Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, A
September 15, 2002
Sir 27:30-28:9; Ps 103; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35
1) In order to appreciate what Jesus is trying to say to each one of us today about God’s forgiveness and our need to forgive others, we first have to make sure we can appreciate what he was trying to explain to us in the very dramatic story of the king he gave to illustrate the point to St. Peter about why we have to forgive without limits, seventy-times seven times. So we’re going to take a walk back into history and hear the story as Jews would have 2000 years ago so that we can appreciate more deeply what Jesus is saying for our salvation.
2) The story’s opening is ominous. A king, for Jesus’ hearers, was not a constitutional monarch with limited powers, but a man with the power of life and death over his subjects. The people with whom he intends to settle accounts are important officials responsible for collecting the king’s taxes. “One was brought before him,” the story says. The use of the passive suggests that official is hauled before the ruler by the royal guards. The amount of the man’s debt would have caused Jesus’ hearers to gasp in disbelief. The “huge amount” in our translation conceals the figure given by Matthew: “ten thousand talents.” A talent was the largest sum of money then in use something like a million dollars today. The king they knew best, Herod the Great, is estimated to have had a total annual income of only nine hundred talents. To have incurred a debt more than ten times that already huge amount meant that the official has been embezzling on an enormous scale. It would have been equivalent to owing tens of billions of dollars today. A debt of that magnitude is unpayable as the story says: “He had no way of paying it.” The king’s command, that not only the official but his wife and children as well, should be sold into slavery, shows that this was a harsh Gentile monarch. According to Jewish law only a robber unable to restore what he had stolen could be enslaved. Other family members were immune from such punishment.
3) Up to this point of the story the sympathy of Jesus’ hearers would have been with the corrupt official. Though his embezzlement of such a huge sum was certainly dishonest, the king’s cruelty was worse. The man’s plea, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full,” reinforced by his body language — falling down before the king in homage — is merely an expression of the official’s desperation. Once a sum of money so vast was gone, a lifetime would have been insufficient to repay it. Now comes a surprise: “Moved with compassion, the master let the servant go and forgave him the loan.” A king who was prepared to enslave an entire family for the debt of one member is not the kind of man from whom one would expect mercy, let alone mercy on this scale. But he does so nonetheless. We’ll come back to this, but Jesus’ carefully crafted story will have further surprises still.
4) No sooner delivered from his desperate plight, the official, formerly passive (“brought in”), becomes active: “He found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount.” Again Matthew states the amount “a hundred denarii.” A denarius was a day’s wage the amount promised by the vineyard owner in another parable to those hired early in the day (cf. Mt 20:2). A hundred denarii would be the equivalent of about $10,000. The contrast with the debt owed by the first official and now forgiven — tens of billions of dollars — and that owed the latter by his colleague is immense. The second official’s reaction to the demand that he pay his debt mirrors that of the first. Body language (kneeling) and plea (“Be patient with me, and I will pay you back”) are identical. The sole difference is that the second official’s debt could easily be paid, given reasonable time. How shocking for those hearing the story for the first time to learn of the first official’s harsh response. Seizing his colleague by the throat and throttling him, he insists that the man be imprisoned until the debt is paid. The first official has completely forfeited the sympathy he enjoyed at the story’s outset. In the story’s conclusion the colleagues of the two debtors do what Jesus’ hearers wish they might do in the same situation. They report the injustice to the king. Summoning the first official again, the king reminds him of the unmerited mercy he has received and, in an act of grim irony, grants the man what, in his original desperation, he had requested: time. Now, however, the time will be spent not in repayment but in prison, under torture. And, because the debt is unpayable, that time spend in a torturous prison will last forever.
5) So that’s the story Jesus used in answer to St. Peter’s question, “Lord, if my brothers sins against me, how often must I forgive?” Seven times is not enough. 77 times is not enough. 490 times is not enough. Jesus is saying that we have to forgive our neighbor every time he wrongs us. Why? Because our own lives mirror the reality that Jesus describes in the parable. We’re like that first official, brought in before the King, who stands for God, owing him a debt that is entirely unpayable. From birth we owe God everything. He has given us the gift of life, using our parents as his instruments. He has also given us the unique set of gifts and talents with which each of us is endowed. Only a life of perfect obedience to God could discharge this debt. By disobedience, however, by our sins, we have amassed further debts. Like the first official in the story, our situation is hopeless. Our debt to God is unpayable. But the King loved us so much that he did something even more shocking than merely forgiving our debt, because He is a God of justice as well as king and merciful. He sent his only Son to die to pay on our behalf a debt we could never discharge ourselves. God has done for us, in short, even more than what the king did for his corrupt official. As Paul writes: “He pardoned all our sins. He canceled the bond that stood against us with all its claims, snatching it up and nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13f). What a tremendous gift it is! God forgave us everything through His Son, who paid our debt it full.
