Paying God’s Mercy Forward, 19th Thursday, August 14, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Thursday of the 19th Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, Priest and Martyr
August 14, 2014
Ezek 12:1-12, Ps 78, Mt 18:21-19:1

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below: 


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Yesterday we focused on fraternal correction in seeking to bring people back into communion from a wayward life. But it’s not enough merely to correct. There needs to be forgiveness offered as well for genuine reconciliation to be effected, so that people can pray and live “into the name” of Jesus. So, picking up on the theme of yesterday, Peter asks how often must he forgive his brother when his brother sins against 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 a very high 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.
  • To drive home his point, Jesus then gives us a parable that I think is one of the least remembered but one of the most important for us to understand. 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 7, 77, 490 times and more.
  • But then we see 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. 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.
  • We learn two great lessons from this Parable. The first 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. That’s why Jesus needed to come to pay it for us. An infinite debt needed an infinite payment, something Jesus himself could do as the sinless God-man but we can never do. It’s key for us to grasp this. Many times we think all our sins are venial, easily forgiven, “peccadillos,” whereas they were what required Jesus’ death to repay in justice. Our sins against God in justice require an infinite punishment. We can often behave like the exiled Jews in the first reading. God has the Prophet Ezekiel give a sin to all of the exiled Jews with him in Babylon. He packs an “exile’s bag,” the type of bag someone would make with valuables if one were never coming home again. He has him dig through the mud wall surrounding the enclave of Jews in Babylon and leave for the night. Doubtless during the night, the exiled Jews of what God calls a “rebellious house” might have been thinking that their punishment was at an end, that they were about to pack their bags and return to Jerusalem after a few years in exile, that they had done their penance and now they were ready to resume life as normal. But that’s not the message God was sending at all. When Elijah returned the following day he said that their problems and their penance were about to get worse. “This oracle concerns Jerusalem and the whole house of Israel within it. I am a sign for you:  as I have done, so shall it be done to them; as captives they shall go into exile.” What before was the exile of only a small percentage of the Jews would now grow into an exile of everyone. The Jews in Babylon, and the Jews who had remained back in Jerusalem, still hadn’t heeded God’s message of conversion that he had sent so many prophets to deliver to them, and the result was, like the ungrateful debtor, that their just, medicinal punishment would now get worse. We all have to learn from their mistake and be more grateful to God for the gift of his mercy than someone who has just been forgiven of a $6 billion debt would be to his creditor. When we pray today in the Psalm, “Do not forget the works of the Lord!,” the greatest work we should never forget is how much he has forgiven us!
  • That leads to the second lesson we learn. We need to pay the 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. Even when people have amassed big debts to us — they killed a loved one drunk behind the wheel, they’ve abused us, they’ve tortured us or our loved ones, they’ve made it their life’s purpose to spread calumny against us to hurt our reputation — those debts are nothing in comparison with the debt we have made to God. When others come to us asking for our forgiveness, we need to remember that what they’re requesting is $10,000 in comparison with the $6 billion remitted to us. We who have received much need to give much, knowing that what we give is nothing compared to what we’ve been given. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts (sins) as we have forgiven our debtors,” commenting afterward, that unless we forgive our brothers their sins our heavenly Father will not forgive us ours. Jesus made the same point just as emphatically at the end of the parable: “So will my heavenly Father do to you” — send you into prison until you pay back an unpayable debt — “unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” We’re supposed to forgive not just with words, but with a compassionate heart, just like God has forgiven us so many times. If we don’t grasp this lesson, we will end up in Hell not so much because of the sins we’ve committed but because of our failure to forgive others their sins against us. We won’t receive God’s mercy unless we first share it, not because he doesn’t want to flood us with his merciful love but because our hearts can’t receive it unless they are in turn forgiving others.
  • This is a lesson lived in an exemplary way by the great saint we fête today, St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe. When he was a young boy, after struggling against naughtiness, he turned to our Lady in despair what would become of him, wondering if he would ever get over his bad habits. Then she appeared to him holding two crowns, one white for purity, the other red for martyrdom, asking if he was willing to accept either of them. He replied that he would accept them both! He had a sense that the Immaculate would always help him to keep his heart pure like God’s merciful heart until he should give his life in testimony to the One who had died for Him. He became a Franciscan, got two doctorates in Rome, returned and founded a printing press, a daily newspaper, a monthly magazine, a radio station and a huge monastery to run them, called the City of the Immaculate (Niepokalanow), which became the largest monastery of the world. He sought to bring the faith both to Japan and to India. But when he returned to Poland as the Nazi menace was growing, his media outlets started to attack the Nazi lies. He also sheltered 3,000 refugees, including 2,000 Jews, in his monastery. It was only a matter of time until the Nazis would come for him. In February 1941, he was arrested and imprisoned in the notorious Pawiak prison where he was routinely beaten and mistreated. It would have been easy for him to bear resentment, anger and hatred, but instead he forgave 7 times, 77 times, 70 times 7 times. At the end of May, he was transferred to Auschwitz, where, because he was a priest, he suffered far more abuse and barbarism than the average degraded and abused prisoner. But he continued to forgive, because he knew he had been forgiven much more. On July 31, three prisoners from his cell block escaped and in retaliation, Commandant Karl Fritzsch said that ten prisoners at random would be selected to die in a starvation bunker to dissuade anyone else from trying to flee. The tattooed number of Franciszek Gajowniczek was called and he cried out “My wife! My children!” That’s when Fr. Kolbe, prisoner 16670, stepped forward and speaking the German of his father, said, “I am a Catholic Priest. I would like to take the place of that man.” Fritszch, shocked, granted the wish. He went with the other nine prisoners to the starvation bunker. He taught them to look forward to heaven, which would come for them imminently after some suffering. He helped them to pray the Rosary to the Immaculate, asking her to pray for them at that moment and at the hour of their death. He celebrated dry Masses in their presence and taught them some chants. He got them ready to meet the Lord. Because he was so accustomed to giving his rations to other prisoners, he was able to go without food for great periods of time, and after two weeks, he was the only one still alive. The Nazis wanted to send others to the starvation bunker and so they injected him with carbolic acid to kill him, 73 years ago today.
  • The lesson he teaches us is that the forgiveness God wants of us is not just a verbal remittance. Jesus gave his life in mercy for us and St. Maximilian shows us that we are called with Jesus to give our life for those who owe us. The only way we will ever be able to love our enemies, as St. Maximilian did his Nazi captors, is if we’re willing to go the whole way for them, for no one has any greater love than to lay down his life for others, as St. Maximilian did for Franciszek Gajowniczek, as he did with Jesus for the salvation of those who didn’t know what they were doing. When he was in he concentration camp, secretly hearing confessions, trying to lift up others with hope, giving away his meager rations, he was asked why he was doing so. He replied, “Every man has an aim in life. For most men, it is to return home to their wives and families or to their mothers. For my part, I give my life for the good of all men.” He was going to give his life in merciful love just as Jesus had done for him and commanded each of us to do in his memory.
  • Today we come to Mass remembering the works of the Lord, especially his great mercy that strengthened St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe to continue to extend mercy even in the most notorious hell on earth. The same Lord who strengthened him to receive white and red crowns will strengthen us. And he does so fundamentally by the Sacrament of his Mercy, which makes us rich in mercy, and the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, that capacitates us to give our lives to save others.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
EZ 12:1-12

