The image of Jesus in every child. Sirach 27:30-28:7
Psalm 103:1-12
Romans 14:7-9
Matthew 18:21-35

About Our Father's Business

... my heavenly Father will do to every one of you,
if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Father. Brother. Here are two words we understand without requiring a degree in theology. In fact, these are concepts — father/mother ... brother/sister — that nearly everyone understands with equal expertise. In that sense, we all know the inscrutable, unknowable God, at least from our hearts. From the beginning we are given to know that God is a Father. As your Mother might have said to once or twice, "I gave you life!" Father God, indeed, gave each of us life. In Deuteronomy (Deut 32:6), Isaiah (Isa 63:16), Jeremiah (Jer 3:4, 19), and Malachi (1:6, 2:10), He is called the Father of Israel. And, no doubt, we are moved when we hear God say, "I will be to him a father, and he will be my son" as He does of David in 2 Sam 7:14 and 1 Chron 17:13. And in Ps 68 when we read, "A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling" (Ps 68:5). Indeed, the Old Testament is soaked through with God's kindness to, love for, and, above all, His loyalty with His cherished human creatures. A Hebrew word that goes to the heart of God's nature is hesed, meaning steadfast love, kindness, mercy or as one Hebrew scholar terms it loyalty love. Hesed occurs 246 times in the Old Testament with nearly all instances referring to God's nature, as the following passage from Exodus does:

"The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in
steadfast love [hesed] and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love [hesed] for thousands,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin ... " (Ex 34:6-7)
Who is the source for these intimate details about God's character? Our source for this is Father God.

We say "God's nature" or "character" because hesed is not a feeling or a mood; it is a state of being, part of the core person. To act "out of character" is to betray yourself. And God, above all, is not changeable. He is faithfulness itself (2 Tim 2:13).

But let us get back to the area of our greatest expertise: Father/mother and sister/brother. From the time we are born, our parents dearest wish is that we should become men and women who enshrine their highest values. This is why children have names like "Faith" or "Hope" or "Charity." We are made in the image of our parents. And, as many have learned, the deepest family hurt grows out of betrayal to those high values, whether it is a father or mother falling short of the ideals of goodness and faithfulness or a son or daughter shaming him- or herself before the family. By contrast, who is not uplifted to see nobility shining in a woman's face and then to see her daughter bearing that same mantle of goodness? Who is not encouraged to know a kind, good, and diligent man whose goodness is clearly seen in his son?

The example, par excellence, of this principle is the man Jesus, in Whom one sees the Father of Heaven and Earth: "'He who has seen me has seen the Father'" (Jn 14:9). That is, Jesus' faithfulness as a Son is so exact that He is the Father in some mysterious sense.

Let us call to mind Trinitarian theology for a moment to explicate this. To say that the Father is the Son, or that the Son is the Father is a heresy. Both the Father and the Son are God as the Holy Spirit is God, but the Persons of the Trinity are distinct. They cannot be each other. In our passage from John 14, we are given to know that Jesus shows forth the Father in the faithfulness of His family Image. He is the perfect Son as He is the perfect Man. This undisputed fact sheds light on the great question, "Why did the Advent of Jesus Christ happen at all?" A primary answer is that Father God, Who wants us to bear to the family image sent a perfect Son to show us what we are supposed to look like. After all, that is the reason He made us: freely to choose a life of love and fellowship with Him, which is the essence of Eden. That which is not Eden, is not good. The Tree of the Forbidden Fruit represents the prerogative to define what we say is good or bad. But there can be only one good, which is God's goodness ... and every aspect of our lifeworld that conforms to God's own character and nature. You might say that human goodness constitutes the vestiges of Paradise. And we must choose this life of our own free will .... else, we become no more than robots or puppets. This is the hidden meaning of the children's story, Pinocchio, whose protagonist is presented with a life of heroic challenges, which enable him to develop into his fullest expression of selfhood, and to become the apple of His Father's eye. As we read in Psalm 17, "Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings," which is to say that Father God is the mother hen, and we are the chicks made in His image.

But didn't Jesus come into the world to atone for our sins? In no way do I diminish the primary importance of the Atonement — the doctrine that Jesus nailed our sins to His Cross. On the contrary, I would say that the horror of this most heinous act in human history derives from the fact that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God and the apple of His Father's eye. It is His faithfulness and nobility and perfection, which make the Crucifixion so unbearable to contemplate. Jesus is God's perfect Son ... and mysteriously our exemplar and brother.