6) There are two consequences, though, that we need to take and apply to our life right now, because it is a matter of life and death for us. The first is a lesson about God’s mercy. God will forgive every sin we commit, except one, what St. Matthew calls the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. What is this sin? It’s the sin of impenitence, the failure to come to receive the Lord’s mercy, either because one thinks that the sins he commits are not really “sins” at all, or that God cannot forgive a particular sin or because one is too proud to come to ask for forgiveness. In order to receive this free gift of God’s forgiveness, we need first to recognize that we have sinned; secondly, that God can, will and wants to forgive us and pour his mercy all over us; and thirdly, come to him. Jesus the Son of God established a sacrament so that we can receive this mercy, the sacrament of reconciliation. So practically speaking, Jesus calls us to examine our consciences deeply in the light of the Sacred Scriptures and the teaching of the Church through which he speaks, recognize his will to forgive us in the sacrament of his mercy and then come to confession. Those who are too proud to come to the sacrament of reconciliation, who give in to the whispers of the devil who feeds them the lies that they don’t have to come, that what they’re doing really isn’t so bad, or that they can confess their sins straight to God, etc., are putting their eternity at risk.
7) The second thing Jesus is clearly calling us to do is to share this mercy with others. Compared to the debts we owe God that he has forgiven us in the past and which he wants to forgive us in the future, the debts that others owe to us are really tremendously small. Whereas our debts to God can never by repaid by us, the debts that others hold toward us really are payable. But so often we can behave like the first official in Jesus’ story, after having received the Lord’s forgiveness, we’ll go out and hold grudges, fail to forgive those who have sinned against us. Jesus is clear in the parable. If we do just that, then we’ll be brought back in front of the Lord and then, as Jesus describes starkly in the image, we’ll be put in prison for all eternity to pay back an unpayable debt. Our receiving forgiveness on the part of the Lord is conditioned, we can say, on our forgiving others, which means not just being a forgiving person “in general,” but forgiving every single person every single debt, because no matter what they do, it’s small compared to the debt we owe to God. Jesus said as much when he taught us the Our Father. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” After teaching the Our Father, Jesus made clearer what he was saying: “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.” That’s the condition. And if we fail to forgive, then we will not receive God’s forgiveness.
8 ) So our forgiveness cannot just be “generous.” It can’t just be seven times, or even 77. It must be constant. Forgiveness is mercy. We let go of the grudges we have against someone, we pray for their well-being. It doesn’t mean that we forget what the person did or enable the person the situation to continue to do similar harm to us or to others, but that, while remembering that the person is capable of doing evil, we pray for the person, that God be merciful to the person and help the person get to heaven. Jesus’ message about forgiveness is as urgent today as it ever was. In my preparation of couples for marriage, there’s a question that’s asked, about their willingness to forgive their future spouse if the future spouse proves unfaithful. Almost every couple says that if they discovered infidelity, they would leave the spouse. Despite the fact that they promise to be married until the die, “for better or worse,” and this would qualify as worse, they say they won’t forgive. I mention that if they go into marriage refusing to forgive for any particular thing (no matter what it is), they aren’t able to get married at all, because they’re really not meaning the words that they’ll be married for the rest of their lives for better or worse. That generally gets them to see the importance of it. But then I mention Jesus’ words, that in order to receive God’s forgiveness, we need to forgive always, without limit, and ESPECIALLY when the other really hurts us. God doesn’t call us to forgive the other only when the other misses an appointment, or accidently spills something over our shirt, or says something that hurts our feeling. He’s calling us to forgive even when someone betrays us, when someone kills a loved one, when someone brutally hurts us. There’s no way of softening Jesus’ teaching. He means what he says. He never lies. And he’s not asking us to do anything that he himself didn’t do. When our sins brutally led to his agony, led to his being whipped with 195 lashes ripping open his skin on the back, when it led to his being stripped naked and hammered to a Cross — and nothing as bad could really, foreseeably happen to us — Jesus turned to his Father and said, “Father, Forgive them for they know not what they do!” And the “them” there was us. Now he calls us to do the same.