Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Tuesday of the Third Week in Lent
March 1, 2016
Dan 3:25.34-43, Ps 25, Mt 18:21-35
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- The theme of this extraordinary Jubilee Year is “Merciful like the Father.” We’re called to become merciful like God the Father is merciful. Jesus, whom Pope Francis called the “face” of God the Father’s mercy, and who identified himself to St. Faustina as “Mercy incarnate” has come to show us the how to be merciful like the Father. Today’s reading is placed in this “second phase” of Lent — from the Third Sunday through Friday of the Fifth Week — precisely to help the Elect preparing for baptism, and all of us who have already entered the Sacred Waters, know the demands that flow from baptism into God’s mercy. Jesus stressed when he taught us the Our Father that unless we forgive others their debts, neither will our heavenly Father forgive us ours; he won’t withhold forgiveness from us as a punishment, but rather we won’t be able to receive that gift, because unless we have a heart that’s ready to forgive others, our heart will be closed to absorb the gift of his mercy. And so Jesus wants through baptism to take away our stony hearts and replace them with a heart of flesh, a heart that can receiving the in-pouring of the Father’s mercy systolically and pump it out diastolically. As we pray today with the Prophet Daniel, “Do not take away your mercy from us” and “deal with us in your kindness and great mercy,” today God shows us how never to lose that mercy and make that deal. As we beseech God in the words of the Psalm, “Remember your mercies, Lord,” and remark that the Lord is “good and upright,” who “shows sinners the way,” the Lord today instructs us in his way by helping us not only to remember his mercies but also never to forget the need to pass that mercy on.
- That’s what today’s Gospel is all about. St. Peter asks Jesus, “If my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?” One of the most difficult aspects of living the Catholic faith is the teaching about loving even our enemies and forgiving those who repeatedly wrong us, hate us and persecute us. When people hurt us, we think it’s magnanimous and generous to give them a second chance. If we forgive them yet again, we think we’re ready for canonization. But Jesus’ standards for us are higher. He wants us to become as merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful — and each of our autobiographies shows clearly that God has given us way more than one or two spiritual mulligans. 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 in his question to Jesus 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 replied, however, “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, brothers and sisters 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.
- 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, splanchnizomai, the verb that the evangelists use to describe Jesus’ mercy) 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 the Parable describes that the servant who had been forgiven billions, 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. It was obvious that he hadn’t been transformed by the incredible act of mercy of the King. He had received the King’s debt forgiveness superficially and even on a day on which he had been forgiven billions couldn’t even give another person time to pay back the debt he owed. 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.
- What’s the relevance for us in Lent, in life, and in this Year of Mercy?
- The first lesson is that we’re either “merciful like the Father” and forgive others their sins against us or we’re “wicked” because we do not extend to our fellow servants the pity that the Lord first showed us.
- The second 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, not that big a deal. We can have very little compunction if we say a harsh word, or consent to an impure thought, or fail to help a needy neighbor. But every sin we’ve committed — even being impatient with others — makes us crucifiers 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; they 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 second lesson from today’s Gospel.
- The third 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?” 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 eternal consequence if God revokes or we forfeit his forgiveness. We’ll go to Hell, where there will never be enough time to pay our debt — since unless God forgives us our sins, our sins will prevent us from getting to Heaven. We can add, however, that 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 third 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.
- But let’s get to the nitty gritty about some of the reasons why people don’t forgive as God has forgiven us, reasons why we resist becoming merciful like the Father, so that these truths don’t remain theoretical and peripheral to our lives.
- The first reason is because we don’t receive God’s mercy enough because we don’t recognize how much we need it sufficiently. The more we’re aware of our own need for forgiveness from God and the more we receive it, the easier it should be to extend that gift toward others. That’s why it’s crucially important that we examine our consciences daily and go to confession frequently. When we recognize that even our “smallest” sins incur an infinite debt that Jesus had to pay with his own blood, then we want to root out those sins out. Sorrow for our sins, and a healthy self-love, move us to go, like the debtors in the Gospel, to the Divine Creditor and drop to our knees, begging for his mercy in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
- The second practical tip relates to our mercy with others. Sometimes we hesitate to forgive others because we think it implies that we don’t consider what they’ve done any longer to be wrong. But this is a false and harmful understanding of forgiveness. When we forgive another, it does not mean that we approve of the wrong they’ve done or won’t try to bring a malefactor to justice if they’ve done something criminal. Mercy is not opposed to justice and to forgive does not mean to be weak and “soft on sin or crime.” On the contrary, a true spirit of forgiveness involves a genuine horror for the sinful quality of the harm sins do and the deep desire to right the wrong and deter others from committing similar wrongs. It involves hating the sin but loving the sinner. Sometimes our greatest mercy toward another is, in a spirit of unvindictive charity, to help them to see the error of their deeds and repent through a just punishment.
