Tuesday March 16, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Third Week of Lent
Reading (Daniel 3:25, 34-43) Gospel (St. Matthew 18:21-35)
In the first reading today, we hear this prayer of Azariah. Azariah was one of the three young men who were working in the kingdom of Babylon under the king, Nebuchadnezzar, after they had been taken into exile, and these young men refused to bow down to the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had made of himself. Therefore, in punishment, they were to be thrown into a white-hot furnace. They had stoked the furnace to seven times its normal heat and bound these three young men and threw them in. These three men, because they refused to worship anyone but God, prayed to the Lord and they were saved from the fire, and it was while they were in the fire that Azariah prayed the prayer that we heard in the first reading today. As he pointed out in his prayer, they came before the Lord. They were shamefaced because of all their own sins, they had no one to tell them how long this was going to last, and, worst of all, they had no place to be able to offer sacrifice to the Lord. Because they had no place to offer sacrifice and no ability to do so, Azariah prayed, So now, Lord, we come to You with humble spirit and contrite heart; because of that, let us be received as though it were thousands of fat lambs or as though it were offerings of rams or bullocks. And he says that a humble spirit will not be refused, that God would accept this as a pure and perfect sacrifice.
That is exactly the way God will look at us as well. God wants us to come before Him with a spirit that is humble and contrite, that we recognize our sinfulness and come before Him with humility, recognizing that by our own actions we have cut ourselves off from God and not only once, but many times. God, in His mercy toward us, has continued to allow the Sacrifice of the Mass to be offered. Yet, in our own humility, we have to realize our unworthiness to be with Him, that by our sins we deserve to be cast away from God not only in this life but forever, and that in His mercy He has forgiven us. In His mercy, He has allowed us to come back and to be able to partake, once again, in the sacrifice that He continues to offer for the forgiveness of sins.
It is with that kind of background and with that kind of disposition that we look at the Gospel reading, because for us to forgive someone is something that is often very difficult. So when Peter asks, How often do I have to forgive? and Jesus tells us that it is seventy times seven times that we have to forgive, it is not just seven times but it is as often as someone sins against us that we have to forgive them. That is neither natural nor is it easy for us to do. Yet Our Lord tells us that as we look at how God has forgiven us, then unless we forgive others as God has forgiven us, we will not be forgiven. And so there is much at stake.
We want the forgiveness and mercy of God. We depend on it; we are, in fact, dependent on it. Yet, at the same time, we refuse so often, not so much because our hearts are completely hardened and we do not want to forgive but rather simply because of the circumstances as they are. We have so much difficulty forgiving because we have been hurt, or because the pattern is there in this other person and they have done this over and over again; therefore, we have a great deal of difficulty being able to forgive. And yet if we only looked at ourselves and asked, How badly have we offended God? How many times have we repeated the same pattern of sin over and over again to offend God? we have to be able to apply that then to our own forgiveness because if we can ask God to forgive us when we have offended Him far more than what anybody else has done to us, when we have offended Him more times than what anyone has offended us, then we just have to look at ourselves and say, I have no excuse. I have no reason to try to justify why I have not forgiven when I look at what I have done to God. And more than that, again, when we apply those words from the Gospel that unless we forgive others our heavenly Father is going to treat us in the same way then we will not be forgiven.
So we have to pray. Even though it is very difficult for us to forgive, we have to pray for that grace to be able to forgive others as God has forgiven us so that we will be able to show ourselves as true children of the Lord, so that we will be able to follow the example of Jesus Christ and show ourselves to be true Christians, who not only love those who love us, but rather are going to love our enemies, pray for our persecutors, and forgive those who have sinned against us.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.