Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, Manhattan
21st Sunday after Pentecost, Extraordinary Form
October 9, 2016
Eph 6:10-17, Mt 18:23-35
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
Becoming Merciful Life the Father
The point of this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy is to help us to become “merciful like the Father,” as the theme from St. Luke’s Gospel attests. It’s to be so transformed by receiving God’s mercy that we become merciful like God is merciful. Today’s parable is one of the greatest of all of Jesus’ illustrations not only of this calling but of the means by which we can fulfill this calling.
Right before Jesus gave the parable we hear today, St. Peter had asked Jesus, “If my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?” The Rabbis taught, based on a misinterpretation of passages of the Prophet Amos, that we needed to forgive three times, to give someone a forth chance. Peter multiplied that by two and added one and said, “As many as 7 times?” This would be an astronomical standard, giving someone an eighth chance, before writing someone off as incorrigible. Jesus replies, “No, Seventy Sevens.” Whether that means 70×7 (490) or 70+7 (77) times really doesn’t matter, because seven is a number already with a sense of infinity. It means to forgive without limit. He says Peter must forgive every time a brother or sister wrongs him. And what Jesus says to Peter, he also says to us. We, too, must never refuse forgiveness to anyone who has wronged us — even and especially those who have really wounded us deeply. We must forgive fathers and mothers who have hurt us when we were younger, husbands and wives who have betrayed us, friends who have deceived us, priests or nuns who have scandalized us, assailants who have attacked us, and terrorists who have mercilessly killed those closest to us.
Unpayable and payable debts
Jesus tells us why we must do this by means of the parable he gives us, which I’ve always found among his most powerful. He describes two debtors. The first is brought into the King for owing what our translation says is a “huge amount.” The actual term used by St. Matthew is “10,000 talents.” A talent was equivalent to 6,000 denarii and a denarius was a full day’s wage. That means that the man owed 60,000,000 days worth of work, something that would take him 164,271 years to pay off. His request, after he had fallen prostrate on the ground and begged for time to pay it back, was totally absurd. He would need to live to be 165,000 years old. To monetize his debt in today’s terms in order to better understand it, if he were making $100 a day (or $12.50 an hour), he would have owed $6 billion. But the text tells us that when the King saw the man on the ground begging absurdly for time, his “heart was moved with pity” (literally, he was sick to his stomach, his viscera exploded with compassion) and he forgave the entire debt. He didn’t even make him pay what he could. He forgave it all. We’re supposed to see in this what God does for us. He forgives our entire debt. He forgives us seven, seventy-seven, 490 times and more.
But then we see that the servant who had been forgiven the equivalent of billions today, who was a billionaire in merciful love, went off and met a servant who owed him 100 denarii, something that could be paid off in about 3 months. This second debtor, using the very same words and actions as the first, fell down begging for time to pay it off. The first debtor must have recognized that the phrase and actions being employed reminded him of his own recent condition. But instead of sharing mercy with the second debtor, he went up and started to choke him in anger and threw him into prison until his family was able to raise the 100 denarii (in today’s money $10,000 at $100 a day) to pay him back. At that point the other servants of the King, seeing the behavior of their colleague, were “saddened” and “disturbed” and they went to the Master, not so much to tattle-tale as to let him know of what was happening in his kingdom, that his standard of mercy was not being shown. He called in the first debtor, called him “wicked” and asked the poignant question: “I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” Rather than paying the mercy forward, he stifled the flow. And he was sent to prison until she should pay back the last penny, something, because of the size of his debt, was impossible. Because he was unwilling to forgive a small debt, he would be in prison forever; his lack of forgiveness, rather than what he owed, was what got him sent to an unending incarceration.
Recognizing Just How Much We’ve Been Forgiven
What’s the relevance for us? The first lesson is about the debt we’ve incurred to God because of our sins. It’s unpayable. We owe more to God than the rising U.S. national debt (in the trillions). There’s no way we can ever pay it back. We’re always debtors, not creditors, in the forgiveness department. God the Father did not write off our debt, but sent his Son to pay for the debt with his own body and blood on the Cross. Our sins — even every single venial sin — have incurred an infinite debt that Christ needed to pay. Since we have received his forgiveness in baptism and in the sacrament of reconciliation, we are called to go out likewise and forgive others their much smaller debts to us, because nothing anyone could do to us — even if he or she were to torture us or kill those closest to us — amounts to what we’ve done to the Son of God made man through our sins. This is a very important point for us to get. Very often we can think our sins are light matter. “So I say a few swears,” we can say to ourselves. “That’s not a big deal.” We can have very little compunction if we miss Mass on a Sunday or fail to be charitable, or consent to some impure thoughts, or are dishonest on our taxes. But every sin we’ve committed — even being impatient with others — makes us indirect murderers of the Son of God, because Jesus had to die to forgive even our least venial sin. This is a hard truth to bear, and I know there will be who will think that I must be exaggerating. I’m not. That’s how horrible our sins are. Our sins are not peccadilloes but led to Jesus’ brutal torture and murder. If we stopped there, it would be hard for us not to feel infinitely miserable. But God loved us so much that he counted it a bargain to send his Son to die in payment of the debts we incurred by our sins. That’s the first lesson from today’s Gospel.