- The third tip is to recall that Jesus never said, “Forgive and forget.” So many people have told me over the years that they can’t forgive because they can never forget the pain from the harm done by others. Jesus never told us, “Forgive and forget,” because of the simple fact that when another deeply hurts us, there’s no way we could ever forget that. Forgiveness is not some type of psychological or emotional amnesia. It’s something altogether different. Forgiveness means changing the present significance of a past event, from one that causes pain to one that leads to mercy and love. Imagine your best friend deeply betrays you and you find it difficult even to think about the person, not to mention be in the other’s presence. What would forgiveness look like in that circumstance? It would begin by praying in these or similar words, “Dear Lord, please be merciful to that person and be merciful to me too.” Whenever we do this, we’re not “forgetting” the sin; rather, we’re changing the present meaning of the person’s past actions from something that opens up the pains of the wounds to something that causes us to pray for mercy for that person and for us too. I call it the “cow manure” principle by which we change the detritus we’ve undergone into fertilizer for growth in holiness. If we can convert all of these past pains into present opportunities to pray for God’s mercy, then we have a chance to become deeply holy, because there are always plenty of people and reasons to forgive. Whenever we come into their presence, if we’re led to pray for them and for ourselves, then instead of doing us harm, they will do us great good. That’s what forgiveness really is.
- In forgiving in this way, Jesus was indicated to us who 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. And he wants us to spend that merciful love down to the last penny!
- And the place where we get strengthened to do so is here at Mass, where Jesus gives us his body and his blood, given and poured out for the forgiveness of sins. We always start Mass by calling to mind our sins and throwing ourselves on his mercy, so that as we leave this Church we can lavishly spend it. We cry out Kyrie, eleison. We invoke him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We proclaim that we’re not worthy to receive him but we beg him only 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? There’s a beautiful silent prayer that the priest says at the altar that describes what our whole approach should be to the Mass. The priest says it after offering the chalice, right before his hands are washed. It’s derived from today’s first reading from the Book of Daniel. “In spiritu humilitatis, et in animo contrito suscipiamur a te, Domine: et sic fiat sacrificum nostrum in conspectu tuo hodie, ut placeat tibi, Domine Deus.” “But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received [by you, Lord]; so let our sacrifice be in your presence today,” that it may be pleasing to you, Lord God. We present ourselves with a humility and contrition so that God the Father can transform us by his mercy to become his mercy. Let’s present ourselves that way today because the Lord does remember his mercy and wants to help us never to forget it either!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 DN 3:25, 34-43
or make void your covenant.
Do not take away your mercy from us,
for the sake of Abraham, your beloved,
Isaac your servant, and Israel your holy one,
To whom you promised to multiply their offspring
like the stars of heaven,
or the sand on the shore of the sea.
For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation,
brought low everywhere in the world this day
because of our sins.
We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader,
no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.
But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received;
As though it were burnt offerings of rams and bullocks,
or thousands of fat lambs,
So let our sacrifice be in your presence today
as we follow you unreservedly;
for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.
And now we follow you with our whole heart,
we fear you and we pray to you.
Do not let us be put to shame,
but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy.
Deliver us by your wonders,
and bring glory to your name, O Lord.”
Responsorial Psalm PS 25:4-5AB, 6 AND 7BC, 8-9
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior.
R. Remember your mercies, O Lord.
Remember that your compassion, O LORD,
and your kindness are from of old.
In your kindness remember me,
because of your goodness, O LORD.
R. Remember your mercies, O Lord.
Good and upright is the LORD;
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
he teaches the humble his way.
R. Remember your mercies, O Lord.
Verse Before The Gospel JL 2:12-13
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart;
for I am gracious and merciful.
Gospel MT 18:21-35
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive him?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why 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 your brother from your heart.”