Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“’Therefore is the Kingdom of Heaven likened unto a certain king who would settle accounts with his servants.’”
The first thing that captures our attention this morning is that this parable is a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. It is an earthly analogy attempting to describe the heavenly reality. This parable comes to us by way of a scenario, a hypothetical situation presented by St. Peter to our Lord. It is a situation most all of us can identify with and maybe even have spun ourselves over the years. “’Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me,’” wonders the Disciple Peter, “’and I forgive him?’” Haven’t we, too, ever wondered just how many times can we forgive someone or should forgive someone, especially a repeat offender? This is a human dilemma as old as humanity itself, beginning in the Garden! Perhaps we have fixed an arbitrary number in our minds, depending on just who it is and what they’ve done. It can be a simple as saying, “Never! No way, no how can I ever or will I ever forgive so-and-so!” Peter, on the other hand, at least offered something far more generous than the rabbis of his time. He offers seven times as the critical number. He takes the rabbinic counsel of three times, doubles it, and adds one more for good measure! “’Until seven times?,’” he proffers.
But, what does Jesus say? “’I say not unto thee, until seven times, but until seventy times seven’” (Gn. 4:1-16, 23-24; Mt. 18:21-22). The shorthand of what our Lord says means, “without number or measure.” Or, as we might say, “As often as it takes,” that is, “’seventy times seven.’”
Forgiveness of sin stands at the very center of the Church in the image of the Cross and Empty Tomb. It is the critical core of our Faith and our life together as the Church. In fact, this dominical teaching (a teaching of the Lord) is situated in the chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel dealing precisely with this reality. Jesus reminds us in this chapter that “’unless ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven’” (Mt. 18:3). And, again, He reminds us, lest we have forgotten, that “’the Son of Man is come to save that which was lost’” (Mt. 18:11).
At no time, however, does Jesus ever hint around that forgiveness is easy nor an unnecessary reality in the life of the Church. For wherever sinners are to be found, there forgiveness will of necessity be. In fact, Jesus goes so far as to provide the Church with a protocol, shall we say, of handling trespasses within the community of the baptized, when brother sins against brother, which is inevitable. You try to rectify the injustice privately between the two of you and, if that fails, you take two or three brethren as witnesses and try again, and if that fails you bring the matter to the Church. The Church becomes the witness, then, and whatever is decided by the Church is established based upon what Jesus says, “’ [I]f two of you shall agree on earth concerning anything . . ., it shall be done for them by My Father Who is in Heaven.’” Why? Because “’where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them.’” Jesus Christ, present in His Church, speaks through His Church (which is an assembly gathered together in His Name). “’Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven; and so whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven’” (Mt. 18:15-20).
Forgiveness of sins or debts is critical to us. It has been said by psychologists and counselors alike that most everything their clients bring to them could be remedied by a good confession to a priest. That’s how deep this runs. We all need forgiveness and we all need to extend forgiveness. So critical is forgiveness that it’s the one thing Jesus says here and at other places that can keep us out of Heaven if we fail to forgive. Unforgiveness denies us access to the Father in Heaven and it creates insurmountable barriers to prayer (Mt. 5:23-24; 6:9-15; Mk. 11:24-26; Lk. 6:37-38; 17:3-4). So, if you’ve ever wondered why it is you feel as though your prayers are not breaking through to Heaven, re-examine your life and see if there be any unforgiveness in you.
And so, replying to Peter’s inquiry, our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ tells a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven using the figures of an earthly king and his indebted servants. It speaks of our relationship with our great King and our God and how we sinners are debtors who are far more indebted to Him than we are to one another! We owe a debt to God so insanely vast we cannot ever re-pay it no matter how long we live. There are just not enough lifetimes in eternity! That’s the force of the Greek word here for the myriad of talents – the 10,000 talents – owed. Translated it means the number is staggeringly unimaginable and its payment unattainable – ever! The king to whom the debt is owed justly orders the servant in arrears to be auctioned off, along with his entire household – wife, children, and all their belongings. They will be sold off as slaves and the debt re-paid. Here we learn, brethren, that whatever sins we have accrued, whatever debts we have accumulated, rarely, if ever, simply affect us personally or individually. The debt – the sin – of the servant here in the parable, confines his very family and all they own to servitude. They became ensnared and mired in the web woven by the sin-debt encumbered (Ps. 39 :2; Hb. 12:1).
