The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 13, 2020
O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee, mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the same Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Last week we heard Jesus’ words about dispute resolution within the emerging Christian community, how we are to practice reconciliation. I focussed especially on Jesus’ words to treat as a “tax collector and Gentile” those who do not listen even to the church, who can not be reconciled even when the matter gets its fullest hearing. I reflected how at first that phrase seems to suggest that we have permission to dismiss or reject such people, but that on closer examination, the opposite seems to have been what Jesus, and the Gospel’s author Matthew the tax collector, intended.
Jesus regularly dined with tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, he ministered to lepers and other outcasts, used his power and authority to include them and bring them into the operations of the Kingdom of God. When we hear that those who do not listen even to the church are to be us “as a Gentile and a tax collector,” we are learning that even the most recalcitrant outcasts and sinners among us are not to be forsaken and that our best efforts are meant to be employed in seeking them, that they are brought into the fold as the shepherd pursues the one lost sheep.
This commendation, along with Jesus giving the disciples the power to bind and loose, to execute justice and forgive sins, immediately spur the question Peter asks in the opening sentence of today’s Gospel: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Peter seems to realise from Jesus’ words about reconciliation one needs to be generous in forgiveness, that people need to be given more than once chance. By asking if one may forgive as many as seven times, Peter is clearly offering up a number he thinks is a big one, one far beyond what would have been seen as sensible or usual. Jesus, however, unhesitatingly replies to his question with an answer that makes Peter’s suggestion seem ridiculously stingy: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Jesus does not literally mean we have four hundred ninety chances, or even seventy seven, as some manuscripts render the text. What he intends to convey to Peter and the disciples is a number of such magnitude as to represent infinity. Jesus’ words are about abundance, a quality that is , as we have seen in the parables we heard this summer, especially of the sower, at the heart of his very identity. God’s capacity for forgiveness is not a limited resource that is meted out. There is forgiveness enough for all, and we need not hold back our forgiveness as if there will come a point when it will become depleted. How many times can we forgive? As many as it takes. This is one of the demands of the Kingdom of God: that we remain open to reconciliation, to the process Jesus laid out for us last week that involves the whole community, and that is ultimately represented by the shepherd’s search for the one lost sheep.
Yet, this abundant forgiveness is not as simple as at first it might seem. As we have already learnt, forgiveness is a process that takes place in community and we have responsibilities to God and to each other that we must discharge in participating in the work of reconciliation. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses.” Being forgiven does not exist in a vacuum. It does not simply go one way. It is bound inextricably with our own duty to forgive.
Today we learn that Jesus, immediately after his words about the potential for abundant forgiveness, tells the disciples a story that illustrates not the limits of forgiveness, but about the bonds of interconnection that tie us to God and one another and that are themselves essential to the work of reconciliation.
Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
If we live in a world in which we are to forgive “seventy times seven” times, it follows, therefore, Jesus tells us, that the Kingdom of God, unfolding around us even now, is like a king who, despite being owed an enormous sum, an amount as ridiculously large as is meant by “seventy times seven,” perhaps something like a billion dollars,(1) forgives the debt, just because the man asked him. The forgiveness is immediate and unconditional and this is the nature of life in the Kingdom of Heaven.
What happens next, however, shows a keen grasp of human nature and of our own foibles. The servant, who is clearly not a household retainer but rather a trusted counsellor and high government official, having been given this extraordinary gift seems not to have learned anything from the experience:
As he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, “Pay what you owe.” So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt.
For a man who was just let off the hook for an astronomically large sum, to begrudge the man one hundred denarii, perhaps a hundred days’ wages for a labourer, makes his lack of generosity in the face of his own forgiveness by the king even balder. The unacceptability of his behaviour to those who witnessed it was so clear, “that they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.” The community is acting to both protect the position of the poor fellow who owed the debt and to call to account the man who was happy to have been forgiven, but who could not himself bear to offer it in return.
And we know what happens next. The servant is called before the kings and asked to make an account of himself. In the end, the king, said:
“You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.
We risk our own forgiveness if we are unwilling to offer it ourselves when we are asked for mercy. God will forgive us abundantly, as many times as it will take, will seek us out like the lost sheep, even the gentiles and tax collectors, but we have a responsibility as well. We are to imitate our God as best we can, we are to forgive others “from [our] heart,” knowing that we have been forgiven ourselves.
Today’s gospel reminds us that we live in a world of choices and consequences. We have the ability to estrange ourselves from God and our neighbour, even though God is reaching out to us all the time, forgiving us as many times as it takes. We can harden our hearts, like the servant in the parable, and not offer to others what God offers us in abundance. Our punishment comes not from God, but from our own actions, our own hard heartedness, our own inability to return to others what we have been given.
We see it all the time in the world today. People are given the greatest of gifts, the most extraordinary of opportunities to serve their neighbours and their community, to serve the Kingdom of God, and they strive only to exercise and consolidate their own power, advancing their personal self interest. These are the servants who do not forgive the hundred denarii debt even when they have been let off the hook for billions in waste and corruption. They all have the chance to hear this Gospel, this message that we must forgive others their trespasses as we have been forgiven ours. They have the chance to turn and be inspired by the sense of abundance Jesus proclaims in his assertion of innumerable forgiveness. They have the chance, just as we do, to realise that forgiveness, justice, love are not limited commodities that will one day be exhausted, but that in fact multiply with their expenditure.
The message of today’s Gospel needs to be preached far and wide. It may seem like hard news at first, and hard news it is to the unrepentant sinner, but it is in fact the best of news. We are to be forgiven our sins, our mistakes, our misdeeds when we repent, and be reconciled to the community. When our repentance is heartfelt it will be received with patience and love, and in being reconciled we have a new responsibility, a new role, to forgive others as we have been forgiven. We participate in the process initiated by God that allows for all to enter into the life of the Kingdom of God, the kingdom in which the servant is forgiven his debt and in which that person in turn forgives those of others.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 11 September 2020
(1) Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina Series, 1, 1991 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 270.
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume