Thursday, 13 August 2020 : 19th Week of Ordinary Time, Memorial of Pope St. Pontian, Pope and Martyr, and St. Hippolytus, Priest and Martyr (Homily and Scripture Reflections)

Liturgical Colour : Green or Red (Martyrs)

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, on this day all of us are reminded of God’s wonderful love and mercy, and just how fortunate and blessed each and every one of us are that God has extended to us His forgiveness and reached out to us to show His love and compassion. We have sinned against God by our disobedience, our wickedness and constant failure to resist the temptations of the devil, and we should have been crushed and destroyed if not for God’s mercy and love.

In our first reading today, we heard from the Book of the prophet Ezekiel in which the prophet spoke of the Lord’s premonitions and words regarding the downfall of the sinful and all those who have disobeyed and refused to believe in Him. The Lord told Ezekiel to do as He said, to show all those who had been carried off into Babylon in exile, that the final days of the kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem were at hand.

Ezekiel showed what would happen to the prince of the city of Jerusalem and the rest of the people, as how king Zedekiah, the last king of Judah would flee from the besieged city of Jerusalem after years of siege, and tried to flee from the Babylonians, only to be caught and humiliated, and the rest of the people enslaved and brought into exile. The city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple of God, long defiled by the sins of the people, was torn down in the conquest, its many vessels and goods brought into Babylon as spoils of war.

And this is the consequence of the sins that the people of God had committed, as they abandoned God for the pagan idols and for their futile pursuits of worldliness, to satisfy their ego, greed and ambitions. They lost everything, their pride and their land, their livelihood and all that they had, humiliated and treated less than men, to serve the needs of their masters and conquerors. Yet, they lived, and this showed that God still loved them, cared for them, regardless of their many sins.

This is then what the Lord told His disciples in our Gospel passage today as He spoke of them on the matter of forgiveness when the Apostle St. Peter asked Him how many times we must forgive our enemies and those who have wronged us, and the Lord said, ‘seventy times seven times’. The connotation of seven and seventy was in fact a reference to the need for one to be constantly forgiving, as seven is a number of perfection, and seventy times seven show complete perfection, meaning forgiveness without end in this case.

The Lord also used the parable to highlight this matter to His disciples, as He spoke of a rich lord who had many servants, and whose servants owed him quite a fair amount of money, and they were supposed to pay back what they owed or face the consequences. One of the servants who owed ten thousand pieces of gold, a relatively large amount that time, begged his lord and master to give him more time to be able to pay back the debt, and not to levy punishment on him or his household.

The lord, moved with pity, did not just listen to what the servant asked and begged for, but even more, he cancelled out his entire debt, which means that the servant did not have to pay off the entire huge debt of ten thousand pieces of gold. The servant, definitely being happy, then went off and then, met another servant who owed him money, a sum of a hundred pieces of silver. This is a much, much smaller amount than what the servant once owed his lord and master and had been forgiven from.

Yet, the servant forced the other servant to pay him back and threatened him, and even when the other servant begged for him to forgive him or at least give him more time to pay back his debt, the servant refused and sent the poor other servant into prison. And this came to the knowledge of the lord, who became very, very upset at the servant, who showed complete ingratitude at what he had been so fortunate and blessed with. He was forgiven his massive debt and yet, could not forgive a much smaller debt owed him.

This was representative of what God, our Lord and Master has done for us and what He is expecting all of us to do in our own lives. The lord in the parable represents the Lord Himself, and the servants of the lord being each and every one of us. The debts represent the sins and faults, the mistakes and hurt we have caused one another, the large debt represents the debt we have towards God, our sins caused by our disobedience and wickedness, while the smaller debt represents the faults and hurts we committed to one another, to our fellow brothers and sisters.

The essence of today’s Scripture readings therefore is to point out to us that, if God has been able to forgive us our sins, just as how enormous and incomprehensibly large the extent of those sins are for each one of us, then why can’t we forgive one another our sins and faults, our mistakes and hurts we have caused each other? That is because we are often too filled up with ego and pride that we cannot see ourselves humbling and stepping down to forgive, seeing forgiving others as a sign of weakness.

And our desires made the better of us, by tempting us to seek for satisfaction and good things for ourselves, for things we want and crave like money and material possessions, often at the expense of others. That is why we get angry at others, or demand others to give in to what we want, and not forgiving them their debts and mistakes, not realising that we have been forgiven even greater debts by the Lord.

The Lord wants us to do the same with our fellow brothers and sisters, to forgive them their debts and mistakes, their sins and faults to us, just as He has forgiven us all our sins and trespasses. Isn’t this what we always pray for in the Lord’s Prayer? ‘Forgive us our trespasses just as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.’ And in order to do this, we need to get rid from ourselves the taints of pride and ego, the temptations of greed and worldly desires among other things.

Are we able to do so brothers and sisters in Christ? Are we willing to commit ourselves to be forgiving to one another and also accept God’s forgiveness in our lives? We are called to devote our time, effort and attention to serve the Lord faithfully and to be loving just as He is loving, forgiving and be compassionate just as He is forgiving and compassionate. And today, let us all also gain the inspiration from our holy predecessors, namely Pope St. Pontian and St. Hippolytus, whose feasts we celebrate today.

At that time, Pope St. Pontian and St. Hippolytus were rivals in the influence within the Church, with St. Hippolytus apparently having been elected as the ‘Antipope’ in opposition to several Popes, as the former accused the latter of heresies and infidelities. St. Hippolytus was supported by the Greek-speaking Christians in Rome while Pope St. Pontian and his immediate predecessors were supported by the Latin-speaking Christians. The division lasted for quite a few years, and in the meantime new round of persecutions against Christians occurred.

It was then that the Roman Emperor and the government imposed a new persecution that led to the arrest of both Pope St. Pontian and St. Hippolytus, who were sent into exile and hard labour in Sardinia, and it was there that both of them were reconciled to each other, forgiving one another what had transpired and happened between them for the sake of unity in the Church. St. Hippolytus likely gave up his contention as an ‘Antipope’ while Pope St. Pontian also resigned from the Pontificate to allow for the election of a new Pope to commence, as his arrest meant that it was unlikely that he would ever be able to resume his duties.

Both saints eventually died in martyrdom, defending the truth of their faith, but not before showing all of us the power of forgiveness and reconciliation, of forgiving each other no matter how bitter we may have been over the disagreements and divisions we have between us. Ultimately, we must remember that God forgave us all and is still forgiving us even when we have committed so many sins against Him.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us all turn towards the Lord with a new heart of love and hope, and seek for forgiveness from Him for our every sins and weaknesses. Let us all be loving as He has been loving, and be inspired by the story of forgiveness of Pope St. Pontian and St. Hippolytus, forgoing their differences and embracing a new existence in love through God. May God be with us always, now and always. Amen.

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