Summary: Reflection is on the grace of God’s forgiveness in our lives.
Sackcloth and Ashes (Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Dear sisters and brothers,
Let us now listen to the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 18: 21-35):
“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.””
In the text, Peter asked the question how often forgiveness is to be granted.
Jesus answers that it is to be given without limit.
And he illustrates this with the parable of the unmerciful servant.
He warns that his heavenly Father will give those who do not forgive the same treatment as that given to the unmerciful servant.
The parable of the unmerciful servant and the final warning are peculiar to Matthew.
Secondly, the parable of the merciful servant did not originally belong to this context.
It is suggested by the fact that it really does not deal with repeated forgiveness, which is the point of Peter’s question and Jesus’ reply.
In addition, we understand that Matthew conveys that the grace of God’s forgiveness, needs our response of forgiving our neighbour to be finally approved.
Is not that a chilling thought?
The grace of God’s forgiveness needs our response.
And in turn, God needs our response of forgiving the other to conform our own forgiveness, that which we receive from the grace of God’s forgiveness.
What a wonderful thought that Jesus gives to all of us!
Does it relate to sackcloth and ashes?
I say ‘Yes’.
If it is so...
What is sackcloth and ashes?
Sackcloth and ashes were used in Old Testament times as a symbol of repentance.
People who wanted to show their repentant hearts would often wear sackcloth, sit in ashes, and put ashes on top of their heads.
Sackcloth was a rough material usually made of black goat’s hair, making it quite uncomfortable to wear.
The ashes signified emptiness, barrenness, loneliness, and unhappiness.
The ashes also meant destruction of whole, and disintegration of whole.
Sackcloth and ashes were also used as a public sign of repentance and humility before God.
When Jonah declared to the people of Nineveh that God was going to destroy them for their wickedness, everyone from the king to the last responded with repentance, fasting, sackcloth and ashes (Jonah 3:5-7).
Their reasoning was (Jonah 3:9): “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish”.
This is interesting because the Scripture never says that Jonah’s message included any mention of God’s mercy.
But, They received God’s mercy.
It is clear that people putting on sackcloth and ashes, was not a meaningless show.
It was a symbolic expression of their repentant hearts.
God saw genuine change.
The sackcloth and ashes stand for a humble change of heart.
This caused God to ‘relent’ and not bring about His plan to destroy them (Jonah 3:10).