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Tuesday, third week of Lent

March 21, 2006

Blessed Tuesday!

Readings: Daniel 3:25, 34-43 (Azariah’s prayer for mercy in the fiery furnace)
Psalm 25: 4-9 “Remember Your mercies, Lord”
+Matthew 18:21-35 (forgive seventy times seven times)

The command to love is a command to be prepared for martyrdom…and a command to learn that martyrdom isn’t what we think it is.

In the modern slang use of the word, “martyrs” are doormats who let everyone abuse them and then complain incessantly about just how much they have to put up with. They invite misery and then “share the wealth”. Even if they don’t complain outwardly, their suffering sours their spirits and sickens their bodies. They’re not pleasant people to be around. That’s not the kind of martyrdom to which God calls us. It’s not true forgiveness. It’s not love.

So what is this martyrdom we’re to expect? What does it look like? How does it feel? How will we know when we’ve got it right? Fortunately for us, God’s left many examples for us to study, including the one absolutely perfect example of His own martyrdom, His Passion and Death.

Martyrs are literally witnesses, people who give testimony to God from personal experience. The word has since come to be applied specifically to those who die for the Faith. Here I’m using it a bit more figuratively, for those noble men and women who freely lay down their lives in payment of someone else’s debt, whether they die a physical death or not. That’s what Azariah and his companions, Hananiah and Mishael (better known by their Babylonian names of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego), are in the process of doing as they stand in the midst of King Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. These are righteous men who have been sentenced to this tortuous death precisely because of their righteousness, because they refused to give in to idolatry. How wrong is that?!

But listen to what Azariah says as the flames roar around him. There’s not a single word of complaint on his lips. He’s praising God! He’s agreeing with God (much like his friend Daniel did in the reading we had a week ago Monday) that his people have brought this on themselves. They wouldn’t be in Babylon, they wouldn’t be subjected to this expectation of worshiping Babylonian gods, if they hadn’t blown it as a nation, sinning so grievously and persistently that He had to send them into exile to wrench them out of the grip of the devil. The trouble is, Azariah continues, that because they’re in exile, cut off from the temple, they don’t have access to the means of repentance God had ordained for them. They can’t go sacrifice a lamb or bull or goat as a sin offering because they have no animals, no priests & no temple. They’re utterly helpless, even as the Prodigal Son was. However, like the Prodigal Son, these three come in humble confidence to the God who loves them. They too bring Him everything they have–their very lives–and lay themselves at His feet, begging His mercy.

The twist in this story is that the ones who were making the sacrifice weren’t the ones who owed it. If we compare this to the story of the Prodigal Son, it would be as if the elder son went to his father begging for mercy for his wayward brother, offering to serve his father as a slave in payment of his brother’s debt! Furthermore, this service was done in joy and gratitude, flowing from the freedom of a full and open heart. Most of the time Azariah, Hananiah and Mishael spent in the fiery furnace, was spent in singing, glorifying and blessing God and calling on all creation–in detail–to join their song of praise. How did they do that?! Why weren’t they weeping and snarling and wailing and protesting this intense injustice?

They weren’t alone. “Hearing them sing, and astonished at seeing them alive, King Nebuchadnezzar rose in haste and asked his nobles, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?’ ‘Assuredly, O King,’ they answered. ‘But,’ he replied, ‘I see four men unfettered and unhurt, walking in the fire, and the fourth looks like a son of God.’” (Daniel 3:90-92). When we suffer for Him, unite our suffering to His, and invite Him, the Son of God comes to walk through the fire with us. Azariah, Hananiah and Mishael were paying a debt they did not owe. So was Jesus. He paid that debt through them. This is the heart of true love.

This point is also brought out in the story of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. When Felicity went into labor in prison while awaiting martyrdom, the guards taunted her for crying out. If she couldn’t handle the pain of childbirth, how was she going to face the beasts? She answered, “I myself now suffer that which I suffer, but there another shall be in me who shall suffer for me, because I am to suffer for Him” (http://cathworld.mail.everyone.net/email/scripts/loginuser.pl).

When we pay a debt we do not owe, when we lay down our lives in sacrifice for another, Jesus pays the debt through us. He loves through us! And His Presence and His love bring indescribable joy even in the midst of the most painful payment.

This is what forgiveness is all about. This is why Jesus could respond so extravagantly to St. Peter’s question. Peter thought he was already being generous. To forgive seven times?! Surely that was more than enough!

No, if you stop there, you haven’t learned the joy of forgiveness. You’re acting like the person this world thinks of as a martyr–resenting every sacrifice. You haven’t learned yet to let the generous, joyful heart of God forgive through you. When you do, you won’t want to stop! You have no idea what riches of forgiveness are at your disposal, are yours for the asking.

This is the message of Jesus’ parable about the king who forgave his servant’s enormous debt. The king himself paid a debt he did not owe. He laid down his own life in love for his servant. This servant was now free to let the king forgive his fellow servant through him, to lay down his own life in love for his fellow servant. After all, why did the first servant need repayment from the second if not to repay the king? But the king had already paid the debt. The former debtor could now afford to be extravagant, joyfully generous in his new-found financial freedom. “The gift you have received, give as a gift” (Matthew 10:8). He should’ve thrown a party. “It’s all on me! Come rejoice with me over my master’s unbelievable generosity!” The one who has been forgiven much can be expected to love much (see Luke 7:36-50), to lay down their life for the eternal benefit of those in need.

St. Peter learned this first-hand through his own experience of Jesus’ forgiveness. He who denied Jesus three times (Mathew 26:69-75) was the first Apostle to have a personal encounter with the risen Lord (Luke 24:34) and was later given three opportunities to express his love while Jesus commissioned him as leader of the Church (John 21:15-19). Jesus could trust Peter with this position of authority precisely because Peter had learned to love. Peter knew how much he had been forgiven. He had experienced God’s extravagant generosity for himself and he spent the rest of his life going out to all the world to proclaim the good news (see Mark 16:15, Acts 2:14-40, Acts 3 & 4, etc.). When he was persecuted, he not only forgave, he rejoiced (Acts 5:41)! And he instructed others to rejoice in suffering as well (I Peter 1:6-7, 3:13-14, 4:12-19).

If martyrdom is so joyful, does that mean we should invite it? This was a very serious question in the early Church, especially when widespread persecutions broke out in the 300’s. There were those who did invite persecution. Some, such as the Circumcellions (a branch of the heretical Donatists), not only invited persecution, but demanded it, and were known to throw themselves off of cliffs if no one could be persuaded to kill them. But this position has no basis in Scripture, and the Church has condemned it. Azariah, Hananiah and Mishael did not volunteer for the fiery furnace. They simply obeyed God and accepted the consequences. Jesus Himself says, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Matthew 10:23) and He refused to put God to the test by throwing Himself off the temple (Matthew 4:5-7). Neither persecution nor suffering is good in and of itself. We are not to invite others to sin, just so we can forgive them! God will not give us the grace for that, as was demonstrated by Quintus, a contemporary of St. Polycarp, who persuaded others to join him in giving themselves up to the persecutors. At the last moment, Quintus denied his faith.

We are dependent on God even for our opportunities to forgive. We may not seek them for ourselves.

May we experience the joy of God’s forgiving power flowing through us as we unite ourselves to His redemption of the world.

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