The classic format for writing a drama is to present it in three acts. So let’s look at today’s Gospel account (Mt 18:21-35) in that format.
Act I – Balancing the Books.
We have here a debtor who owes his master ten thousand talents. Now a talent was an amount of money equal to one thousand denarii, and a denarius was a Roman silver coin equal to one day’s labor. Doing the arithmetic, the amount of the debt equaled ten million days’ wages.
Responding to the debtor’s request the king, in an act of subtle sensitivity, changes the obligation from a debt to a loan. Did you notice that in the reading? It tells us: “Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.”
What is striking is that the debtor didn’t ask for forgiveness, he asked only for time to pay it back. Was he nuts? He must have been! How could he possibly think he could pay back the huge obligation he owed his master?
Setting aside the man’s psychiatric condition, let’s take a look at his spiritual state, which is, of course, what Jesus is talking about. We should also keep in mind that Jesus is talking about your spiritual condition as well as mine. All of Jesus’ parables are not about other people; they are about you and me.
And the point? The debtor was concerned only about observing the dictates of the law. His arrogant self-righteousness remained. His focus was only on himself. There was no change the debtor’s heart, only an attempt to manipulate laws, rules and regulations.
Act II – Self-righteousness.
Filled with his own self-righteousness the debtor went out and found a fellow servant, one of his equals who owed him a small amount of money. It amounted to only a hundred days’ wages, a miniscule sum compared to ten thousand talents he himself owed. Instead of treating his fellow servant with a changed heart, he treats his fellow servant to a strict application of the law and, after choking him, has his fellow servant thrown into debtors prison.
And the lesson? You can offer forgiveness to someone who has sinned against you but it won’t be effective if he or she has not repented and asked for forgiveness. The parable is pointing out that even God can’t forgive someone with a hard heart. It’s called “sinning against the Holy Spirit,” the only unforgivable sin. It’s unforgivable because the sinner does not allow himself to be influenced by the Holy Spirit and God’s tender, loving mercies.
Act III – The King Acts.
The king then acts on behalf of the powerless. He exercises legal judgment and employs the law on behalf of the poor and powerless fellow servant. He applies the full force of the law against the debtor who owed him the ten thousand talents.
We need to see that God comes to us looking for change in our hearts, not simply a change in our ways of thinking and acting. Changing our ways are “externals”, not “internals.” It’s your heart that God wants.
The old law of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” was designed to control and contain our vengeful attitudes and our lusts to “get even.” If one was limited to an eye or a tooth; one could not go beyond those boundaries and then kill in the name of justice.
Nevertheless, “getting even” is very much a part of our ways of doing things, even in today’s world. All one need do is to pay attention to the news headlines that daily confront us. Our world is still held hostage to notions of “getting even,” believing that justice will be served in that way, or that some sort of balance will be restored. We see that today in the Middle East and in our own politicians in Washington.
Jesus wants us to see that forgiveness is liberating, and it is the most liberating for the one doing the forgiving. Forgiveness allows us to walk in the freedom of the sons and daughters of God, not as children of the law.
Living under the law leads us to “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” approach. Living under the law leads us to attitudes that seek retribution and justice alone without any change in our hearts.
Many of us cling to resentments in horrible prisons of pent-up anger, in the grip of resentments and in our lusts to “get even”. This throws us into victimhood. We feel like we are victims and seek ways to find just compensation, revenge and retribution. We live under the law.
Jesus Christ is risen from the dead… victim no longer. He is totally free because he is totally forgiving. He teaches us to ask God to “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” As is the controlling word – we will be forgiven to the length, height and depth that we measure out forgiveness to others, all the while remembering that the people we forgive are forgiven only if they repent, convert their hearts, and then actually accept forgiveness. For forgiveness to work both parties must be involved.
Forgiveness is not “selling out;” it’s not saying that what people have done to us is somehow “okay,” or that it does not matter. Forgiveness liberates us from the ways of this world; it takes us into the heart of God. To forgive is truly divine, and the presence of God is something we all desperately need in our lives, particularly in the days in which we presently live.
With all of that in mind I want us to listen again to the wisdom offered us in God’s holy word, to wisdom that is found in today’s first reading that came to us from the Old Testament Book of Wisdom:
Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD? Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins? If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins? Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin! Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.
And so let us — lets you and me — find freedom for ourselves in forgiving others. [24th Sunday in Ordinary Time- A]