24rd Sunday Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 103:2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12
Sirach sets the theme for this week’s celebration of the Eucharist: “the vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” Israelite wisdom literature is clear that people “should refrain from anger, abandon wrath; do not be provoked; it brings only harm” (Ps 37:8). Mercy and forgiveness should rule the day, for our “Lord is kind and merciful; slow to anger, and rich in compassion.” (Responsorial Psalm).
Sadly, in the world around us, and even in the Church that guides us, there is not much mercy and forgiveness to be had. The standards for governing are something other than the ways of God. The collective memory is, perhaps, so feeble, that it cannot remember just how much and how often God has forgiven, just how much God has shared with us.
In today’s gospel, Peter represents those who might have forgotten the great Israelite tradition of mercy. For some unknown reason, Peter wants Jesus to tell him how often he has to forgive the person who wrongs him. Peter provides the answer to his own question, an answer he no doubt believed would garner praise from Jesus, since his answer of “Seven times” was rather generous for the day. But Jesus takes Peter’s bet and raises it an infinite amount: “seventy times seven times!” No doubt Peter’s perplexed look prompted Jesus to tell the parable of the unforgiving servant.
How easy it must have been for the servant to grovel and beg for himself, his family, his pride. It is a natural instinct. He would have been the first to admit how huge was the debt he owed his master; he would have been clearly aware of his inability to ever repay it. Groveling was his only option, and it worked. The master was “moved with pity,” and “he let the official go and wrote off the debt.” He wrote off the huge debt! The king did not negotiate a settlement. The king did not berate the official for his stupidity. The king didn’t forgive his servant in an effort to get his money back. He simply accepted his loss and moved on. But he did expect this encounter to change the servant for the better, to transform him. As the king had done for him, so was it reasonable to expect that his servant would do the same for another.
The servant, still giddy with excitement over his good fortune, runs into another servant, who owed him a “mere fraction of what he himself owed.” The memory of what had just been done for him was overtaken by greed, and so he throttled the servant, and in spite of the groveling which surely appeared to be all too familiar, he threw him in jail until he was able to pay back his debt.
Notice that it is the outrage of the community which brings this story around. It is their disgust which makes the master aware of what had just happened. No one could believe that someone could possibly behave in such a way, especially someone who had been so favored by the master. And so what could have been a “happily ever after story,” ends with a formerly grateful soul in prison while torturers exact the last pennies of an overwhelming debt!
Which brings us back to the wisdom of Sirach: “Should a man nourish anger against his fellows and expect healing from the Lord? Should a man refuse mercy to his fellows, yet seek pardon for his own sins?” The master’s forgiveness was meant to change the servant for the better, it was meant to soften his temperament and instill a sense of gratitude which compelled him to do the same for others. We are that servant. “While we live we are responsible to the Lord, and when we die we die as his servants” (Romans 4:8). We have been forgiven a debt which could only be repaid by Christ’s death on a cross, and countless numbers of times our God has lavished on us the mercy shown by the king in today’s parable. God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy “changes everything,” and we are meant to show that love, forgiveness and mercy to all those we come in contact with, regardless of the circumstances.
Let us allow Pope Francis to have the last word, who reminds us that “God’s forgiveness knows no limits; it is greater than anything we can imagine, and it comes to all who know in their hearts that they have done wrong and desire to return to Him. God looks at the heart that seeks forgiveness.”