The parable in our Gospel reading this morning is obviously about the relationship of God's nature to our own nature. The scene begins with Peter referring to his neighbor as "brother": "... my brother sin against me and I forgive ..." And Jesus replies by saying, "Let us consider the case with Father God":

"The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a King Who wished to settle accounts." If this were not enough to convince us, we quickly realize that this King must be Father God, for His debtor owes Him an amount so out-of-scale with human life that no servant could ever hope to repay it: ten thousand talents, which, if of gold, would come to more than ten billion dollars. No question, this debtor's situation is the same for all of us: what we owe to God, Who gave us our lives and made all the beauty and goodness that surrounds us, is incalculably more than we could ever hope to repay. When we commit a grave sin, it is always God first Whom we sin against as we read in Psalm 51. Our sins are always and forever a betrayal of His love (as they always betray our earthly parents, whose highest hopes we bear). And they place us in a state of hopeless debt, which we could never repay ourselves.

It is from here that we now turn to Peter, whom Scripture and Tradition hold up as being the Betrayer Disciple, the son of Jonah, who ran from loyalty-love with God. In the High Priest's courtyard (Mk 14:68); after the Resurrection, when He explicitly refuses the Lord's love (Jn 21:17ff, Greek New Testament); and outside of Rome in the Quo Vadis story (Acts of St. Peter); Peter repeatedly betrays the Lord's love. Yet, he is forgiven. "How many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me?" he asks. He does well to say brother, for sinning against Father God, makes all men and woman his brothers and sisters.

And this is our own state. We have betrayed God, and we will betray God, at least most of us. Yet, He forgives us over and over and over again. Repeatedly, we are likened in the Scriptures to an unfaithful wife, Whom He takes back in His anguish and whom He forgives. He does not take us back in our insolence and rebellion; it is a sorrowing heart alone that He will forgive. Sincere and deep regret must always precede forgiveness. For a contrite heart He will never despise (Ps 51:17). As it is for Peter, so it is for us.

We are not asked to forgive someone who does not seek our forgiveness. The word brother in Peter's question implies this. They are brothers; they must be reconciled. Forgiving everyone who does not seek our forgiveness makes a mockery of love — rendering it insincere, inauthentic, automatic, and shallow. To borrow C.S. Lewis' words, "God is not a senile old grandfather with a long white beard who just wants everyone to be happy."

Yesterday, on the Feasts of Ss. Cyprian and Cornelius, we were reminded of love's costs. During the persecutions of the Emperor Decius, many Christians kept the faith though they paid a high price, even their lives. Those who lapsed from the faith wanted to return to the Church when it became possible, but some refused to express regret. A great controversy arose over these so-called lapsi, for many were wealthy and powerful. Perhaps, their explanations are not unknown to us: "I'm only human." "I did what any sensible person would do." "I didn't mean it." Explanation and justification, though, do not follow the path of repentance; in fact, they self-promote as pridefulness directs. Don't we hear similar rationalizations on occasions of personal sin: "I have my needs." "God made me this way." or, most disturbingly, "Go to blazes!" The thief on the left hand of the Crucified Christ died in his hardbitten pridefulness. The thief on His right regretted what he had done ... and was instantly forgiven, even invited into Paradise.

Forgiveness is an essence of reconciliation between two estranged hearts; it is not a burst from a magic wand that changes everything. When we sin, God seeks our sorrowing heart and sincere regret, and then is swift to bless (Ps 103:20). When someone sins against us, we look for their sincere sorrow, and seeing it, our hearts are moved to forgive them instantly. This, of course, is the secret behind the divine command to love our enemies, which is the magic of two hearts that have been touched by love. It is instant, and it is world-changing. By contrast, when one heart meets with a stony heart or with stiff-necked people, the Lord counsels us to move on: "And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town" (Mt 10:14).

Love is not shallow or cheap or thrown about like pixie dust. It is costly and precious. It is not to be cast before swine or thrown to dogs. It is the essential attribute of our God, and it must be guarded for what it is: infinitely holy. Whether in the private spaces of our personal conduct or in our relations with our neighbor, it must be held in highest honor and reverence as being holy. It is the sap within us that enables to grow to full stature, like towering and deeply rooted oaks reaching to Heaven. It is God's plan for us, to order to become like Him: discerning, compassionate, and loving creatures that we might bear the family image. And forgiveness is its hallmark.

It is not hard to the see the image of God in every child that is born. Who cannot see that this little creature, so lately arrived from Heaven, seeks love and seeks to share love such that little, stirring hands might? It is their first need. And, we may say, it will be their last. The Lord reminds us that such as these belong to the Kingdom of God.

Have we lost that glow? Have we tarnished the family image? It is natural to regret so grievous a change in ourselves ... even to mourn it. It is good to look at our lives and consider all that has been lost. Think about it. Feel it to its rightful depth. For when our hearts are sincere with regret, it is then that He will forgive us. And we are free, free to follow Him in His image of goodness and to become more and more and more like Him. This alone is the path to Heaven.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.