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A parable of forgiveness

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Gospel Commentary Sept. 13,  MT 18:21-35

Desperate people, experience tells us, will often make wild promises, swearing anything to God or others to avoid the final enclosure of despair in a moment of panic. It’s a pitiable moment whenever we see it in film or literature, and even more so if we experience it in real life. Christ’s parable about forgiveness provides us with just such a scene, illustrating for us the true drama of mercy.

We may perhaps, as modern people, consider God’s mercy a given. We live in a time when many profess a belief that every soul will be saved, or that seemingly small and private sins could not possibly be cause for a breach in our relationship with God. Yet here, Christ describes the everyman as a debtor before the great king, in a situation so desperate that he has begun to speak inanity and make impossible promises. Though the translation we have for Mass says that this man owes “a huge amount,” the actual text specifies that he owes ten thousand talents, of gold, we presume. This is a spectacular amount, when we consider that it would have taken the normal laborer something like 20 years to earn even one talent. When the poor debtor in the passage swears that he will pay back 200,000 years’ worth of wages, we hear sharply the desperation of his impossible situation. We can well understand the master’s pity for this person who has caused himself harm beyond what he could have possibly understood, and we are relieved when the master forgives the insurmountable debt with a word.

The truth is that sin, as a refusal of God, a rejection of the greatest good, incurs just such a debt, and is absolutely impossible for any human being to repay. Sin damages our soul far beyond any of our capacity to restore or heal. We must understand this clearly, not so that we are crushed by the weight of our sins, despair or self-hatred, but so that we appreciate with full joy and gratitude just how great the Lord’s willing mercy is. His forgiveness is not a mere excusing of our shortcomings; it is the overcoming of a great gap, impossible for us to cross on our own. When we could not reach God, he came down to reach us with limitless mercy to meet our incomprehensible debt, and all we have to do to receive this forgiveness is ask with honest repentance.

This should help us understand as well how we should deal with our neighbor. The debt owed by one servant to the other in the parable is still a large one, equivalent to about four months’ worth of wages, but it is different in kind from the first. The debt owed to the master is impossible; the debts owed between servants, no matter how great, are on a human scale. We ought to forgive one another in the first place out of consideration for how much we have been forgiven, but also out of consideration for the much greater debt that other person already owes by sin. All people, all our fellow servants, have incurred that terrifying debt of sin. No matter what they may in fact owe us, it pales in comparison to what they owe God. Rather than bring the weight of our neighbor’s sins back down on their head through mercilessness, we should fear for their soul and encourage them to find the same mercy we have in Christ. The stakes are high indeed. Since God has offered us a way to freedom, we do far better to help our neighbors to find that path into the world of forgiveness than to remain behind, struggling among ourselves until the door of mercy closes at the end of all things.

Fr. Rampino is parochial vicar of Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020