Compassion Beyond the Horizon: Forgiving Others as God Forgives Us
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
September 18, 2017

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A) on September 17, 2017 at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Horseshoe Bay, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Sirach 27:30 – 28:7; Psalm 103; Romans 14:7-9; and Matthew 18:21-35.

Once again today, the Church invites us to consider our obligation to forgive one another. Sirach ties together two ideas that Jesus will connect again hundreds of years later: forgiveness of others’ sins and the forgiveness of our own sins. Paul speaks of how baptism obligates us to care for one another. Our gospel passage is a forceful command for us to forgive one another unceasingly.

But we must make an important side note: for anyone caught in an abusive relationship, the Church wants to help those victims get to safety first. Once people are out of harm’s way, then we can explore the idea of forgiveness. 

To me, the key words in our readings today are kindness, mercy, forgiveness, healing, and, most of all, compassion. In order for us to extend compassion to others, let us ask God to make us more aware of the mercy he has extended to each one of us.

I used to be an engineer. In the Paulists’ rectory in Austin, if I start talking about something technical, Fr. Larry Rice will say, “I was told that there would be no math.” Well, for you artistic types here today: I have bad news for you: we have some math to do. 

There are three numerical phrases in today’s gospel that our translation glosses over. The first one is Jesus’ command of how many times we are to forgive one another. Our translation says it’s seventy-seven times; perhaps you’ve heard other translations say seventy times seven. Actually, the original Greek can mean either. But the point is this: if we’re counting the number of times we’ve forgiven someone—whether it’s 77 times or 490 times – we aren’t really forgiving them.

The next numerical phrase takes a bit more work. The “huge amount” that the first servant owed to the king is actually ten thousand talents. A talent was roughly the equivalent of 15 years’ wages for a manual laborer. Ten thousand was the largest number in the Greco-Roman world. So ten thousand talents isn’t just a “huge amount” — it’s a ridiculous, incomprehensibly large amount. So, when the first servant promises to pay the king back, both he and the king know that that is not possible.

This is not the only time that Jesus uses debt as an analogy to explain sin. In Luke, Jesus asks a Pharisee, “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?” Jesus makes it clear that the greater we have sinned in the past, the more we will realize how merciful God is to us. This past June, when I made my annual retreat, my spiritual director challenged me that every time I pray “Lord, have mercy” at Mass, to ask the Holy Spirit to make me more aware of my sins. That way, I am also more aware of the immensity of the forgiveness God has granted me.

We still have to do more math, but we’d better take a moment to wake up any artists or poets among us who have dozed off. Let’s do some literary analysis. Is this story an allegory or a parable? In Matthew’s telling of this story, he has conflated two important teachings of Jesus, one in which the king represents God’s infinite compassion, and the other in which the king is a flawed human being who reneges on his promises and resorts to torture. Let’s be clear, God does not renege on his promises to us, even if the king does.

Back to our third and final math problem. The “much smaller amount” that the second servant owes to the first servant is about 100 days’ wages. That’s not an amount to sneeze at: about 1/3 of a year’s salary. If we’re equating sin to debt, 1/3 of a year’s salary is still a substantial transgression against us, but it’s infinitely smaller than what the first servant owes the king.

When we put this all together, we must be careful that we don’t reach the wrong conclusion. Matthew’s Jesus is saying that we must forgive others as God has forgiven us. Jesus is not saying: once you’ve forgiven someone seventy-seven times for hurting you, then you can exact vengeance on that person. Instead, we must realize that we are all sinners who have been forgiven by God. If we cannot forgive others, can we truly bear the title of “Christian”?

One of my favorite novels is Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. The protagonist is Stephen, a Zulu pastor who lives in the South African countryside. He is a paragon of faith, patience, and hope, virtues that are strongly tested by his family. In trying to help them, Stephen must leave his village and face the corruption of Johannesburg. Although Stephen cannot undo the consequences of the sins committed by his son and his sister, he remains faithful. He travels for the fourth time in his life to the mountain where he has made his most intense prayers. First, Stephen reflects on his sins and asks for absolution. Then, he gives thanks for all he has received, especially the joy of returning home from Johannesburg. 

As we enjoy this spectacular view of Johnson Lake, let us join Stephen in his contemplation. Alan Paton writes:

Might not another man returning to another valley, have found none of these things? Why was it given to one man to have his pain transmuted into gladness? Why was it given to one man to have such an awareness of God? And might not another, having no such awareness, live with pain that never ended?

God’s love endures forever. May we show that same compassion to one another!