24th Sunday  in Ordinary Time – Year A
Matthew 18:21-35


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. Whoever 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 resort 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, and 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). A human being 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 person accumulate a debt so exorbitant? 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 denarii 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 restitution 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 offender “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 the human 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 his brother happy again, peaceful and freed 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 human transgressions.

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 a person 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.

READ: In life and death, we belong to the Lord. Hence, grudge and wrath towards others shall not have a place in us. If God shows mercy to us, we are bound to show mercy to others, as the parable of the unforgiving servant says.

REFLECT: Why does the servant who was forgiven a huge debt get wrathful and unforgiving towards his servant who owed him very little? The truth is, being a recipient of mercy does not always evoke gratitude and humility, but sometimes results in shame and anger, especially when one is egoistic and feels lesser before the forgiving one. We can accept mercy only when we love and respect the one who shows mercy and feel a kinship with him. Then we are ready to share mercy with others and feel kinship with them as well.

PRAY: Pray for the grace of humility to accept God’s mercy and share the same with others. Remember those who have hurt us and need our forgiveness. Let us ask for the grace to be reconciled.

ACT: Time heals but oftentimes we let opportunities pass us by. Reach out with love and compassion in heart, forgive someone who has wronged you.

Fernando Armellini
Italian missionary and biblical scholar