Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Word on the Word

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sir 27:30-28:7
Rom 14:7-9
Mt 18:21-35

Jesus is calling us to roll up our sleeves and do some very demanding work. In our justice-oriented world, we expect that insults are going to be followed by apologies and crimes are going to be followed by punishments, but Jesus turns this system upside down by saying, “Just forgive!” Notice that Jesus doesn’t even expect the sinner to repent or make amends. Forgive them, orders Jesus — “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Maybe 490 times. Point is, your forgiveness should be beyond calculation.

Now some will object to this open-ended approach to forgiveness, saying that it turns Christians into doormats, fails to hold sinners accountable, and invites abusers to continue their abuse. They’ve got a point, and it’s hard to imagine that Jesus wants us to throw justice completely out the window. But still he says, “Forgive.” Not just seven times, but dozens or even hundreds of times. Jesus is saying that forgiveness is at the heart of life in the church — it creates a distinctively merciful community.

Why is this?

So this man is more than knee-deep in debt. He’s over his head, drowning in red ink, sinking like a rock. Makes the sub-prime mortgage crisis look like a problem with petty cash.

The king orders the slave to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, so that a payment can be made. With nothing left to lose, the slave falls on his knees before the king and says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Surprisingly, the king shows pity and releases the slave, forgiving him the entire debt .

That’s the kind of God we have, says Jesus — a king who has mercy on us, and who forgives us our debts. It’s a dirty job, but we’ve got a God who will do it!

Now that’s a pleasant parable, but we haven’t reached the end. That freshly forgiven slave races out of the palace and comes upon a second slave who owes him a hundred denarii — 100 coins, each one equal to the daily wage for a laborer. This amount is a significant sum, for sure, but it’s positively microscopic compared to what the first slave owed the king. The first slave seizes the second slave by the throat and demands that he pay him what he owes. The second slave falls down and pleads with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you."

No way, says the first slave. No way. Not gonna happen. He throws the second slave in prison until the whole debt is paid.

Here, the plot thickens. When his fellow slaves see what has happened, they go ballistic — they run and give the king a full report. The king summons the first slave and says, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. You think that was easy for me? Why didn’t you show mercy to your fellow slave, as I did to you?”

Our Lord is a merciful God who is willing to do the dirty work of blotting out our transgressions, washing us from our iniquity, and cleansing us from our sin.  God is betting that we have been transformed by his forgiveness into the kind of people who can do the hard work of forgiving others. God knows that his mercy can have a surprising and wonderful effect — it can create a community of merciful people.

God is willing to do the most disgusting of dirty jobs — the removal of our sin through his gift of forgiveness. All he asks is that we turn and do the same for others. Seven times. Seventy-seven times. Maybe even 490 times.

There’s deep satisfaction in tackling and finishing a tough job.