And so, what does this servant do under so great a burden he cannot bear nor ever begin to re-pay? He cries out to the king, “Forgive me my trespasses, forgive my debts, as I forgive those indebted to me!” (Our Father). Knowing that the servant could never even begin to make a dent in the enormous debt encumbered, the king nevertheless does him justice. He forgives his servant the impossible debt. He forgives him, mind you, because he is a man of deepest compassion, a righteous king and merciful, just as is our God and King. “For Thou art a good God and lovest mankind.” He gladly releases the servant of his enormous debt owed him. The king would have been well within his rights to exercise judgment and extract every last talent from his servant owed him, but he willingly chose otherwise. He chose not to exercise judgment but mercy.
Now, typically, in just about all of us, there would be an immediate sense of the greatest relief imaginable. The world would suddenly become light and joyous, radiant with splendor. We would feel intoxicated by our new lease on life. But, what of this servant in Jesus’ parable? He acts nothing like it . . . . . . . at all! We would never guess by his actions the Good News he has just received, the reprieve he and his whole household have been granted. No sooner is he forgiven the great and burdensome debt than he finds a colleague, a fellow servant who owes him a meager debt by comparison, seizes him by the throat, and demands that he re-pay immediately the paltry sum owed him. If given enough time, our Lord’s comparison here suggests, this debt was, in fact, payable within reason. But, the wicked servant, as Jesus now calls him, refuses the indebted servant’s plea, a plea identical to his own before the king. But this plea for patience and mercy falls on deaf ears and the wicked servant takes matters into his own hands and executes justice by having the debtor thrown into prison “’till he should pay the debt.’”
Does any of this strike you? Does any of this make us ponder how we react toward those who, like us, are equally indebted, and yet somehow when it comes down to us we feel superior and self-righteous enough to execute judgment? How do we square our responses to another whose debt to us is by far paltry by comparison to our own incredibly enormous and suffocating debt we owe the good graces of our God and our King? Of course, we don’t believe their debt to us is paltry, but that’s what this parable teaches us. That’s what our Lord teaches us here: how to see and how to act. “Forgive us our trespasses . . . . Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Interestingly, it is St. Matthew’s Gospel that employs the word for debts both here in this parable as well as in his version of the Our Father (Mt. 6:9-13). I believe that’s quite intentional on his part. When we sin we become debtors. We become debtors to one another, that is, to the Church, and we become debtors to God. Ultimately, as David confesses, “against Thee only have I sinned, and done that which is evil in Thy sight,” O God (Ps. 50 :4). There is something about the word debt that the word trespass doesn’t communicate. When we sin we trespass against someone or something, yes, but we become debtors, as well, to love and mercy and grace and compassion – all things we all desperately need and crave in our lives that can only be satisfied by forgiveness.
At the heart of Jesus’ Gospel is forgiveness. At the heart of the Kingdom of Heaven is the Cross and Empty Tomb by which the Lamb of God has reconciled us to the Father and to one another through His blood (Ep. 2:14-18; Co. 1:14, 20-22). “Shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.” “For [Christ God] Himself is our peace, Who has made both [Jew and Gentile] one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, . . ., so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace,” Paul says, “and that He might reconcile them both to God in one Body [i.e., the Church] through the Cross, . . . .” (Ep. 2:14-16).
How, then, do we begin to justify ourselves when we ourselves have yet to begin to re-pay our debt to the love and mercy and grace of God our Father through His Son, Jesus Christ? This is the one thing necessary: that we be reconciled, not only to God, but to each other before we approach the Supper of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus tells us how important this is, important enough for us not to take Communion until we have been reconciled with our brother or sister who has something against us (Mt. 5:23-24). Forgiveness is the key to reconciliation and to peace with ourselves, with one another, and with God. And Jesus knew that when He gave to His Church the Mystery of Repentance and Reconciliation – the Sacrament of Forgiveness – to be exercised in this world until He comes again. Forgiveness is both an act of the will and it is a state of the soul rooted firmly in meekness and humility. “’Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’” (Beatitudes). Forgiveness is not an emotion. Forgiveness releases us from the poisonous venom of bitterness, that, if we hold onto it, only erodes our humanity and the image of God in us, and we become like the demons. It deadens our soul and prevents us from seeing God. “’Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’” (Beatitudes).
As Jesus reminds us, we cannot receive from God what we ourselves are unwilling to give to our brother or our sister indebted to us (Mk. 11:24-26). “’Judge not, and you shall not be judged,’” Jesus says. “’Condemn not, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. . . For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you’” (Lk. 6:37-38). That’s how and why the wicked, ungrateful, belligerent servant was handed over to the tormentors to pay the debt that he can never re-pay.
I leave you with this from St. Paul:
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the Law. . . . Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law (Rm. 13:8-10).
This is the splendor of the image of God in us (Ep. 4:32-5:2; Co. 3:12-13).
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
1 Cr. 9:2-12