Father Donald Senior, CP

Sept. 17: 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Sir 27:30-28:7; Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35

Since my family is Irish, can I get away with a slightly risky Irish ethnic joke? You have probably heard it: “What is Irish Alzheimer’s? Answer: Forgetting everything but the grudges.” That is my segue into this Sunday’s Gospel selection, a very pointed parable about forgiveness.  

Last Sunday the Gospel was from the community discourse in Matthew 18. This Sunday we hear the concluding portion of this remarkable text. Just as the discourse began with the parable of the lost sheep, it ends with the parable of the unforgiving servant and a call for limitless forgiveness.

The parable is introduced by a question from Peter: “If my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Often in the Bible the number seven symbolizes infinity, so Peter’s question has some irony to it. Jesus’ reply is astounding: “I say to you, not seven times, but 77 times.” There is no limit to our striving for forgiveness.

Jesus drives home his point with the parable of the unforgiving servant. A king decides to settle his accounts with his servants, and there is one unfortunate debtor who owes 10,000 talents — an absolutely staggering amount. A first-century Jewish historian estimated that the taxation King Herod levied on his subjects for a year came to 10,000 talents; thus, this servant owes something equivalent to the national budget. 

The king threatens to throw the man in jail until he repays the debt. The desperate servant pleads for mercy, asking “for more time” to pay back his debt. “Moved with compassion,” the king gives this servant a staggering gift — he forgives the entire debt.

What impact will this have on this servant who has been given a new lease on life? Here is where the old joke about “forgetting everything except the grudges” comes into play.  

The servant goes out and encounters a fellow servant who owes him a relatively small debt, about a day’s wages. This man, too, pleads for more time to pay off his debt, but the servant, who was just forgiven by the king, is merciless and throws his fellow servant into jail. The story ends with the rest of the king’s household reporting this incident to their master. Shocked at such callousness on the part of the merciless servant, the king has him severely punished and restores his debt.

As was the case with the opening parable of the lost sheep, Jesus concludes with a warning to his disciples: “Each of you must forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” As the beautiful first reading today from the Book of Sirach reminds us, the call for forgiveness runs deep in the Scriptures: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.”  This parable of the unforgiving servant also recalls a key petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”   

Care for the strays, resolving conflicts in a thoughtful and respectful way, striving for unlimited forgiveness — these are the values that Jesus teaches should characterize the community that bears the name “Christian.” 

There are some things missing here from our usual descriptions of the ideal church: prayerful liturgies, wise use of authority, solid theology, beautiful places of worship. These are important, too, but at the heart of any authentic Christian community are the bonds of compassion, justice, respect and forgiving love. 
Each of us has experienced God’s limitless love; that is the memory that we should never lose as we deal with each other.