Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
Sir 27:30—28:7, Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12, Rom 14:7-9, Mt 18:21-35
In today’s Gospel, we heard the parable of the unforgiving servant. Christ preaches this parable after Peter asks how often he needs to forgive someone who sins against him. We can consider two parts: first, the parable itself, and what it says about God’s mercy, and then, second, how we need to apply this in our own lives.
First, the parable provides us with some great insights into how merciful God has been with us. We can consider three things: first, the debt the servant owes, second, his response to his master, and, third, the master’s response to him.
First, we’re told that the servant owed the king “a huge amount.” That really doesn’t do justice to the original, which reads μυρίων ταλάντων, or literally, 10,000 talents; records tell us that one talent would’ve been the wages of 16 years of work. In order to pay the debt, then, he would have needed to work 170 thousand years, at least, since that’s not taking into account the fact that he needs to buy things.
There’s a lot of things we could ask: how on earth did he rack up such a debt? Any reason we can find doesn’t look good for the steward: maybe he was an addict to something, or built an amazing house . . . but, ultimately, there’s really no reason except his stupidity and probably his sinfulness.
Secondly, how does the steward respond? The steward throws the best plea he has at the master: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.” I don’t think the master could wait two hundred thousand years. This is our position with respect to God; every little sin we commit is a great insult to His majesty and to His goodness. He’s given us everthing, and yet we dare to throw it back in His face and use His very gifts against Him.
Yet, what is the master’s response? “Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.” Notice that the master simply forgives the debt; he doesn’t take the steward up on his offer, or even negotiate. Instead he goes far beyond what the steward had dared to ask or even hope for. This calls to mind the words of Saint Therese of Lisieux: “O God, you have surpassed all my expectations.” The only thing he expects is that the servant appreciate that gift, and be merciful in turn to others.
This leads to an important question: how can we apply this parable to our lives? At first, the answer seems obvious: by forgiving others. However, that’s often more difficult than it seems. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”
In order to forgive, we really need to understand what forgiveness means. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, and it’s more than just not being angry anymore. It also doesn’t mean excusing the bad thing or forgetting that it happened. Rather, forgiveness consists of three things: laying aside the resentment we feel towards those who have offended us, renouncing or surrendering the right to revenge, and then finding the strength to respond with generosity, compassion, and love to the person who hurt us. This doesn’t mean that the other person has to say they’re sorry, because maybe they aren’t; we can forgive them even if they aren’t sorry. It doesn’t mean we have to talk to the other person; sometimes it helps, but maybe they don’t want to listen to us or are dead.
If we don’t forgive, we remain prisoners of anger and bitterness; the desire for revenge consumes us, and it takes its toll on our lives. On the other hand, if we forgive, then not only do we set ourselves free from such bitter chains, but we also gain the forgiveness of God. A good example of this can be seen in the life of Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In 1995, the atheist Christopher Hitchens published a very vulgar book attacking her and her work. Basically he tried to destroy everything she had done, discredit her entire life, and portray her as a deluded and dangerous woman.
A woman volunteer who went to Calcutta around that time asked Mother Teresa about it. M. Teresa looked puzzled, and then replied simply: “Oh, the book. Yes, I haven’t read it. It matters not. He’s forgiven.” “Oh, the book. It matters not. He’s forgiven.” It doesn’t matter, said about a book that was that man’s best effort to destroy everything she held dear: he was forgiven. To this response, the woman replied: “Mother, he knows that you said he was forgiven, and he’s kind of angry about that, because he says he didn’t need to be forgiven, and that he didn’t ask you to forgive him.”
Recalling the saint’s response, the woman writes: “[M. Teresa] said to me, as though I didn’t know what I was talking about, ‘It’s not I who forgives. It’s God. God has forgiven him.’” A man who had done everything to destroy the works of one of His saints, who didn’t even want to be forgiven, God forgave. How much more will He do so for us, who want to be forgiven. Our forgiveness of ourselves and others is the manifestation and making concrete of what we have received from God, whose merciful love has always and will always protect us. In that mercy, then, we find the strength to re-examine our sufferings in light of Christ and to forgive those who have offended us.
Today, then, let us ask, through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Mercy, for the grace to forgive those who have wronged us, and so obtain God’s forgiveness of our sins.