24th SUNDAY, September 17, 2023
Sirach 27: 30-28:7; Romans 14: 7-9;
Matthew 18: 21-35
Jude Siciliano, OP
Today’s gospel reflects an important goal of Matthew. He is concerned about issues that divide the Christian community. The primary issue is forgiveness because of its importance for the integrity of the community. So, today’s central message is about how members of the church are to behave towards each other – be forgiving.
The parable comes at the end of Matthew’s discourse on church life, which covers all of chapter 18. Recall Matthew’s origins. He was a tax collector. Tax collectors were considered traitors to the Jewish community. Still, Jesus called Matthew to be a disciple and then he went to eat at his house (9:9ff). Once there, Jesus sat at table with many other tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees took offense at Jesus’ eating at the house of a sinner, surrounded by other sinners. But Jesus responded to them, "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do….I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (9:13).
In the light of Matthew’s own experience of forgiveness we can see why he would end this section on church life with a parable about extraordinary mercy and the requirements to express forgiveness within the community.
Peter puts a question to Jesus. "Lord, if my brother [sister] sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?" Peter seems very open. Has he picked up Jesus’ message about forgiveness? Though he does put a limit on the number of times he must offer forgiveness to a member of the community. After all, forgiving the same person seven times seems very generous. Peter suggests what we commonly say when pushed to the limits of forgiveness: "Enough is enough!" Sometimes one has to draw the line. Discipline has to be expressed in any human community and that includes the church. The rabbis drew the line after forgiving a person three times for the same offense. So, Peter is being generous in his offer of seven times. We are very familiar with Jesus’ response to Peter’s question, "I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." Jesus does not put a cap on forgiveness. He pulls away from all limits – from keeping a record of wrongs and also from exposing the wrongs of the offender. The parable illustrates the presence of a new order in Jesus’ coming.
Jesus elaborates his response to Peter with the parable. A king takes an account of his household and finds that one servants is in debt for a "huge amount." In the earlier translations of this passage the debt was expressed in "talents" – literally "ten thousand talents." This would require over 160,000 years of full-time work to pay off – with no days off! It’s clear the servant would never be able to pay the debt.
The servant makes an absurd request from the king. He asks for time to pay what he owes. Which he would never be able to do. With desperation comes boldness. The surprise in the parable is the king’s response to the request. He gives full and free forgiveness. He did not discount the debt, or give the servant more time to pay, which considering the size of the debt, was impossible. He just forgave. Hint: in the original language the word used for "forgive" is the same as is regularly used in the Bible for the "forgiveness" of sins.
The king shows extraordinary mercy in forgiving the debt. But the forgiven servant refuses to imitate his master’s generosity towards another servant in the household in debt to him. The servant, who had no right to be forgiven of his enormous debt to the king, now claims his rights over his debtor. But that debt could easily have been paid. Note that the debtor uses the same words to request mercy the first servant originally used to the king.
We humans can be blind and uncomprehending to what’s happening. We can miss the desperate needs of other people, even when they are in the same desperate situation we were once in ourselves.
God’s sternness is not the primary point of the parable. Instead, the lesson for us is in verse 33: we ought to act towards others as God has acted towards us. What kind of a person would hold onto a petty offense in light of the forgiveness God offers us? This is good news to those of us who repeatedly fall into the same sins and repeatedly ask for forgiveness and receive it. Where would we be without God’s mercy?
Our response to what we have received is to give it to others. For most of us it is not that big sins we repeat again and again, but the petty ones that we struggle to overcome. We experience our helplessness regularly and just as regularly rely on God’s mercy, and we receive it.
Let’s not overlook the last paragraph in Jesus’ teaching: we are to forgive from our heart – not words grudgingly given, but from our heart. What might help is our returning regularly to our faith in God’s constant forgiveness. Living with that reminder and gratitude might open the channel of forgiveness in our own hearts. It is a gospel dynamic: love of God is linked to love of neighbor. The experience and awareness of what God has done for us, will enable us to do the same for others – love and forgive from the heart.
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