Today’s readings remind us that if we want mercy we should show it, just as we should expect justice for ourselves if we demand it from others. In today’s First Reading we’re reminded that we must forgive the injustice of our neighbor if we don’t want to be consumed by a sinful wrath that will cause our own condemnation. We have all experienced the temptation to nurse a grudge against someone and to be too angry to forgive them for what they’ve done. Sirach reminds us today not only of the penalty for that attitude, but of the danger. If we hold on to anger, wrath, or a desire for vengeance, we shut the door of our hearts not only on the object of our wrath, but on God himself. That ire cooks us on the inside. The Lord respects our freedom, but doesn’t turn a blind eye to anyone’s injustice. A desire for vengeance and a desire for justice are not the same thing, just as a vigilante is not the same thing as a police officer.
In today’s Second Reading St. Paul reminds us that, thanks to the mercy of our redemption, we’ve ceded certain rights in our lives over to our Redeemer. Our Lord died for us, but he lives as well, and we share in that. In his mercy he took the demands of justice upon himself for our behalf. If we turn our backs on mercy we spurn the mercy we’ve received and risk closing ourselves off from the eternal life Christ won for us. We have been forgiven much more than anything someone else may have done to us.
In today’s Gospel Our Lord reinforces one of the petitions we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: we ask for forgiveness, but should forgive in turn. Peter asks Our Lord to quantify when enough is enough in terms of forgiving someone. He wants to put a number on it. Our Lord’s response, due to the original Greek, is either seventy-seven (77) or four hundred ninety times (7 x 7 x 7 x 7 x 7 x 7 x 7 x…): in short, a lot. However, he follows up with a parable that shows we must be unlimited in our mercy.
The servant owed so much (10,000 talents in the original Greek, the equivalent wages of 160,000 years of labor) that not only was his freedom and property forfeit, but that of his entire family as well. With no freedom and no “capital” he’d never be able to repay his debt. The king in today’s Gospel, like the Lord, forgave the whole debt. Everything the servant deserved to lose, he retained, due to the king’s mercy, even though he’d squandered so much. How does the servant respond? He decides to turn a new leaf in life by becoming a loan shark collecting on his old debts. The amount his fellow servant owed him was infinitesimal (one percent) compared to what he’d just been forgiven.His repentance was shown to be short lived.
When we are struggling to forgive someone, or to love someone, we are always tempted to say, “enough is enough.” We ask ourselves whether there’s a fixed rule of thumb, as Peter tried to do today, for limiting our mercy. Our Lord teaches us that “How much is enough?” is the wrong question. The right question is, “Am I going to squander the mercy I’ve received by not showing mercy to others?” The servant was forgiven, and he squandered that forgiveness by not forgiving in return; note that when the king hears of it, only the servant himself is punished, and in a worse way. When someone doesn’t value mercy they not only don’t welcome it into their hearts, but are also unlikely to show much of it to others. When we have wronged someone we want to be forgiven, but we should show our gratitude by forgiving those who trespass against us.
We’ve received a priceless gift of mercy through faith and Baptism. We can never repay that debt. When someone wrongs us, we must remember that no matter how much they’ve wronged us it’s nothing compared to how much the Lord has forgiven us and continues to forgive us. Let’s forgive our brothers and sisters from the heart.
Readings: Sirach 27:30–28:7; Psalm 103:1–4, 9–12; Romans 14:7–9; Matthew 18:21–35.