Commentary on the Readings
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – September 17, 2017
Forgiveness: The feast of God and man
“Do not break the tenuous link of friendship because, once broken, even if later you fix it, a node always remains.” I attended elementary school when the teacher gave me this advice that remained in my memory. It comes back to mind every time I’m aware of contrasts, misunderstandings, disagreements. It upsets me to think that a mistake is enough to put an end, forever, to a friendship, that relationship the Bible calls the “balm of life” (Sir 6:16). “Like a bird, you have let your friend go, you will not get him back. Do not pursue him, he is far away” (Sir 27:19-20). The inability to forgive, the fear of giving full confidence again to one who did wrong are the evil forces that make irretrievable the bond of broken love.
We forgive ourselves with difficulty: we torment ourselves with remorse. We do not accept the humiliation of a weakness. We drag our fault behind as an unexploded, dangerously not triggered bomb. Only one who has a peaceful relationship with oneself is able to recognize one’s own mistake. He knows that a positive recovery from a bitter experience of sin is possible.
We do not forgive others. The disappointment, the delusion of betrayal, the fear that it may be repeated are too big. The urge to break the relationship and to take revenge for the offense suffered are almost unrestrainable.
Sucked into this whirlwind of passions and resentments, we let the greatest joy escape. It is the joy which God also experiences a hundredfold when he manages to revive a love relationship. Even to one who is old, he always gives the opportunity to start again, giving him back a perennial youthfulness.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Our resentments do not prevail but the action of your Spirit.”
Whoever feels a victim of some injustice instinctively tends to attack those responsible. The settling of scores, anger, resentment, and hatred starts here. But in giving free rein to these passions, does one remedy cases of abuse or makes it eviler? Throughout history, various answers have been given to this question. In more remote times, the method to compensate for the wrongs and to deter from committing others was rather brusque. One reacted with the retaliation; one paid evil back ... with interest. The most famous example of this limitless revenge is that of Lamech, the son of Cain. He was the first polygamist who sang before the two wives: “I killed a man for wounding me and a boy for striking me. If Cain will be avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gn 4:23-24).
A step forward, compared to this brutal reaction, the famous law is formed: “An eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, wound for wound” (Ex 21:24). The commentary to the gospel of the seventh Sunday said that it is not an invitation to give back the evil received but to ensure that the punishment is fair.
The Old Testament did not stop at this reasonable, legitimate but still primitive justice. In the book of Leviticus it is ordered: “Do not seek revenge or nurture a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). It is the highest point reached by the wise men of Israel. The passage proposed to us today moves along this line.
Sirach—full of wisdom derived from his experience—addresses the disciple. From man to man, he tries to convince him to avoid the senseless behavior dictated by the desire for revenge, anger, resentment. These feelings are an abomination and create an impenetrable shield in the relationship between God and man. They keep them from talking to and understanding each other. He continues his reflection, inviting the disciple to go beyond simple justice and to open the heart to mercy. The clemency towards those who have wronged—he says—is an indispensable prerequisite to pray and receive forgiveness from God. “If a man bears resentment against another, how can he ask God for healing?” (v. 3).
These are simple, clear and calm reflections. They accompany us until the threshold of God’s kingdom. They dispose us to listen to the word of Jesus that brings to perfection the wisdom already present in the Old Testament.
In the 14th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, Paul deals with a very current problem: how to resolve the differences of opinions between members of the community?
There were two groups of Christians in Rome: some—called by Paul the weak—were tied to the traditions of the ancestors. They observed the fasting days, practiced an austere asceticism, abstained from certain meats. The others—the strong—the most mature, felt constrained by the only law of love of his brother; as for the rest, they behaved as free people.
Because of these contrasts between traditionalists and innovators, several tensions in the community of Rome had arisen. The first accused the strong of permissiveness; they considered them to be a little virtuous, unfaithful to the law of Moses. These, in turn, reacted with heavy strokes; they treated the weak as retrogrades, mentally obtuse, incapable of understanding the absolute novelty of the gospel. How to build a peaceful coexistence between persons with opposing beliefs? It was not easy (and it is not easy even today).