Forgiving Others in the Way God has Forgiven Us
The second is that God’s mercy toward us — which is infinite and everlasting — can be forfeited. In the parable, the Master who had written off the $6 billion debt, revoked it when he saw the one he had forgiven refuse similar mercy to the person who owed him. God makes this point emphatically throughout Sacred Scripture. In the Book of Sirach, God tells us, “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?” When Jesus taught us to pray the Our Father, he put seven petitions on our lips, but only one had a condition attached to it. “Forgive us our trespasses,” we pray, “as we have forgiven those who have trespassed (sinned) against us.” We need already to have forgiven and to have the intention to continue to forgive. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,” Jesus tells us right after revealing to us the Lord’s prayer. In today’s Gospel, Jesus vigorously made the same point: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you” — treat us like the first debtor in the parable — “unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” And none of us should miss the consequence if God revokes or we forfeit his forgiveness. If he does so, we will go to Hell, a prison in which there will never be enough time to pay our debt, because unless God forgives us our sins, our sins will prevent us from getting to Heaven. This will happen not because God wishes to punish us, but because unless we have a heart that’s merciful toward others we’re incapable of receiving God’s mercy. Pope Francis makes the point with a cardiological metaphor: that a heart has systolic and diastolic actions, in which blood is pumped in and out of the heart. If the heart has stopped pumping out the Christ-like precious blood of mercy, it is now dead and cannot receive Christ’s out in-pouring. But there’s something else we can say if we fail to forgive others, we will not have to wait until we die to go to Hell, because we’ll already be experiencing a type of hell on earth. The past pains due to others’ sins against us will always remain in the present, raw and heavy, dragging us down by their weight. Jesus gives us the command to forgive others not just so that we might imitate his merciful love, and not even so that we won’t revoke it by our failure to be merciful to others, but so that we might experience the liberation and joy mercy brings the giver. Framed positively, this second lesson that Jesus in teaching us in this parable is that we need to pay his mercy forward. We have been made rich in mercy by God’s generosity and we’re called to share it. It’s like God has made us billionaires and he wants us liberally to share that gift with those who owe us because of the debts of their sins toward us.
In forgiving in this way, Jesus was indicating to us how to fulfill his command to “love others as I have loved you,” and his love for us is always merciful. Therefore, our love for others must likewise always be clement. As he was dying to pay the debt for our sins, after his back had been shredded at the flagellation, after his head had been crowned with thorns, and the Roman soldiers were about to hammer his arms to the wood of the Cross, Jesus cried out not in pain but in mercy: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” (Lk 23:34). The “them” and the “they” he was referring to were not just the Roman Soldiers who clearly knew how to crucify someone, but to all of us who when we sin really do not have a clue about how they crucify and kill our Savior. There is a similar consequential ignorance when we sin against others and others sin against us. Today Jesus is asking us to make his words our own, to make his love our own, to make his mercy our own — by our receiving it from him in the Sacrament of Mercy and by our sharing that forgiveness lavishly, with others. He who is mercy incarnate has made us rich in mercy like his Father. He’s restored to us billions that we’ve squandered. Let’s spend that merciful love down to the last penny!
Getting Vested for Battle at Mass
And the place where we get strengthened to do so is here at Mass. In today’s first reading, St. Paul tells us to “draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power” and this is the place that we come to draw all our spiritual energies from the power of his merciful flowing from his pierced side. This is where we’re strengthened with the armor of God to “stand firm against the tactics of the Devil” on the “evil day.” This is where we put on Christ and his merciful love, where we wrap ourselves with the truth about him, ourselves and our need for him; where we’re clothed in his holiness around our heart, where we put on the shoes of the Gospel of peace through the forgiveness of sins, where we grow in faith and say, “Jesus, I trust in you!” and in his divine mercy whever the devil shots flaming arrows of temptations; this is where we rap our head with the helmet of salvation so that our minds are thinking about eternity, and where we assimilate the word of God as a weapon to use against the devil, just as Jesus used it in the desert. This is where we begin by confessing that we’re in need of God’s help and protection because we’re sinners who have lost in battles against the devil by our own grievous fault but are nevertheless strengthened by God so that we might win the war. This is where we proclaim that we’re not worthy to receive him but we ask him to say the word and forgive our debts so that he may enter under our roof. And with Jesus inside us, with mercy incarnate abiding in us, how can we not forgive others like he forgives us?
The readings for today’s Mass were:
A reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians
Finally, brothers and sisters, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
The continuation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew
Jesus said to his disciples, “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”