does teach here that there should be no limit to the number of times one must try to forgive. In our lifetimes this means there will be endless hurts that require endless offers of forgiveness and endless acts of repentance. We must always be ready to do the difficult work of repairing and reconciling.
But our cry may still go out, “you don’t understand how much I have been hurt,” and invariably an attempt is then made to further clarify and magnify the offense, the wrongness of the wrong, the hurtfulness of the hurt, the utter sinfulness of the sin. We finally realize that none of this provides lasting comfort, and will absolutely be a cancer upon our spirits.
And so, we must forgive from the heart. On this commemoration of the terrorist attacks ten years ago, we must learn to understand and accept those who are different in their dress, in their skin color, or in their beliefs from us. Sadly, there are those who would condemn all Muslims for the events of 9/11; I would offer to you today that such a prejudice would be like blaming all Catholic clergy, or even all Catholics, for the actions of a few pedophile priests….as we seek to understand, we learn to recognize the evils of overgeneralizing, or of overreacting to violence with more violence.
The experience of 9/11 changed us as a nation. Has it made us more helpful, more willing to lend a hand? Has it given us greater respect for the sacrifices of our first responders and our military? A visit to Ground Zero a few months after the attacks, late one evening, during a cold and misty February’s rain, gave me a change to weep and sob like I had not been able to previously. This tragedy made me reflect on the precious gift of life, on the tie of relationships, on making every day good in some way and using the opportunities and gifts God pours out upon us. It made me be more conscious of trying “not to sweat the small stuff” as much as I used to. Life is so precious and yet so fragile. A hug, a smile, an embrace, a kind word, a strong or even a gentle handshake –all took on new meaning for me. We never know how long life will be; every time I fly I call my wife before the flight, and after when I land…even on the connecting flights…you just don’t know. It’s also made me try to be swift to reconcile problems.
Perhaps you know someone today whom you have not forgiven. We cannot force reconciliation, we cannot by dint of prayer or ardor of affection cause godly sorrow in the hearts of others, but we can release our feelings of hurt and offense that have us in their death grip this day. I pray you spend time today, spend time soon in the confessional, spend time with that person if you can and if the circumstances allow—if not for their sakes, then for your own.
Some say they saw the face of Hell at Ground Zero, and the face of the devil in the smoke of the wreckage of the Pentagon and in Shanksville. But if we look again with faith’s eye, we also saw the face of God in the people working, caring, sweating, crying, rescuing, recovering and reflecting God’s image and likeness in their very humanness. We made decisions to be united when hatred sought to divide; we would bind up the wounds when others sought our destruction, we would protect and defend when others assumed we were helpless; and finally, we should extend love and forgiveness over life’s comparatively minor hurts and offenses, and in the light of such grave devastation and hatred, we would pray the prayer of Saint Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”