Jesus’ parable this morning begs reflection on two subjects, which I can assure you, I am ill-equipped to speak about – finances and forgiveness.
To understand today’s parable, we really have to do the math. The sum the debtor owes the king, blandly translated for us as “a huge amount,” is in the original Greek an astounding 10,000 talents. A single talent was worth about 6,000 denarii. A whole day’s work was required to earn just one measly denarius.1 So, 6,000 denarii or one talent amounts to at least 20 years of work. To repay the 10,000 talents in the story, the servant would have to work for about 200,000 years! It is this impossible debt that is forgiven by the compassionate master in today’s Gospel. It is absurd for the servant to say that he will “pay back everything.” As a day laborer, he had no hope of ever repaying such a debt.2 It’s ridiculous.
And we can well imagine the astonishment of the crowd as Jesus told his story. What is he talking about? This is craziness. It doesn’t make any sense. Well, that’s kind of the point – it makes no sense at all, it’s way beyond good sense; it’s all about grace, God’s great goodness, its extravagance and the excess of his unrelenting tenderness and mercy,3 which are far beyond our understanding. The parable is a set-up. The preposterous amount of the forgiven debt clearly points to the incomprehensibility of God’s mercy.
“Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan,” says the Gospel. The word for this compassion is the Greek word, splanchnizomai (splank-níz-omai); it means literally to be moved so deeply by something that you feel it in the pit of your stomach, in your gut. It’s the same expression Matthew will use to describe Jesus’ feelings as he looks upon the weary crowds; his heart torn open in compassion - their pain becomes his pain. In “the seventy times seven times” Jesus is calling us to have a compassionate heart like his own, a heart like God’s heart. He wants us to be like God. We may think this is way beyond our capacity, apparently Jesus does not.
It doesn’t take a degree in moral theology to figure out how that thickheaded servant in the parable went wrong. Forgiven so lavishly, he comes away not humbled and grateful but suddenly entitled. Unwilling to forgive a debt only a fraction of the size of the one he owed, he grabs his coworker and chokes him “demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’” It’s embarrassing to hear. He’s oblivious and unmindful.
In the kingdom that Jesus is trying to bring about, it’s never about what others owe me; it’s all about noticing with awe and gratitude all I have received. For “nothing that we have to forgive can even faintly or even remotely compare with all we have been given and forgiven, for we have been forgiven a debt beyond all paying.”4 And as God delights to forgive and unburden, we are invited to go and do likewise over and over again.
Still Jesus is not telling us this parable to guilt us or scare into forgiving – you know, forgive or there’ll hell to pay, a future of torment and the grinding of teeth. Instead, the parable invites us to be overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and the pure gift of who God longs to be for us. Today’s parable invites us to wonder, wonder at a foolish God who has fallen in love with what he created, the God who waits for us and even while we are still a long way off, is filled with compassion and rushes after us, throws his arms around us, kisses us and forgives our constant squandering. This morning’s parable is best of all a call to mindfulness of all we have received. Only such mindfulness can truly break our hearts open - in gratitude, in praise, with a desire to forgive those who have hurt us as we ourselves have been forgiven.
With a memory like a bear trap, that stores up the hurts and slights I have received like a great buried treasure, this certainly does not make easy sense to me. How can I do it? You fool, of course you can’t. And again, that’s probably the point – it makes no sense for us on our own. It is impossible for us, but not for God. It is our friendship with the poor Christ that can transform us, as we seek more and more to be like the one we love. Only he can wean me away from my tendency to nurse a grudge or withhold compassion. It is not in our own “power not to feel or to forget an offense.”5 Only mindfulness of the gift and the giver can transform our hearts, so that injury may become compassion and the memory may be healed so that the hurt can turn into forgiveness and even prayer for those have offended us.
It is Christ Jesus himself who is the kiss and the rush of the Father’s compassion toward us. Patiently, passionately, compassionately over and over again, he forgives and gives himself for us. In the Eucharist we will share, he gives us his whole self, body, blood, soul and divinity, his very guts, even his compassionate heart. And we become more and more what we consume, the Love that consumes us.
1 Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 239.
2 See Philip Massey in The Chimes of Biola University.
4 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew.
5 See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2843.
Reflection on today's Gospel by one of the monks.
Reflection on today's Gospel by one of the monks.