Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Sirach 27:30-28:7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 103:1-4, 9-12
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 14:7-9
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 18:21-35
Despite what some might think, there has never been a time when all who proclaim faith in Christ have held the exact same beliefs in essential areas like faith and morals. Each of the first seven councils of the Church were necessary in order to determine the parameters of orthodox Catholic belief, and two of those – Nicea and 1st Constantinople – were of such great import that they produced the Creed that is proclaimed at Mass each weekend.
Even prior to the convening of the first ecumenical or worldwide council at Nicea in A.D. 325 the Church had to deal with the question of whether or not a convert to the Faith had to take up all of the 613 statutes laid out in the Old Testament. In deciding in the negative the Church continued the break with Judaism that began when Jesus first angered the authorities in Jerusalem and came to its completion when the Christians were expelled from the synagogues and the canon of the Jewish or Hebrew Bible was set, sometime in the latter days of the 1st Century A.D.
The Bible used by Jesus and His followers was known as the Septuagint, and it included a number of books that were not written in Hebrew, but instead were composed in Greek. Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, is one of seven such books known to the early Church and included only in the Catholic and Orthodox version of the Old Testament. As a way of distancing themselves from the Catholic Church, first the Jews and then the Protestants expunged all of the Greek texts, producing what is known today as the Hebrew Bible.
This distinction isn’t well known – to the point where even well-educated Catholics will unwittingly use the terms Old Testament and Hebrew Bible as if they are interchangeable – but it exists, and it points to the continuity between the Judaism of Jesus and the Church that He founded.
This weekend’s first reading from Sirach points to the importance of the inclusion of these seven books. The words spoken by the author, Yeshua, son of Eleazar, son of Sira, could have easily been spoken by Yeshua of Nazareth, son of Mary. When he writes, “Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven” who could not see in these words the forerunner of the Lord’s Prayer?
Almost as if to expand upon the words of the earlier Yeshua, Jesus tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. This story comes almost immediately after the Parable of the Lost Sheep where the unbounded mercy of the Good Shepherd is beautifully described in His willingness to go to any length to find that one sheep who has wandered away and His overwhelming joy at bringing it back into the fold.
Contrasted to this willingness of the Good Shepherd to bring back the sheep with great cost to Himself is the servant who will take no mercy on a fellow servant even though the master had been merciful to him. Jesus makes it clear that the master in the parable is His Heavenly Father and that those who act like the unjust servant better be ready to bear the full weight of God’s justice.
Despite the differences in beliefs across the Christian spectrum on so many issues – including which books actually should be included in the Bible – it would be difficult to find any group that doesn’t find the parables to be compelling and essential aspects of the teachings of Jesus or that doesn’t make the Lord’s Prayer a centerpiece of its spirituality. For those who adhere to the Catholic Faith those stories and that prayer have an even deeper meaning because of their link to folks like Yeshua, son of Eleazar, son of Sira.