Recently I read a passage of scripture that I’d never heard before. It was about forgiveness and extending mercy to others. While you will probably disagree with me about my use of the word “scripture,” I think you will still find it to be very good reading. And won’t we all benefit from a few moments of self-examination in the area of mercy?
It’s Sirach 27:30-28:7.
(30) Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. (1) The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. (2) Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. (3) Should a man nourish anger against his fellows and expect healing from the Lord? (4) Should a man refuse mercy to his fellows, yet seek pardon for his own sins? (5) If he who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins? (6) Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin! (7) Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; of the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.
27:30–The image of hugging wrath and anger tight reminds me of a small child clinging to a favorite stuffed animal. The mommy may try to get it away from her to wash it, but the toddler won’t give it up. It’s her security.
On first reading we may try to pass up this verse. “The sinner?” we say. “That’s talking about someone else, not me.” Look again. Who is the sinner? The one who hugs wrath and anger tight. That’s certainly been me. Has it ever been you?
Oh, but we know we’re right, don’t’ we? When someone has truly offended us, God is on our side; if He’s not, then He ought to be! Like the little girl with her stuffie, we think we need our anger because it’s our security. We cling to it because it protects us from the one who hurt us.
28:1–This is a frightful thought. It’s as if God is saying, “OK. You want vengeance? Then you shall have it.” Almighty God remembering our sins in detail? What a contrast from “…I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)
28:2–While we’re remembering, do you recall the parable of the unmerciful servant? “His lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers…So shall my heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:34-35)
But how can we do this if we’ve been deeply hurt? The key is in the master’s words. “I forgave you all that debt…Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?” It’s because we have been forgiven so much that we can extend mercy to those who wound us. This, in turn, benefits us with even more forgiveness from the Master.
If we refuse to forgive despite all we’ve been forgiven, we’re still hugging our anger tight. If I clutch my fury to my chest, how can I ever open my heart to others? To God?
28:3-4–What struck me here was the “fellows.” In another translation it read, “Should a man nourish anger against one like himself and expect healing from the Lord?” “His fellows.” “One like himself.” Ah, but that’s the problem, isn’t it? We perceive our enemy as somehow lower than us–less of a Christian or even less of a person. We conveniently forget that the object of our wrath is one just like us.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector comes to mind. “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people…” Oh, really? Since when? May we instead join in the plea of the tax collector: “…God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 17:11, 13)
28:5–“…No one is good except God alone.” (Luke 18:19) Therefore, no one but God has the right to exercise His anger at our sin. When we who are but flesh cherish wrath, we’re putting ourselves in the place of God. And if we do away with God, who is left to forgive our sins?
28:6–To me this was probably the most interesting verse in the passage. How does thinking of our “last days…death and decay” make us cease from the sin of withholding forgiveness? For one thing, it takes us back to verses 3-4. The person who bears the brunt of our anger is just like us. We both came from dust and to dust we shall return.
It also challenges us to remember that we will one day face God. And “in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:2) Do we really want to stand before the Holy One and try to explain why we couldn’t forgive our neighbor?
But let’s not forget an even more down-to-earth, common sense answer. As Michael used to always say, “Life’s too short to…(insert whatever it was that he didn’t want to do.)” Your days are all too fleeting; will you choose to spend them harboring grudges and nursing bitterness?
28:7–This verse is like a coin; it has two sides. “Think of the commandments.” Remember God’s law–including (especially!) Jesus’ own interpretation of it. “…I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22)
Now flip the coin over and “Think…of the Most High’s covenant.” This is particularly interesting given the fact that this was written before the time of Christ. Even so, the writer says that recalling God’s mercy should lead us to be merciful ourselves. How much more should pondering the New Covenant help us overlook faults! It’s impossible to clutch hatred to your breast if you’re truly clinging to the cross.
That’s what Sirach says to me about forgiveness. What does it say to you?