“We Cannot Give What We Do Not Have”
Father Peter Fitzgibbons
September 16 – 17, 2023
Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35
This sermon has been felon-approved by the folks at FU (Felon University; i.e., the prison). Remember, I have often told you that to study scripture you have to study it in the language and culture in which events occurred. Otherwise, you won’t understand the extreme significance of our Lord’s words. For example, consider the question, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Now, if you have a family like mine, before their number was reduced considerably, sometimes they can really tick you off. When my brother would make me mad, I’d wonder if it was the sixth or seventh time and if I should forgive him. But our Lord said, ‘”I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Catholic school math tells me that is 490 times that I must forgive. I could reach that number at a family reunion!
In Aramaic, seven is a perfect number – it is zero, a perfect circle, and so it is infinite. Our Lord said, “seventy times seven” or beyond infinity. Why did He use that language? Because while most modern languages today have comparative and superlative tenses, Aramaic and Hebrew did not at the time. Remember when spies were sent to the Promised Land? When they came back, they said that the people there were as numerous as grasshoppers and as tall as giants. No, they weren’t. There were just so many people that the spies couldn’t count them all, and the people were huge. When Jesus fed the 5,000, not counting women and children, do you think the apostles were doing a head count? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. . . No. It’s like when the diocese asks how many people were at church. Well, the church was full, so there were 300. The numbers are hyperbole. . . a number beyond counting.
Our Lord used that hyperbolic phrase, “seventy times seventy” because that is how great God’s mercy is. God’s nature is mercy and love. So to deny everlasting mercy would be to deny Himself. No matter how badly you think you’ve sinned, He absolutely forgives and forgets. The only thing God cannot forgive is our not asking for forgiveness because He will not violate our free will. We can keep things to ourselves although He already knows. So, don’t think you are keeping anything from Him. It is our choice to love Him or not. Receiving His mercy is one of the greatest experiences of God’s love. And that experience of God’s love enables us, as Saint John Paul II said, to go from the Sacrament of Penance which is the Sacrament of His mercy and love to the Sacrament of Holy Communion and Mass. We can have a deeper appreciation, bond, and love for the Sacrament of Penance which leads to other Sacraments. When someone says, “Father, I don’t need to go to confession,” I tell them that they also don’t need Holy Communion. “What do you mean, Father?” Did I stutter? (My new favorite phrase.) Then I ask a series of questions. Who do you see in Holy Communion? “Jesus Christ.” Very good. Who is Jesus Christ? “The Savior.” What does He save you from? “Sin.” And if you have no sins, you don’t need Mass and you don’t need to receive Holy Communion. We all need a Savior.
We cannot give what we do not have. Likewise, we cannot forgive others if we have not experienced forgiveness. Because of our diminished intellect and fallen nature, we tend to judge our spiritual nature by our feelings. When we are called to forgive others, we might say, “I don’t feel like forgiving that person.” However, Jesus used a declarative sentence when He said, “Forgive.” Nowhere in the Gospels did He ever ask, “How do you feel about that?” Our Lord doesn’t care how you feel. Forgiveness is an act of the will. Our feelings are diminished and don’t always lead us in the right direction. The right thing to do goes beyond our feelings and inclinations. When I eat fish – Eugh! – I do not feel like eating fish! I hate fish!! Damn doctors! But I have to eat it. Did the doctor ask if I like fish? No! Did he tell me to eat it? Yes. Quack! For many years, I thought bacon was a health food. God really has a way of laughing at us. But eating fish is the right thing to do, so I reluctantly choke it down.
Our Lord gave us a way to deal with all those feelings and resentments we have for others. He said, “Pray for them.” Pray for those who hate and persecute you. One, they may be wrong; and two, they may be right, and we really are jerks. Who knows. But we pray for them, and we pray for ourselves so that we can get our distorted feelings and emotions back in check. People say, “Father, you must hear lots of juicy things during confessions.” Not really. After the first week of hearing confessions, it’s like being stoned to death with popcorn. If you have a sin I’ve never heard, I’ll name it after you. Some people come to confession very upset, and I ask them what they have done. “Well, I did this.” Sometimes the hardest thing about hearing confessions is not laughing. Really? You are definitely pole-vaulting over mouse droppings here. But what I hear while being stoned to death with popcorn is their great love. I hear what people say and what they don’t say. They realize they have sinned and have cut themselves off from God’s love. They love God and want to come back and open their souls up to receive God’s love. That’s what I hear, and I really do listen. You aren’t going to sneak one in on me. “Father, I talk cruelly to my dog and my cat. I did some speeding. I killed two people and umm…” Whoa! That’s called an Oreo confession. But besides that, I hear the love for God. And that’s what priests are listening for.
Father’s Reflections . . .
On Friday, I was doing my ACLS or CPR recertification, and I was working on a very expensive and sophisticated mannequin that would tell me if I needed to go deeper, faster, slower, or move my hands. And all of a sudden, the mannequin went “de-de-de Woo-Bunk” and completely shut down. So, I did the only thing I could . . . I pulled the sheet up over the mannequin, turned out the light, and closed the door as I left. I’m a hospital chaplain; I’ve done this before.
How will you apply this message to your life? ________________________________________
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