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.

Discussion Questions:

  1. As Christians we are supposed to freely give what we freely received. In what specific ways does God’s forgiveness of you, enable your forgiveness of others?
  2. “Generally, we live our lives based on one of two identities: either, “the forgiveness of God” or “one who has been wronged” Which of these do you identify with more, or where do you find yourself on this spectrum?
  3. In what concrete ways are you working at self-forgiveness? Do you believe this is an important part of forgiving others? Explain
  4. Is there anyone in your life right now that you are withholding forgiveness from? What prevents you from giving them what you hope to receive from God?

Biblical Context

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.

Bestowing the Future

John Shea

As difficult as it is to forgive an offender, forgiving one’s self may be more strenuous. There can be so many mental blocks to overcome and we may hear condescending, negative voices from past pains.

A classic example is the adult-child placing an aging parent into a nursing home. If the parent dies alone, the adult-child might be riddled with guilt. Since the parent is now deceased, the adult-child cannot ask for forgiveness. Healing may require counseling. But, the journey to healing from shock, through depression, through anger, to love and eventual forgiveness surely can be glimpsed in Psalm 103, “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion. He pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills. He redeems your life from destruction, crowns you with kindness and compassion.”

Forgiving can be challenging. The ability to forgive and love is definitely arduous. But, being “crowned with kindness and compassion” makes forgiveness and love possible.

The dynamics of forgiveness are so particular to each situation and so woven into the psychology of the people involved that any generalization can be refuted by a specific instance. But still, the path the Matthean Jesus maps out is powerful and provocative. I believe it is supposed to convince Christians who think deeply about their life.

But does it?

The spiritual wisdom can be stated: “We all live by the forgiveness of God and if we do not forgive one another in turn, this divine forgiveness is withdrawn.”

Is it persuasive? How can we understand it as a reflection of common Christian experience? What inner work do we have to do to make this spiritual wisdom our own?

We must realize we are all living through the power of divine forgiveness. This perception is difficult because we do not clearly see our entrenched sinfulness. We are too mediocre to owe a huge amount. There are some people—murderers, rapists, etc.—who are in bondage to sin and cannot extricate themselves. But most of us see our indebtedness in more manageable amounts. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you” is not last-ditch desperation but a decent proposal.

Therefore, to realize how essential divine forgiveness is, we must realize our sinfulness. That is why Luther exhorted people to sin boldly. It is the forerunner to the realization of grace. However, this theological strategy of convicting people of sin in order to open them to divine forgiveness has been strongly criticized.

Another approach, and one that resonates with me, is to realize how sinful experiences claim us. The experiences of both being sinned against and sinning are seldom over and done with. They continue to extend their influence long after the actual offense has ended. The “huge amount” may be their power to dominate us and bring our future under their control. Negative experiences infiltrate our mind and heart and constrict our freedom. They become the bondage and prison the servants in the story experience, a bondage and a prison from which they cannot free themselves.

Therefore, the focus of forgiveness shifts. It is not primarily overlooking past sinfulness or, in the metaphor of the story, canceling past debt. Rather “forgiveness” is an intense giving of life and energy into the freedom of a person on the edge of newness. This giving must be intense because the weight of negative experiences of the past is great. In fact, this weight is so overwhelming it reduces us to pleading.

The pleading is an admission of our helplessness. It opens us, and we receive what we ask for. We are given time. However, the time is not to repay the past. It is to break the hold of our mistakes and find a new future. This type of time is not the “march of time,” the mindless tomorrows that inevitably come. This is the advent of the new, the arrival of possibility into an impossible situation. This is how God gives time, not endless minutes but endless opportunities.

It is here, in the freshness of a new life we did not create, that our consciousness must rest. We must not bolt out of our prison and go on with life exactly as before— without understanding or appreciation.

We must allow what has happened to form and influence us. If we do not deeply grasp both the bondage to our mistakes and the unmerited forgiveness, we will not persist in the freedom and the future we have been given.

The open future we walk into is not the result of anything we did. So, we cannot claim it. The usual way we differentiate ourselves from others is not operative. It is not our merit that has forced the forgive- ness, or even our potential for more service that has made forgiveness a reasonable choice. We might try to attribute the forgiveness to dumb luck. We got the king on a good day. But the depth of what we have experienced will finally penetrate. A future, free from the consequences of our mistakes, was bestowed upon us.

The implications of this graceful experience come into view when we meet our former self in another. We gradually realize our situation is the situation. Everyone is tied to their past failures until a future is bestowed upon them. These failures may be small, but they hamper freedom. They imprison people. Since we were given a way out, we know the way out. Only now we are on the other side. Our hope is to remember clearly the conditions of our liberation. If we forget them, we will return to bondage. This will happen long before we are reported to the king. It happens the moment we put our hands around the throat of our debtor. We are once again sold into the slavery of revenge, retaliation, and reprisal.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.