“Lord, how often must I forgive my brother (or sister) who sins against me? As many as seven times?”
We ought not to be too quick to judge Peter for what may sound like a petty question on his part. Think about it for a moment. How easily would any of us grant forgiveness to someone who had offended us repeatedly? I’m not sure that any one of us might not reach our limit long before seven times. After all, just how sorry can someone be who sins in the same way over and over again?
This is the thinking that comes from “common sense”. Jesus is coming from a different place. He is speaking about the kingdom of God. There things are different. There the mercy and love of God know no bounds. “No,” Jesus responds to Peter, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times” (Or, as in the new translation, “77 times”). Jesus tells a story – a parable – to illustrate the point. We must pay close attention to every detail of the parable if we are to fully appreciate the significance of Jesus’ teaching. A king’s servant owes his master “a huge amount”. How huge? So huge that he has absolutely no way of paying the kind back. This unimaginably huge debt clues us in at once that the king is a figure of God. We owe God everything, and there is nothing that we can offer that could ever repay God for all he has done for each and every one of us. Similarly, when we sin against God, our offense is beyond our ability to make up for it. The servant’s insistence that he will pay everything back is nothing but a desperate attempt to gain time. He knows he can never repay the debt.
It is at this point that the parable illustrates the unlimited mercy of God. “All is forgiven,” announces the kind. “All is forgiven,” God says to us. No matter how great the sin – no matter how often we commit sin, this is God’s response to our plea for mercy: “All is forgiven.” God knows well that there is nothing that we can offer that could pay the price of his mercy. It is free – and, at the same time, costly – because the forgiveness of our sins was purchased by the blood of Christ.
The parable could well have ended there. What a magnificent picture of God’s unending mercy has been painted. But the story continues. While still basking in the good news of the cancellation of his extraordinary debt, the servant comes upon a fellow servant who owes the forgiven man a mere pittance in relation to his debt to the king. We can almost see the faces of Jesus’ audience. They are all but smiling in anticipation of the servant forgiving the debt of his fellow servant. But just the opposite. Showing no mercy at all, the man who had just been forgiven his entire debt by the king treats his companion in just the opposite manner. Having been forgiven himself, the ungrateful servant refuses to forgive his fellow servant.
What should have been a very happy ending to the parable now quickly turns miserable. The king, upon hearing of the servant’s refusal to forgive, immediately reverses his own forgiveness and sentences the wretched servant to torture until the debt is repaid. Remember – the debt is so huge that it cannot be repaid, therefore the torture is unending. The message is clear. God forgives all our sins. This was accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross. He forgives not because we deserve forgiveness, but because he is God, who is Love – and mercy. However, if we, having been the beneficiaries of so great a mercy, do not forgive one another from the heart, neither will God extend his mercy and forgiveness to us. Like all of God’s gifts, his mercy and forgiveness must be shared with others if it is ever to be truly efficacious in my own life.
At each and every Mass we pray in the words that our Lord Himself taught us: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Those are awesome words, and we must take them seriously. It is only in the measure that we forgive others that God will forgive us. And we are to forgive as God forgives. Not because my neighbour is “worthy” or “deserving”. Not because I happen to be in a particularly “good mood”. I forgive my neighbour seven times seventy times (or 77 times) because I treasure the unmerited mercy that God has shown me. This is enough to share that forgiveness with others.
As we anticipate the moment of our reception of the Body and Blood of the Lord we say, “Lord, I am not worthy…” How true! It is God who makes us worthy by forgiving our neighbour from our hearts.
Fr Gerald Biñegas RCJ
Holy Family Parish, Victoria, Australia
Homily for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A