In the confusion of last week and Hurricane Irma, I accidentally wrote this commentary for last Sunday, and not next Sunday (September 17). So, back for a return engagement....
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 18:21-35
24th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
"Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?"
Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.'
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
'Pay back what you owe.'
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?'
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart."
R.T. France (p. 672ff.) introduces Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel as “Living together as Disciples: The Discourse on Relationships.” The Lectionary, unable to include the entirety of Matthew’s texts in Year A, had to make judicious decisions about what segments to feature in the Sunday calendar. There are many places in Vatican II documents, not to mention other Church statements and nearly all catechetical texts—that strongly recommend daily study of the bible with a commentary, to fill in the gaps. Father Daniel Harrington’s Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew (2007) is a suggestion that immediately comes to mind.
Sunday’s Gospel is the conclusion of Chapter 18, and it follows the preceding texts: (1) The disciples’ spat over who is the greatest among them: (2) to enter the kingdom, one must become childlike; (3) the terrible punishment of scandalizing “a little one” who believes; (4) searching for the lost sheep from a flock of 100; (5) how to deal with a brother’s sin; (6) the authority of tying and binding [sin]; (7) the power of brothers praying together. Then follows Sunday’s texts, Peter’s question about how often to forgive, and Jesus’ parable about the unforgiving steward.
It is not necessary to single out a precise theme line in any chapter of the Gospel; our numerical New Testament chapter arrangements, including Chapter 18 of Matthew, were determined by the famous English bishop, Stephen Langton, around 1205 A.D. However, the ordering of Gospel material is critical to the mind of the author, in this case Matthew. In Chapter 18 there is a thread of community life: we shouldn’t strive for superiority, we need the humble and trusting attitude of a child (and woe to the one who betrays that), every human is worth saving, together we can save others from sin, and together our prayers command the direct attention of God.
Peter’s question in 18:21 “how many times must I forgive my brother?” is not the bloodless question it appears to be; in American parlance, nobody wants to be an all-day sucker. France reminds us that the context of the question is the fellowship of the twelve, the future core of Jesus’ surviving ministry. The fact that earlier in the chapter there is a procedure for a recalcitrant brother might have been the genesis of Peter’s question: how many times can a community forgive its members, or a family its blood relatives, before the act of forgiveness is meaningless?
Jesus’ answer, that forgiveness be extended 77 times, is an idiom for endlessly, until recently rendered “70 times 7” in English. The phrase “77 times” is borrowed from Genesis 4, where Cain is confronted by God for his murder of Abel. Cain fears that his sin will mark him as a man to be destroyed, but God marks him with “the sign of Cain” and assures him that his killer would be avenged sevenfold, i.e. to extermination. In an obscure fashion, Matthew reaches back to the treatment of the world’s first cold blooded killer by God, who protects him. Jesus is telling Peter in effect that if the heavenly Father protects Cain through what would be a long and productive life (Cain would have a family and establish a city), the disciple of Jesus must forgive without calculation of what is fair.
The gratuitousness of forgiveness proclaimed by Jesus should not surprise us, for he had previously charged his disciples to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The break from tradition is that Jesus declines “legal perfection” in favor of “loving perfection,” and in his crucifixion, will demonstrate what perfect love and forgiveness would look like.
In the famous parable that follows, we see the lesson that “a community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community.” For France, the parable is the working model of the Church. The king is God, and his servants are we, who populate his kingdom. The king/master is all powerful, but chooses inestimable beneficence in his dealings with the servants. In his accounting, he comes across one servant who owes him a huge amount, later identified as a loan, with emphasis upon the huge. While no figure is mentioned, it was great enough that the entire family would be sold into slavery to cover the debt.
Moved with pity, the king absolves the full debt unconditionally, a metaphor of God’s treatment of all of us who live in massive debt to God’s life and goodness. The only unspoken condition—so obvious that the king felt no need to say it—was the expectation that a man forgiven so much would continue the tradition toward his peers who owed him. This, of course, did not happen. The text reads that the forgiven servant “found” one of his fellow servants and literally beat him into submission. France calculates that the second servant’s debt was one six-hundred-thousandth of the debt forgiven the first servant by the master. The other servants, like any tight-knit group, know the details of this gross turn of events and feel compelled to report it to the king/master.
The king, not surprisingly, is outraged. The punishment for the servant’s failure to forgive a minor debt is worse than anything we might have imagined. He will be tortured until he pays back the original debt to the king, which being impossible, means he will be tortured into perpetuity. God’s justice and mercy is neither aimless or unstructured. Forgiveness “from the heart” is our command, lest we be treated like the ungrateful servant.
It is a sobering thought that we do carry around within us memories of injustice, cruelty, betrayal, or envy toward at least some persons. While we abstain from outright violence or revenge, this Gospel asks where we are in our hearts regarding such individuals or institutions, and makes the forgiving spirit the keystone of God’s kingdom on earth.