TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2020)
Readings:Sirach 27:30-28:7Psalms 103:1-4, 9-12Romans 14:7-9Matthew 18:21-35
In what is called “lectio continuum,” the gospel begins from where last week’s gospel ended. With the exception of the opening sentence (which Matthew shares with Luke), the parable is once again unique to Matthew. The readings take us into a world which is a hallmark of Christianity, a world that most ordinary people, including Christians, find terribly difficult – the world of forgiveness. It is not a world that is peculiar to Christians, as Sirach’s beautiful first reading shows: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. 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.”
It is no wonder that Christ our Savior, nourished on and by the Hebrew Scriptures, states from the Cross in what would be some of His very last words on this earth, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Forgiveness is essential for those who call themselves Christian, and as hard as it might be, it extends even to those who have done the most heinous of things. How admirable are those who are able to forgive, especially like parents who often are seen publicly forgive those who have taken the lives of their children in some horrific way. Indeed, that kind of forgiveness is most like the forgiveness that is part of the God we worship, a forgiveness which is very hard for most of us to imagine.
The parable of Jesus that gives us some insight into the forgiveness we are called to as Christians, is brought about by the questioning of Peter: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Like we might be, Peter is searching for some kind of limit on the number of times he has to forgive. It is almost as though Peter is saying, ‘At what point can I say enough is enough? What are the moral requirements expected of me? I will do that, but nothing more.’ Jesus surprises Peter with an answer that makes forgiveness something with no particular end: “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” It was surely something Peter didn’t want to hear, and it’s not something we particularly like to hear either. Saint John Chrysostom said of Jesus’ answer: “When He says seventy-seven times He does not limit a definite number within which forgiveness must be kept; He signifies something endless and ever enduring.”
Notice at the outset of the parable that the “kingdom of heaven” is likened to a “king.” Our hopeful entrance into the kingdom of heaven implies a relationship to a king, Christ the King. As St. Paul says in our second reading, “none of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” It is the king who is at the center of our parable, a king who is loving and honest, and capable of being moved by His servants.
Contextually, it is important for us to understand the hyperbole attached to the two servants. The first debtor owed a “huge amount,” what some translations say was “ten thousand talents.” A talent weighed between 75 and 100 pounds, thus the first debtor owed the equivalent of 750,000 pounds of silver or gold, more than a billion dollars in today’s currency. The second debtor, translations say, “owed 100 denarii,” or the equivalent of three months’ wages. While three months of wages is nothing to sneeze at, it is clear that there is no comparison between the debts of the two servants, making the first servant’s refusal to excuse the second servant’s debt all the more egregious. The majority of our translations making a distinction between a “huge amount” and “a much smaller amount,” do not do justice to the hyperbole used in the parable, and thus we miss something of how outrageous the first servant actually was. It is no wonder that other “servants”, who were “deeply disturbed,” came and told the king what the first servant had done.
There is a more important thing that is missing when the hyperbole of the parable is missing – the overwhelming and unthinkable mercy and forgiveness of the God we worship. Our God, the king in the parable, forgives a sum which is literally immeasurable. That is the God we are called to imitate. Instead of placing limits on our forgiveness, instead of holding on to the wrongs done to us or to unpaid debts, we are called to live our lives like the king in today’s parable, a person capable of forgiving the most egregious of hurts, a person capable of forgiving immeasurable debts.
I have often told people who have suffered great hurts, that forgiveness is a process, and one should never underestimate the challenge of truly forgiving. The trite statement “forgive and forget,” is just that – trite. The challenge for Christians is to forgive while remembering the hurts, and debts, and bruises of life. As our responsorial psalm says, “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.” That is the God whose footsteps we hope to follow in, and if our “heart” is united with that of our King, the Lord Jesus Christ, we will be able, perhaps in time, to forgive our brothers and sisters in our hearts.