The heart of Christianity is in forgiveness. This runs from God to us, and from us to our neighbor. But forgiveness is hard, even seeming impossible, so we want to set boundaries on our forgiveness that will give us license to turn to judgment.
Today’s Gospel (Mt. 18:21-25) has St. Peter asking a question about forgiveness. “How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?”
Remember the man who, upon hearing the Law, “Love your neighbor,” asks the question, “And who is my neighbor?” Why did he ask that question? St. Luke tells us that he wanted to justify himself. It’s impossible to love everyone, so it is necessary to limit the scope of “neighbor.”
Likewise here, Peter wants to set a limit to forgiveness. Isn’t this what we all do? We will forgive … up to a point. We will be merciful … up to a point. How many people have you written off? How many times have you said, “I want nothing to do with that person any more?”
So Peter offers a number. It’s actually a generous number. The Jewish teaching was to forgive a person three times in a day. See how magnanimous Peter is? He more than doubles that amount: 7 times!
But the kingdom of heaven uses different math. Jesus replies not with a bigger number, but with a number to make us stop counting. Listen to St. Paul: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Cor 13:4–5 NIV11) Love doesn’t count to seven. Love doesn’t count to seventy-seven. Love “keeps no record of wrongs.” To count seventy times seven, 490 times a day, is a number no one could track in personal interactions. So love doesn’t count. Love forgives.
If we are counting, our anger is growing. But if we cease to count and just forgive, by the seventh, or seventy-seventh, or 490th time, forgiveness will be second nature – or better, forgiveness will be our new nature, for in Baptism the Lord has begun in us the renewal of our nature. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us. He acts and works in us by forgiveness. If we harbor resentment in our heart, we serve notice on the Spirit and begin the process of eviction. In the Holy Eucharist the Son of God comes to take up residence in us, His body and blood entering our body, not for us to digest but for Him to digest and transform us. Jesus forgives, so Jesus in us forgives those who trespass against us. How then could we set a limit, we who have been forgiven limitlessly?
The parable Jesus tells is a fearful one. Be not deceived: the day is coming when you will be called to account for how you treated others.
What can we say before God’s throne of judgment? “If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand?” So it is with the king’s servant called to the reckoning: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And … one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.”
His debt is an impossibly high number. Ten thousand talents is nearly impossible to quantify. It works out to around sixty million days of work. Working every day, the debt amounts to over 165,000 years of work.
The enormity of the amount — thousands upon thousands of lifetimes —makes the simple description of the debtor’s position a joke: “He was not able to pay.”
Now he will lose everything. His wife will become a slave. His daughters degraded. His sons sent to hard labor. The family will be broken up, house and property auctioned off: he loses everything, and himself becomes a slave. Ruin, devastation – words cannot describe his plight.
Isn’t his plea then laughable? “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.” How? When? The king’s patience will have to extend far beyond the scope of this man’s lifetime.
Now see what sort of king this is. He does not give the servant what he asks. He doesn’t give him patience, he doesn’t give him more time. He forgives the debt, the impossible debt, and wipes the slate completely clean.
The economics of the kingdom of God are preposterous. Coins come from the mouths of fish, a poor woman’s two pennies are worth more than your $10,000 offering because she gives from her lack, while you have more to spare. Men who work a single hour get a whole day’s pay. And now this man, who owes a sum of money beyond calculation, gets debt forgiveness. There is no bargain, there is no refinancing, there is only complete, clear, and full cancellation of the debt.
That’s the work of Jesus: Behold, the Lamb of God, who renegotiates the sin of the world? Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
It would be convenient if the parable stopped there. We would like Christianity to stop there. We have Law—an impossible debt; and we have Gospel—complete forgiveness. Now carry on, business as usual.
But Jesus does not stop there. He keeps going, confronting us with the question, “What does it mean to be forgiven?”
For this man, it meant license: he was now free, free to be violent to others. The forgiven servant confronts a man who owes him a small sum. Remarkable is the term used for this new character: he is a fellow servant. They are the same. They are brothers, equals before the king. And he should be happy. When St. Matthew was forgiven by Jesus, he threw a party. When Zacchaeus was visited by Jesus, he gave back all he had stolen, and started giving away his possessions to the poor.
The man in the parable, forgiven so much, how does he act? He grabs his fellow servant by the throat and begins strangling him. He shouts. “Pay me what you owe!” Does he have the right to act this way? Sure.
He wants what is fair. He is in the right. We might not particularly like this man if we met him, but we might side with him in court.
But divine economics is not governed by fair markets or fair trade. Christianity is not about what is fair. Christianity is not about what we think is right. Christianity’s beating heart is mercy, forgiveness in Jesus.
The parable doesn’t stop with our being forgiven, and our life does not stop with our being forgiven. That is its beginning. St. Augustine put it this way: “Every man begins from Baptism; he goes out free, the ‘ten thousand talents’ are forgiven him; and when he goes out, he will soon find some fellow-servant his debtor.” Baptism, in other words, forgives our impossible debt; and immediately after, we are challenged with people racking up debts against us. The whole parable is a commentary on the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
But what do we do? We keep asking Peter’s question, “Surely, Lord, there must be limits to all this? You don’t really expect me to take this lying down! I am done with her.”
Demanding your rights, you declare to God that you want a system of merit, a system where fair judgment is rendered. And then, God gives us what we are asking for. The king recalls the one who does not forgive. You want fairness? Then hear the King say your words back to you: “Pay Me what you owe.”
Jesus calls us to mercy. No limits. No conditions. Total mercy, full stop.
The conclusion of the parable forces us to confront this frightening truth. The God who is love, the God who is merciful and full of compassion, threatens to come upon us with His wrath. “And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.”
So what does this mean for us? The lesson is not, behave a little better, be a little more patient. What we need is a complete transformation of our soul. “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
That should drive us to our knees in prayer, this time not only for our own forgiveness, but for a new heart that would truly and genuinely forgive others. A devastating effect of the sinful nature is a vicious memory, remembering how we’ve been slighted, ignored, laughed at, excluded, taken advantage of. The sins committed against us damage our souls deeply.
But the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. Apprehending that, we see with Christ’s eyes that the sin is already forgiven. How could we then still want to grab the sinner by the throat and choke him?
Our prayer should be to receive a divine forgetfulness, that cannot recall any injuries or grievances. St. Augustine said on this Gospel, “Forgive the sin, and cast away the remembrance of it from the heart.”
Do you forgive everyone, fully and completely, from your heart? If not, then stand up with the rest of the sinners and sing David’s prayer, “Create in me a clean heart, O God!” When the stress and anxiety of the world has you tightening your fingers, ready to choke someone, loosen your death grip on your rights, make the sign of the cross, and say “God, be merciful to me, a sinner. Help me forgive my fellow sinner.”
You are in Jesus. Jesus forgives. Therefore you also forgive. No counting.