Paul, who belonged to the group of the strong, proposes two rules—one for each of the two groups. These are rules that, if followed, will lead toward mutual acceptance. He primarily speaks to those of his group, the strong, and calls for respect for the weak, for their rather old fashioned religious practices, devotions, and the now obsolete traditions. The weak must also be careful not to prevaricate. The Apostle demands that they refrain from judging the strong, and thinking that whoever does not follow the traditions of the ancestors is unfaithful to the gospel (Rom 14:1-6). If the two groups are in compliance with these two norms, they can coexist peacefully, otherwise, misunderstandings, disagreements, and tensions will arise among them.
The following verses (vv. 7-9)—the only ones reported by today’s reading—present a principle that helps to resolve any conflict: the Christian must always keep in mind that he does not live for himself, for the pursuit of self-interest, but for the Lord. In his relationship with his brothers and sisters, therefore, he must never be guided by human considerations. He lives and dies “for the Lord.”
In the explanation of the first reading, we found that there was a gradual evolution in the way we react to insults and wrongdoings: it moved from the settlement of accounts to more equitable solutions and ultimately forgiveness.
At the time of Jesus, there was much insistence on the need to maintain peaceful relations. It condemned revenge, anger, resentment and required reconciliation. Who was wrong—the spiritual leaders taught—must recognize his error and beg forgiveness and the offended person is obliged to grant it. If he refuses, the offender apologizes in front of two witnesses to prove that he has done everything possible to restore peace. If the offended one dies before the reconciliation, he who has done evil must go to his grave, and placing a stone, declares: “I have done wrong to you.” The obligation to forgive was restricted to the members of the people of Israel and was limited. No more than three times—the rabbis affirmatively agreed—on the fourth, one had to access to legal remedies.
The question that opens today’s gospel: “How many times must I forgive the offenses of my brother or sister? Seven times?” (v. 21) reveals that Peter understood that Jesus intends to go beyond the limits set by the scribes. He certainly remembers what has been said in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you are about to offer your gift at the altar, and you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother and then come back and offer your gift to God” (Mt 5:23-24) and “If you forgive others their wrongdoings, our Father in heaven will also forgive yours. If you do not forgive others…” (Mt 6:14-15). He also presents another unequivocal statement of the Master: “If your brother offends you seven times in one day, but seven times he says to you, ‘I’m sorry’, forgive him” (Lk 17:3-4).
Peter is baffled: the number seven indicates totality. Must not one by chance forgive always and without conditions? He asks for confirmation of what he begins to perceive (v. 21).
The answer of Jesus goes beyond that which already scares Peter: “No, not seven times (that is always) but seventy times seven (even more than always)” (v. 22). It refers to the scornful and mocking words of Lamech who boasted to practice revenge without limits. Resuming, Jesus wants to teach that forgiveness should reach infinity, as the arrogance of the son of Cain reached infinity. To clarify his thoughts, he tells a parable (vv. 23-35).
A debtor who owed ten thousand talents was presented to the king. The talent is about thirty-six kilograms of gold; its value multiplied by ten thousand—the most elevated figure of the Greek language—from a huge sum that corresponds to the salary of 200,000 years of work, 2,400,000 payrolls. It’s unthinkable that someone could repay such amount.
The Bible used twenty images to define sin. In the last centuries before Christ, another one was added that had come to prevail: the debt owed to God. The simple people felt always in arrears with payments. Prayers, sacrifices, offerings, fasting, good works were never enough to compensate for the countless violations of the law. They were all the more indebted to the Lord. Only the Pharisees were convinced that they have the accounting in order. Theirs is a tragic illusion because—as Paul declares that although he had lived so blameless—“all have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Man is an insolvent debtor before God.
