24th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Today's Gospel concludes the instruction on life in the community of the Church that makes up the 18th chapter of Matthew's Gospel. Whereas last Sunday we saw structures of reconciliation set in place, today the concentration is simply upon forgiveness itself.
Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian life. At the same time, we know that it is not something to speak of lightly. For people who have been deeply wronged or hurt finding the capacity to forgive may be the task of a lifetime. Such a capacity is a grace, the gift of God. It cannot simply be willed-still less be prescribed, urged or imposed upon a wronged person as something they 'ought' achieve. Believers at least have strong scriptural resources commending forgiveness-as in the total offering of readings for today.
LINKING DIVINE AND HUMAN FORGIVENESS
The First Reading, from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 27:30-28:7, sets the tone, especially in the way it links divine and human forgiveness. What one will receive from the Lord depends on how one is prepared to treat others: whether with compassion or with desire for vengeance, as the case may be. The text almost gives the impression that human readiness to forgive determines whether one receives forgiveness from God, as if God waits to see how things are on the human side before moving to forgive. This would be contrary to the overall biblical sense that the initiative always remains with God.
The concluding instruction, 'Remember the covenant of the Most High', restores and safeguard the true perspective. The lives of all members of God's people are enclosed within the covenant relationship that God graciously initiated without any deserts on Israel's side. The quality of all relationships between members of the covenant people must flow from and reflect this exercise of divine generosity and grace.
GENEROSITY OF CHRIST
The brief extract from Rom 14:7-9 that forms the Second Reading, though taken somewhat out of context, supports this view with its opening statement: 'the life and death of each of us has its influence on others'.
Behind the 'new covenant' into which Christian believers have been drawn stands the unparalleled generosity of Christ, who, in giving himself up to death for our sakes, sealed a 'new covenant in his blood' (1 Cor 11:25; Luke 22:20). Relationships in the community must, therefore, be charged with this sense of generosity and self-sacrifice emanating from the risen Lord, who, through the Spirit, continues to pour into the community the love that brought him to his death (Rom 5:5; 8:3-4).
The parable that forms the Gospel, Matt 18:21-35, is sparked off by a question from Peter, who, as so often, stands in for every member of the church that is coming into being (Matt 16:18). His suggestion of a readiness to forgive seven times sounds quite generous. (Which of us can say it's a standard we regularly achieve?) Jesus' initial reply (whether it means 'seventy times seven' [=490] or 'seventy-seven times') goes deliberately 'over the top', requiring a readiness to forgive on a frankly unlimited scale. To show that a calculating approach to forgiveness, such as Peter proposes, is quite inappropriate Jesus goes on to tell the long parable (the Unforgiving Debtor) that follows.
The note of exaggeration present in Jesus' initial response to Peter continues in the parable itself. A 'talent' was the largest unit of monetary calculation at the time. 'Ten thousand talents' denotes an utterly fantastic sum: billions of dollars in present-day terms.
DEBT BEYOND REPAYMENT
The point being made is that the servant owes his royal master a debt that, despite his plea for time, he has no hope of ever repaying. He stands to lose everything – freedom, family, possessions-for his whole life long. This means that when the master, in a pure act of generosity, cancels the debt he is in effect restoring the servant's life.
In contrast to the vastness of the debt from which the servant has been discharged, what he himself is owed by a fellow servant and is violently unwilling to remit is paltry indeed. The sum involved, few hundred denarii, is a debt that, given time, could easily be repaid. The force of the parable rests on this comparison. Each member of the believing community should understand that they live as people who have received, through Christ's costly self-gift in love, remission of a debt (the debt of sin) that they could never themselves repay. How utterly inappropriate then an unwillingness to forgive fellow members of the community the 'debts' set up by injury on a vastly smaller scale.
As noted at the start, the capacity to forgive does not come easily. The Gospel invites believers at least to enter more and more deeply into the mystery of divine forgiveness in order to find the grace to live truly forgiving lives.
Fr Brendan Byrne SJ