Repay God for the mercy shown to us
God has been merciful in forgiving our sins, so we need to offer forgiveness
September 11, 2005 -- 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Fr. Michael Stubbs
A member of our finance council asked us to advise a business which had discovered an embezzler. They faced a dilemma. The business could throw the embezzler in prison, but then would probably not recover its losses, or the business could make the embezzler pay back the stolen money and let the culprit go free.
It looks very different than the ancient world. In those harsh times, a person who owed money could be thrown into prison until he paid it back. All his assets could be sold to satisfy the debt, with no bankruptcy court to protect his home. Even his wife and children could be sold into slavery. As a last resort, the debtor himself could be sold. This practice inspired the prophet Amos to complain, "They sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals." (Amos 2:6)
Our discussion provides the background for Sunday's gospel reading, Matthew 18:21-35. A king orders the servant owing him a huge debt to pay up. The lectionary translation does not report the exact amount, but the original text sets it at 10,000 talents. To put that in understandable terms, the servant owed the equivalent of wages for 60 million days of labor. It was impossible for him to raise the money, even if he and his family were sold into slavery, even if all his friends held bake sales and car washes constantly. Out of desperation, the servant pleads for mercy, and the king in his great compassion, grants it.
So far, so good. But then the servant in turn runs across a fellow servant who owes him money. This second debt is comparatively small, the equivalent of wages for only 100 days of labor. It is within easy reach. Nonetheless, the servant owed the money is himself unwilling to show any mercy and has the debtor thrown into jail.
Eventually, the king finds out about the servant's unwillingness to offer the same mercy that he had previously received. The king sends the unforgiving servant back to prison. He does not deserve mercy, since he would not show others mercy.
The parable teaches us that since God has been overwhelmingly merciful to us in forgiving our sins, we should in turn forgive the relatively paltry offenses that our fellow human beings commit against us. In the parable, God corresponds to the king, while we correspond to the servant.
In showing forgiveness to our fellow human beings, we are not repaying God for the mercy shown us. There is too great a discrepancy between our sins against God and our neighbors' offenses against us. In forgiving others, we imitate, in our weak, human way, God's great mercy towards us. Not only does it follow logically, but God expects it. Otherwise, we are thrown back into jail, to await God's punishment.
The parable puts into story form the words of the "Our Father," "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." It is up to us to put those into real life.
(Fr. Stubbs, a priest of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, has a master's degree in theology from Harvard.)