In the Lord’s Prayer, said at every mass and often repeated by Christians everywhere, we say ‘forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us’, and this familiar use may mask the challenge this can be. Today’s readings give us opportunity to reflect on how seriously Jesus takes this obligation.
Ecclesiasticus 27:30 -28:7
This book is known only in the Greek version; it not in the Hebrew Bible and not accepted as part of the canon by Protestants. The name used here comes from the Latin word for ‘church’ but many modern translations use ‘Sirach’ from the name of the writer, Jesus ben Sira. For these note, I used a helpful introduction by Alexander Di Lella, OFM, in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary.
Ben Sira came to Egypt about 132 BCE where there was a large Jewish-Hellenistic community in Alexandria. He knew much of the Greek philosophic traditions and wrote to ‘demonstrate that the Jewish way of life was superior to the Hellenistic culture and … that true wisdom was found in Jerusalem and not in Athens.’ He chose the Jewish book of Proverbs as his model and, like it, his compilation includes a wide range of styles and there is no outline order.
This selection is close to all that Jesus in Matthew has to say about forgiveness, with heart-felt appeals to Jewish tradition.
Psalm 102/103:1-4, 9-12
This psalm selection is all about how God forgives us. The height of the heavens was the limit of the reach above in the cosmology of the time (as also described in the first chapter of Genesis). We who know of the recent discoveries of distances in space can make a more spectacular comparison. The Hebrews thought of a flat earth, with east and west at the farthest distances on the surface. We accept a round planet with a north and south pole with a limited distance from each other, but there is no ‘east’ or ‘west’ pole. You can keep going ‘east’ and never reach ‘west’, which makes for a powerful metaphor of God’s removal of our sinfulness.
This is the one reading this week with a different topic. It brings to an end the current liturgical selections from St Paul’s Letter to the community in Rome, in which he has set out both a theology of Jesus’ salvation and his strong support for both the Jewish people and the new Christian churches. A good conclusion, as it looks at both life and death from the new perspective brought by Jesus with his life-death-life shared for us.
This week’s selection spells out in detail what it means to forgive ‘as we have been forgiven.’ Peter apparently thought that forgiving a person seven times is quite generous. Jesus responds with one of his typical exaggerations – ‘70 times 7’. This does not, however, mean 490 times is enough, as challenging as that would be! It is a way of saying: ‘Forgiving is not something to keep accounts about. You always have to forgive.’
Matthew follows the question with a parable which does not pick up ‘how many times’ but makes clear the way that God forgives us means we must be equally forgiving to others. The story has some wild exaggerations, which we are meant to translate into something other than money. The ‘ten thousands of talents’ would be in the millions in today’s currency – we might think of the slang expression ‘zillions’ for a sum hard to calculate or imagine. The ‘servants’ of a king could be officials, but still it would impossible to pay off that amount even ‘given time’. The king’s remitting of the debt is an act of generosity that can’t be quantified and would be totally unexpected.
The one hundred denarii owed by the second servant would be at most a few day’s wages, and the fellow servant would have some hope of saving that much. But he is given no chance. That the man would not pass on the forgiveness he received was noticed by the fellow employees and come to the master in distress. Those who heard Jesus’ story were probably feeling much like the fellow servants.
Then, as so often in parables, come the ‘kicker’. Jesus suddenly lets us know the story is really about forgiveness not of debts, but about how we are to forgive. In the introduction, Jesus said the parable will tell us something about the ‘Dominion/Kingdom of Heaven’. In this non-worldly domain, God forgives freely and abundantly all the sins of the people. But they in turn, living with the grace of their forgiveness, must share this with all who have offended them in any way great or petty. We are to keep in mind the vast discrepancy that no offence to us will come anywhere near what which we have been forgiven by God.
The challenge to forgive stands at what is at the heart of the Christian community. We are not to live with a sense of grievance nor of judging others. Matthew has kept that aspect clear as this section of the Gospel is part of the address in which Jesus talks about how those who are to continue his mission after he has returned to the Father.
In those cases, where we find it hard to forgive, we have God’s continuing patience and help for us, his continuing forgiveness till we can forgive as freely.