When I was in Seminary in Colombia as part of our liturgy class, my small group was responsible to hold a simulated funeral. Different roles were assigned among my small group. Someone had the brilliant idea of having a casket, which we borrowed from a funeral home. Having a casket was not our only brilliant idea.
We thought one of us could pretend to be the deceased person inside the casket, too. My classmate Rafael immediately volunteered to be the one. Rafael is now a priest in Colombia. The simulated funeral went well. It was comical because of the casket and simulated deceased person. I cannot imagine what kind of experience that was for Rafael. He was inside of a casket for almost two hours, imagining his own death! It should have been an experience that allowed him to gain perspective on life. Perspective is exactly what the writer of the Book of Sirach has in mind in today’s first reading.
I have one more thing to add about Rafael. After that memorable day, every time anything bad happened to him, be it illness or bad luck, we would tease him telling him that it was a consequence for being inside the casket.
Today’s gospel reading highlights the most challenging of the Lord’s teachings: forgiveness. The parable of the Unforgiving Servant is paired with a series of wise recommendations from the Book of Sirach. The sacred author says, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven”. This is exactly the point of the Lord’s parable in today’s gospel reading.
The Lord insists on the need for us to forgive others as an essential requirement for being forgiven by God. This requisite is so important that the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, is the only aspect of the Lord’s Prayer that He extrapolates on. The Lord immediately follows the prayer with the instruction: “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6, 15). This is something that we must take notice of.
The sacred author from Sirach offers a concrete way to follow the Lord’s instruction and learn to forgive people’s faults: use our imagination. He invites us to imagine our last days of life to help us set enmity aside and stop sinning. The end of our time on this earth will inescapably come. With it, accountability for what we have done will also be unavoidable.
The fear of God’s judgment is an imperfect but still useful motivator for us to do the right thing. We hope to receive God’s forgiveness at the end. That hope should move us to similarly extend forgiveness now to those who sin against us. The sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the most useful ways available to us to prepare ourselves for the last judgment. In our examination of conscience before confession, one of the first questions to ask ourselves should be: do I need to forgive someone first before I ask our merciful God to forgive me?
The sacred author tells us to consider our own death and own decay. Then we are to remember the commandments and stop sinning. I have found that dying people have some regrets in common. Often, they regret what they have not done; that they have not forgiven others. I would suggest that we act proactively by forgiving others now, and not let our lack of forgiveness be a regret on our deathbed.
Since we cannot be admitted into heaven while still harboring anger against others, we must necessarily leave it behind for good now or in purgatory. That can be a hard thing to do. Purgatory can be a painful experience. Anything we can do here and now to avoid that pain after death is necessary and wise.
Let us humbly ask the Lord to grant us his grace to see our lives with the perspective of our own death and final judgment and learn to forgive others for good.