Showing a generosity without limits, the master of the parable—who represents God—touched by the plight of his servant, condones all the debt. There’s no sin that God cannot forgive; there is no fault superior to his immense love. Paul also uses the same image: God “has canceled the record of our debts, those regulations which accused us. He did away with all that and nailed it to the cross” (Col 2:14).
How did the man accumulate a so exorbitant debt? Perhaps by accepting the many gifts offered to him by the Lord? It cannot be because it is a free gift and does not make people debtors. So is it about—as the rabbis thought—sins, transgressions? This interpretation does not satisfy and we will see the reason.
In the second part of the story (vv. 28-30) another servant who owes the first hundred denari enters. It is a considerable sum—equivalent to the same number of working days—but paltry compared with that condoned by the king.
The second debtor addresses the same prayer to his colleague and hopes to get the same compassion. The merciless servant, however, grabs him by the neck and begins to choke him, saying: give me what you owe!
The central message of the parable is to be sought—obviously—in the huge disproportion between the two debts, and in the stark contrast between the behavior of God who always forgives and that of the man who purports restituiton to the last farthing. The image of suffocation gives a good idea of the psychological subjection in which the one who did wrong is reduced. As a ruthless creditor, he has the offended “in his hand” and can take his breath away and the joy of living, with a call, with the simple allusion to the sin committed.
The parable might suggest the idea that we are responsible for enormous sins, while we receive from the brothers only some rudeness. Instead, we are confident that often the opposite occurs: we have committed only a few slight offenses, while others have caused serious damages.
This is not to make calculations on the consistency of the wrongs received. Jesus is interested in highlighting the enormous distance that exists between God’s heart and man’s, between his love and ours.
Sin is not a simple mistake, but it is the breaking of the covenant relationship and spousal love that binds man to God. If we keep in mind that the disciple is called to “be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), it is easy to guess that the “debt” against him is abysmal (as the ten thousand talent debt is unpayable). In comparison, the distance that separates the greatest saint from the sinner is negligible and can be filled (as the repayment of a hundred denarii is realistic).
We ask the Father to “forgive our debt” in prayer. The sins that we have committed do not represent all of our debt. They relate to the past and they are not infinite. They are only a small sign of the immense distance that separates us from the love of the Father. This is the debt that we ask God to fill. Our prayer, “Forgive us our debts” is not just about past mistakes, but it’s directed especially to the future.
What does God expect from us? His very own “compassion”: He wants that we do not keep the brother a slave of his past. He claims that we do not take his breath away while he desperately tries to rise up from the chasm. God asks us to help him seventy times seven, renouncing to any recourse against him. The children of the kingdom of God are “merciful as the heavenly Father” (Lk 6:36) and they understood that “love does not delight in wrong, excuses everything, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:5-7). Who has owned this new logic is willing to lose, to forget all his own rights just to see again his brother happy, peaceful and free from his sin.
The last scene gives shudders (vv. 31-35). The way in which the servant whose debt was forgiven treats his colleague takes the disgusted master with uncontrollable anger. He orders him called, reproaches his wickedness and puts him in the hands of the torturers. They have to torture him until he pays what he owes. The conclusion is puzzling: “So will my heavenly Father do with you, unless you sincerely forgive your brothers and sisters.”
Does the Lord repay therefore with the same coin those who are ruthless with their “debtors”? Such an interpretation would contradict the whole message of the parable that wishes to present a God who always forgives man.
We are faced with a story wherein dramatic images are used. The preachers of the time of Jesus often introduced them in their speeches, to shake their audience and to highlight the importance of a certain message. The evangelist is not describing what God will do in the end, but presents what he wants man to do today. In order not to distort the message of Jesus it is, therefore, necessary to clean up the parable of strong colors with which the cultural Semitic language of two thousand years ago has covered it. It would be a blasphemous interpretation to consider it a description of the behavior of the Father who is in heaven.