The word of the LORD came to me:
Son of man, you live in the midst of a rebellious house;
they have eyes to see but do not see,
and ears to hear but do not hear,
for they are a rebellious house.
Now, son of man, during the day while they are looking on,
prepare your baggage as though for exile,
and again while they are looking on,
migrate from where you live to another place;
perhaps they will see that they are a rebellious house.
You shall bring out your baggage like an exile in the daytime
while they are looking on;
in the evening, again while they are looking on,
you shall go out like one of those driven into exile;
while they look on, dig a hole in the wall and pass through it;
while they look on, shoulder the burden and set out in the darkness;
cover your face that you may not see the land,
for I have made you a sign for the house of Israel.I did as I was told.
During the day I brought out my baggage
as though it were that of an exile,
and at evening I dug a hole through the wall with my hand
and, while they looked on, set out in the darkness,
shouldering my burden.Then, in the morning, the word of the LORD came to me:
Son of man, did not the house of Israel, that rebellious house,
ask you what you were doing?
Tell them: Thus says the Lord GOD:
This oracle concerns Jerusalem
and the whole house of Israel within it.
I am a sign for you:
as I have done, so shall it be done to them;
as captives they shall go into exile.
The prince who is among them shall shoulder his burden
and set out in darkness,
going through a hole he has dug out in the wall,
and covering his face lest he be seen by anyone.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 78:56-57, 58-59, 61-62

R. (see 7b) Do not forget the works of the Lord!
They tempted and rebelled against God the Most High,
and kept not his decrees.
They turned back and were faithless like their fathers;
they recoiled like a treacherous bow.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
They angered him with their high places
and with their idols roused his jealousy.
God heard and was enraged
and utterly rejected Israel.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
And he surrendered his strength into captivity,
his glory in the hands of the foe.
He abandoned his people to the sword
and was enraged against his inheritance.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!

MT 18:21-19:1

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“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 the fellow servant 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.”When Jesus finished these words, he left Galilee
and went to the district of Judea across the Jordan.