Year A: Twenty-Fourth Sunday Ordinary Time
I say to you, forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Matthew 18: 21-35
Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? 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 your brother from your heart.
- “Generally, we live our lives based on one of two identities: either “as one who is forgiven by God” or “as one who has been wronged” Which of these do you identify with and why?
- Do you believe your ability to forgive yourself is directly related to your ability to forgive others? In what concrete ways are you working at self-forgiveness?
- God always forgives but, we are free to refuse that forgiveness by withholding it from others. Do you believe our unwillingness to forgive others is choosing to separate ourselves from God? (A kind of self-inflicted torture)
- Is there anyone in your life whom you are withholding forgiveness from? What prevents you from giving them the same gift you hope to receive from God?
Matthew 18: 21-35
Sr Mary McGlone CSJ
Today’s Gospel takes us into the humorous heart of Jesus the storyteller and teacher. The fact that the incident opens with a question from Peter gives us advance notice that we’re about to hear the most sincere and blundering of disciples open the door for Jesus to launch into another of his stories that stick.
Picking up from last week, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the community’s responsibility for seeking and reconciling the lost. Perhaps Peter was hoping to help his teacher with a set-up question: “How often must I forgive?” Then, to give Jesus ample room to congratulate him for his perception and generosity, he asks, “Seven times?” Seven wasn’t just a number he pulled out of his headdress. Seven was Peter’s way of demonstrating uncommon generosity. Offering to forgive seven times was like saying, “I’ll put up with anything if that’s what you suggest.” Jesus doubles down on him and replies, “Not just seven, my friend, but seventy-seven … forever and ever, Amen!” (That’s a free interpretation of Jesus’ exaggerated number of seventy-seven.)
Peter’s numbers game offered Jesus the take-off point for a story about how things get worked out in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus invites his hearers to imagine such a fantastic world of affluence that Bill Gates would feel like a country store clerk amid this crowd of characters. When it came to describing the sums of money involved, hyperbole was the name of the game. Our translation has turned the original 10,000 talents into “a huge amount.” Just to get a sense of what “huge” means, we start with the fact that a talent was the weight a soldier could carry on his back, something between 75 and 100 pounds. Jesus doesn’t specify if these talents were silver or gold, but people got the idea. Now how many talents were owed? The word translated as “huge” is 10,000, which wasn’t meant to be literal, it was simply the highest number calculable in those days. We would probably say “a gazillion.” Now, the audience was really getting the picture. If the debtor, “Mr. D,” had shown up ready to pay, he would have arrived accompanied by a parade of a gazillion servants, each weighed down by someone else’s wealth. (Whose wealth it really was is a question for the ethicists.)
It goes without saying that Mr. D had no way to pay it off. Even so, he made a show of asking for just a little more time. The master, endowed with a heart even bigger than his fortune, wrote off the loan. So far, the parable has set up a world in which the forgiveness of such an immense fortune makes it look as if anything is possible. It’s jubilee time! But, just as the audience pictured the relieved debtor dancing down the road to home, Jesus began narrating the second act of the drama.
Now those who had seen or heard what had happened to Mr. D are watching to see what he does next. How is he going to celebrate his good fortune? He hunted down one of his own debtors. This fellow owed him 100 denarii, the equivalent of 100 days wages — a pretty significant amount to somebody who didn’t have hordes of money hidden at home, but a full 600,000 times less than Mr. D had owed the master.
Happy face erased; Mr. D grabs the guy by the neck. As if he had been listening in while Mr. D performed before the master, the guy steals Mr. D’s lines, but his pitiful plea for compassion has no effect on its original author. Mr. D wants nothing more than his money. Proving that he has no idea of what mercy is, he sends the unfortunate fellow to prison.
In the end, Mr. D gets what’s coming to him, or perhaps better said, Mr. D ends up in the world he has created. He was offered an alternative, but he wouldn’t pay 100 denarii for a world of mercy.
Peter asked Jesus how many times community members were expected to forgive one another. Jesus told them a tall tale that asked them what kind of world they wanted to create and what it was worth to them. The person who counts the number of times they will pardon another is not forgiving but keeping score.
The One Great Imperative
Fr. Ronald Rolheiser
As we age, we can progressively slim down our spiritual vocabulary. Ultimately, we need only to do one thing—forgive. Forgive those who have hurt us, forgive ourselves for our shortcomings, and forgive God for those times when life seemed unfair. We need to do this, so we do not die angry and bitter—which in the end is the only spiritual imperative there is.
Jesus makes this clear. In today’s Gospel, he tells us that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. Why not? Isn’t God all-merciful? Can’t God forgive everything? The issue is not on God’s side but on ours.
John Shea once wrote that the heavenly banquet table is open to everyone who is willing to sit down with everyone. There’s the catch! That’s why it is so difficult for God to forgive us if we do not forgive others. Simply put, there cannot be segregated tables in heaven where we get to sit down only with those persons with whom we are on good terms. Bitterness and hatred may not carry over into heaven. To be in intimacy, joy, and celebration with everyone, we need to be reconciled with everyone. This is an intrinsic imperative, not something God can change.
A friend of mine likes to say, “I try to be on good terms with everyone, knowing that I will be spending eternity with them.” Sound advice.
Fr. Ronald Rolheiser
Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, teaches at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, where he served as president for fifteen years. His books are popular throughout the English-speaking world, and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide.