Matt 18: 21 – 35
21Peter went up to Jesus and said: “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” 22Jesus answered, “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.
35And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.
Today’s text consists of a parable framed by verses 21-22 at the beginning and verse 35 at the end.
We first look at the opening verses. Clearly this text refers to Gen 4: 24 in which Lamech speaks of taking revenge “seventy-sevenfold”. Clearly Jesus is setting a goal far distant from where we were early in Genesis. At the time Jesus lived the teaching was that one should forgive three times but never a fourth. Peter certainly thought he was being generous in suggesting seven times. We can hear his astonishment as Jesus teaches, forgiveness, not seven times but always. This is the ideal that God sets for us and so it is the way God deals with us.
In the light of this “always forgiving” God, Jesus tells us about, it is very difficult to make sense of verse 35. The statement is made within the setting of the parable which illustrates the disastrous consequences of NO FORGIVENESS within a community. In verses 21–22 Jesus is rendering absurd Peter’s question which seeks to limit forgiveness. God’s unlimited mercy can be blocked our by our inability to open our hearts in forgiveness to one another.
I suggest the following as a possible understanding. (my words, not the text). “How will my heavenly Father deal with you unless you each – Forgive your brother from your heart?”
Before reflecting on the parable we need to read some commentary. There are two things that commentaries will help us to understand.
A parable is an imaginative story which we enter with our feelings. We identify with the various characters as the story unfolds, until at a certain point it strikes us: ‘I know that feeling!’ This is the moment of truth, when we say, ‘I now understand grace and celebrate the times when I or others have lived it,’ or ‘I now understand sin and experience a call to conversion.’ Do not turn this into a pious story in which there are good and bad people and we must follow the example of the good. It is always wrong to read a parable like that.1
A parable is always directed to the listening audience, in this case, Peter and the apostles, after Peter had attempted to place a limit on forgiveness.
In the parable two debts are mentioned. They are best understood in terms of a day’s labour. One hundred denarii, was a hundred days wages. Ten thousand talents was equivalent to one hundred and sixty thousand years wages.
|23And so the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants.||We immediately become aware of a sense of tension. Everybody owes something. All fear the call to account. This oppression is experienced by all.|
|24When the reckoning began, they brought him a man who owed ten thousand talents; 25but he had no means of paying,||The servant experiences absolute hopelessness.|
|so his master gave orders that he should be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, to meet the debt.||We cannot but be amazed at the ruthlessness of the master as well as the injustice done to the man’s family.|
|26At this, the servant threw himself down at his master’s feet. “Give me time” he said “and I will pay the whole sum.”||The servant is robbed of all dignity as he is forced to grovel at the feet of the master. He is filled with feelings of worthlessness and despair.|
|27And the servant’s master felt so sorry for him that he let him go and cancelled the debt.||The atmosphere of oppression lifts for a moment as the master relents and generously frees the man of his debt.|
|28Now as this servant went out, he happened to meet a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii;||This man was both good and generous. He had been prepared to help others even though he had been in a desperate situation.|
|and he seized him by the throat and began to throttle him. “Pay what you owe me” he said.
29His fellow servant fell at his feet and implored him, saying, “Give me time and I will pay you”. 30But the other would not agree; on the contrary, he had him thrown into prison till he should pay the debt.
|This unfortunate man’s spirit has been broken. His generosity has been extinguished and the oppressed becomes the oppressor of those less powerful than he.|
|31His fellow servants were deeply distressed when they saw what had happened, and they went to their master and reported the whole affair to him.||For the second time we experience moments of freedom (relief), as goodness prevails in an otherwise tragic story. The rest of the community is genuinely disturbed by the absence of humanity displayed by their fellow servant. They do not condemn. They are concerned for the victim as well as the pitiful state of the abuser. They completely trust the king.|
|32Then the master sent for him. “You wicked servant,” he said “I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. 33Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?” 34And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt.||The king becomes a victim of his own oppressiveness. The servant’s meanness defeats him. He reverts to his cruel, oppressive self.|
One can hardly imagine the shock the servants experience at the cruel outcome of events. What a desperately tragic and useless outcome.
The king gains nothing – he is guilty of desperate cruelty and inhumanity. Think of the period of time it would take for the debt to be repaid if the person were earning, let alone trying to live.
The first servant is condemned and put in a situation of utter suffering with no hope – only despair.
The second servant is imprisoned in his own indebtedness.
The servant community have lost all trust – they live in constant fear of a king who in unpredictable – capable of great kindness and just as quickly can withdraw forgiveness and inflict unspeakable cruelty.
Surely this describes the world where oppression and retribution (NO FORGIVENESS) reign.
Recall the past when we nursed past hurts – real or imagined. Do you remember inflicting our pain on others even though they have done nothing harm us.
Recall the pain and suffering when trust is broken. How can we restore trust once it is broken? Only total unconditional forgiveness will achieve this.
Is it any wonder that having told this parable Jesus finishes with:
Forgive your brother / sister from your heart.
Can you hear the heartfelt call of Jesus as he pleads with us not to go done the road of NO FORGIVENESS.
Sin is a community matter. When we refuse to forgive we frustrate God’s willingness to forgive us. If we do not forgive the damage will continue. God cannot repair the damaged relationships without our being prepared to forgive – we render God helpless.
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good-will, but also those of ill-will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have bought thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humanity, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgement, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.
(Prayer found in the clothing on the body of a dead child at Ravensbruck camp where 92000 women and children died.)
- De Vertueil M, Lectio Divina with the Sunday Gospels, p 223