The Book of Sirach is part of the ancient wisdom of Israel, but today’s first reading is easy to understand. Not only can we agree that “wrath and anger are hateful things,” but we also know that we can hold them tight, like precious possessions. Even children know this feeling. It is easier to hold on to your anger, no matter how hurtful, than to give it up.
But Sirach points out that it is not only good to give up your anger, but also very practical.
“Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?”
After hearing this passage, it is not hard to guess what today’s gospel account will be about. It is the parable of the unjust or unforgiving servant. Actually, today’s passage follows immediately from last week’s gospel. Remember that last week Jesus said the following to the Apostles:
Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
We usually understand these words to mean the instruction to the Apostles and their successors to forgive sins in the sacrament of Penance. However, these words are also directed to us in our relations not only with our enemies but also with our families and friends.
The words of Jesus place an incredible responsibility and power on all of us. If we refuse to forgive someone who has offended us, we and they are likely to suffer some very serious consequences. In ways that we do not realize or understand, we may cause irreparable harm to the person against whom we hold a grudge. Failure to forgive will also inflict serious damage on ourselves.
In today’s gospel Peter asks how often he should forgive his brother, and answers the question himself. He knows that Jewish law required forgiveness three times, but Peter goes further and suggest forgiving seven times. When Jesus goes even further and suggests seventy- seven times, he is really saying that forgiveness should be unlimited. We should forgive in the same way that his father forgives.
Jesus then adds the famous parable of the servant who owed his master a great sum of money probably because of fiscal mismanagement or outright theft. The servant gets down on his knees and begs for forgiveness. His master not only forgives him but also wipes away all the debt. Incredibly, after his debt is forgiven, he is not even required to do acts of penance or penitence. Or is he?
The man’s penance surely would have been not to just say five Our Fathers and Hail Marys, but to forgive those who owed him money. Unfortunately, he did not see the connection, and when someone asked him for forgiveness, he responded unmercifully.
He had received a great gift but could not bring himself to share it with others. Despite his own wrongdoing he had been forgiven and let off the hook but he could not let go of his anger against his fellow servant. As a result, he forfeited the great gift he had been given. His anger hurt himself as well as his neighbor.
None of us are immune to anger. Anger seems part of our fallen human nature. I suppose it is how we deal with anger that counts. We may not think it’s serious but anger, like all the other vices, has the power to get out of control and take over our lives. We used to speak of the seven deadly sins or vices. Each of them had its corresponding virtue that could help us when tempted.
The virtue that works against anger is patience. The word “virtue’ actually means “habit.” In other words, we have to practice the virtues over and over until they become habits. Don’t athletes practice the same shots or plays over and over again until they can do them without even thinking about it?
For us, anger management must start with the practice of patience. Someone once told me that it helped her to deal with anger by sleeping on it. If someone or something offends us, it is a good idea not to react immediately. Patience is a great virtue. Sometimes things don’t look so bad when the sun rises on a new day.
Unfortunately, often those closest to us are the ones we offend, or who offend us. Why should we risk the loss of a close family member or a close friend when a little Patience would have healed the wound? In today’s second reading, St. Paul tells us that “none of us lives for oneself.”