TODAY’S GOSPEL is about FORGIVENESS, which is given and later withheld (sa Tagalog: pinatawad ngunit binawi). The master in the parable has forgiven his servant. But he withdraws his forgiveness in the end.
Jesus narrates the parable in order to drive home a point, in answer to Peter’s question “How many times should I forgive the offenses of my brother or sister?” Peter is asking Jesus to measure out for him the limit of forgiveness.
Actually, the parable seems to contradict Jesus’ answer to Peter. Remember, Jesus said, “not seven times but seventy-seven times,” meaning, no limit. If sky is supposed to be the limit for forgiveness, how come he is now telling the story of a master who is withdrawing his forgiveness—meaning, he is putting a limit to it?
I think the key to understanding the point of this parable is that part in THE LORD’S PRAYER, which is about forgiveness: “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” It is the reason why forgiveness in the Christian tradition is always a TWO-WAY thing: it is not only about BEING FORGIVEN; it is also about BEING FORGIVING. One is always expected to go with the other. When we pray, “and forgive us our sins AS WE forgive those who sin against us,” what we are actually saying is “Lord, do not forgive us if we cannot forgive those who sin against us.” (I hope we realize what we are asking for because the Lord will take us seriously.)
This is how it goes in the parable. The servant who owed his master a huge amount begged for mercy fromhis master and got more than he asked for; his whole debt was forgiven. But when his fellow servant begged for his mercy for a much smaller amount, he could not give it. Yes, the rule is MERCY, but MERCY also demands JUSTICE. You beg for mercy but you cannot show mercy yourself? That is INJUSTICE. And so, justice becomes the rule of the game… until we have learned MERCY ourselves.
Remember the line that we heard last Friday, “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you”? The one who could not forgive his brother for a much smaller offense has no right to ask to be forgiven for his more serious offenses. By being unforgiving on his fellow servant, he himself has defined for God the measure or limit of his forgiveness. When we limit our capacity to forgive others, we also limit God’s capacity to forgive us.
Remember what I shared the other day about being the image and likeness of God? In the book of Leviticus, Moses defined that likeness as HOLINESS. And so he told the Israelites that Yahweh their God expected them to be HOLY as Yahweh their God was HOLY. In Matthew “Be holy” becomes “BE PERFECT, AS YOUR HEAVENLY FATHER IS PERFECT.” In Luke, it says, “BE MERCIFUL, JUST AS ALSO YOUR FATHER IN HEAVEN IS MERCIFUL.”
What is it that makes it hard for people to be merciful? Usually it is the lingering memory of the pain or trauma of being a victim of injustice. And so, in the Torah, the basic principle of justice is commensurate revenge. In Latin it is called LEX TALIONIS, or the law of retaliation. Meaning, you don’t allow yourself to be so carried away by anger and the desire for revenge to the point of taking someone’s life for his shortcoming. Even revenge has to be fair, “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” This also became the basis for capital punishment in Jewish Tradition: “Life for a life.” Instead of being a deterrent for crime, it paved the way for those in authority to abuse it for their own criminal tendencies.
And so, Jesus questioned it when he said, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone.” It is a statement that echoes the line in the Psalm 130 that says, “If you O Lord should mark our guilt, who can stand?” And so, he changes the principle, “You have heard it said, AN EYE FOR AN EYE…but I say to you, offer no resistance.” Meaning, take the blow without hitting back. Love even those who have hurt you, if you want to become children of God. Remember, God hates the sin but loves the sinners. He never gives up on them and continues to desire their good.
Perhaps you will say, “What’s the use of forgiving if the person is not asking for it?” The answer to that is, forgiveness is not only for the offender; it is also for you. You do it not only because you want to liberate the offender from the burden of guilt but also because you refuse to be enslaved by anger or resentment. You are also doing yourself a favor; you refuse to remain a victim
Sin is like falling into a quicksand. And so, to ask how many times we must forgive a brother or sister who falls into sin is like asking a father how many times he should save his son from sinking into the quicksand if his son keeps falling into it. Jesus seems to find the question ridiculous. And so, he makes his answer sound equally ridiculous: not seven times but seventy times seven times.
In Rwanda, where close to a million people from the Tutsi tribe became victims of genocide 25 years ago, the deep wounds and bloody memories continue to tear the nation apart. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, insisted that nothing could put an end to the cycle of violence and retaliation except FORGIVENESS. He was accused of burdening the survivors with the responsibility for the country’s healing. His answer was, “It was a painful question, but I realized the answer was obvious. Survivors are the only ones with something left to give: their forgiveness.”
(Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 13 September 2020, Matthew 18:21-35)