Today, Peter asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive a brother who sins against him. Jesus tells him to forget the math. Why?
By Gayle Somers
Gospel (Read Mt 18:21-35)
In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus instructed the apostles on how to handle problems that would arise in His Church when brother sinned against brother. Today, Peter asks the question that cuts to the heart of what makes Jesus’ teaching so difficult: How many times do I have to forgive a brother who keeps sinning against me? What an honest question! Peter wants to put a limit on forgiveness, because as we well know, nothing makes us angrier, more frustrated, or more disgusted than having someone wrong us over and over with the same offense. Whatever we have in the way of patience, compassion, or tolerance gets completely spent on the repeat offenders in our lives. As Peter listens to Jesus describe the long, drawn-out process of correcting a sinner (read Mt 18:15-20), he wants to make sure that the sinner doesn’t get treated too leniently. Seven “second” chances seem like enough, seven being the number that represented fullness to the Jews. Was he prepared for the answer?
“I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Did Peter’s heart sink? “Seventy-seven times” was Jesus’ way of saying, “Don’t bother counting.” What? How contrary to human nature this is! So many objections rise up in us: “Not fair! What am I, a doormat? How can this be good for anyone?” Jesus knows how foreign this kind of forgiveness is to us, so He illustrates why it is necessary in the kingdom of Heaven He is building on earth, His Church, with a parable.
A king was settling debts owed to him by his servants. The first debtor to appear before him was one who owed him “a huge amount.” More accurately, the amount was “ten thousand talents,” representing about 2700 years worth of work. It was a debt that could never be repaid in the servant’s whole lifetime, so the king requires his whole life from him: “his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt.” The servant’s debt was so large that he would have to forfeit everything, with no hope of ever being free from it.
Realizing his predicament, the servant falls down before the king, paying him respect, and asks for patience (interestingly, not for mercy). He also makes a rash promise: “I will pay you back in full.” This response from the servant, both his humility and his desire to set things right, if only the king will be patient, moved the king to compassion. He “let him go” and “forgave him the loan.” It wasn’t reduced to a manageable size, nor was the servant jailed briefly to teach him a lesson. In an amazing act of mercy, not patience, the king wiped everything away. The servant had a fresh start in life, completely free from indebtedness.
As we read on, we can see for ourselves how inappropriately outrageous it was for this servant to attack a fellow servant who owed him much less than the debt he’d been forgiven. The “smaller amount” was about three months wages, easily repaid if the fellow servant got the patience he requested. The forgiven servant refused and put his fellow servant in prison for repayment. News of this got back to the king, and the forgiven servant had to forfeit all he had received through the king’s mercy. Jesus ends this story with a solemn warning: “So will My Heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”
We understand from this that our Heavenly Father has forgiven us much more than we will ever have to forgive anyone who sins against us. If, at the end of our lives, we have not forgiven those “who trespass against us,” as we say in the Our Father, then we prove ourselves to be outsiders to the kingdom of Heaven and not interested in living in its light. In the exaggerated drama of the parable, we can see what hardness of heart looks like and the ultimate price we will pay for it. Even a casual reading of this parable should put us on alert to follow Jesus’ advice and toss our forgiveness calculators. However much we need God’s forgiveness of our sins becomes the measure of how much we must offer it to others.
Possible Response: Lord Jesus, I surely need Your help to quit counting when I forgive others.
First Reading (Read Sirach 27:30-28:7)
The Book of Sirach is a book of Hebrew wisdom, probably written about 200-175 B.C. We can easily see how much of this wisdom appears in the what Jesus taught His disciples about forgiveness: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” Even before the appearance of Jesus, the Jews knew that anyone who needs God’s mercy cannot refuse one who needs it from him. So, Jesus’ teaching was not new, but what was new was the spectacle of the Cross. In His Passion, Jesus proved forever what God’s forgiveness of sin cost Him; He willingly paid the price. His demonstration of loving forgiveness dwarfs anything required of us by the sins of others. In addition, the gift of His own Spirit now makes it possible for us to “think of the commandments, hate not [our] neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.”
Possible response: Heavenly Father, forgive me when I so easily look for faults in others. Wisdom tells me to be blind to them.
Psalm (Read Ps 103:1-4, 9-12)
This psalm is a magnificent song of praise for the unfathomable mercy of God. It establishes the theme that the Gospel reading elaborates: “The LORD is kind and merciful, slow to anger and rich in compassion.” In particular, the psalmist gives us an exquisite poetic description of what God has done with the debt we owe Him because of our sin: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He put our transgressions from us.” Our response to God’s great kindness should be as the psalmist’s: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” If we remember God’s mercy to us, the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel, although it stretches us, makes all the sense in the world.
Possible Response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Rom 14:7-9)
In the epistle, St. Paul explains why lack of forgiveness for others simply won’t work in the Christian life: “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself…whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (RSV translation). Our lives, bought with the price of Christ’s own life, are not our own. If we are His servants, then we are like the servant in the Gospel parable. We have been forgiven and set free from our debt of sin. We are to live as true servants of our King, extending to others what we have received. That is what establishes the kingdom of Heaven on earth, where Christ is “Lord of both the dead and the living.”
Possible Response: Lord Jesus, You bought me out of mercy. May I become a vessel of that mercy to others.