This Sunday, September 13, the 24th in Ordinary Time, we hear again from Matthew 18, and thus still confronted with the theme of forgiveness. Last week the reading singled out the clearest communal part of the chapter, where an early Church mechanism for engaging and confronting the sinner in the community is put before us, with a hope of reconciliation but also a tough choice to expel from the community, at least temporarily, the person who will not repent and reform. As I suggested, in our unrepentant and unforgiving society, we would do well similarly to breathe new life into old customs for reconciliation in the Church.
All of that was rather sensible and prudent, but one cannot fail to notice how heated and odd other parts of Matthew 18 are. As I also mentioned last week, near the start of the chapter is a denunciation of scandal, fierce words against those who take advantage of the innocent and young. There is a terrifying instruction on self-punishment that makes very clear the reprehensible nature of sins against the vulnerable:
“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell fires.” (Matthew 18.8-9)
The portion of Matthew 18 we hear this week puts two further grand exaggerations before us. First, forgiving seems to be an unending process:
“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (18.21-22)
Or, the scholars tell us, perhaps the text says, “seventy times seven times”! 77 times or 490 times, as you wish, but still rather ridiculous and offensive, in the light of the awful and unforgivable wrong-doing around us. We may balk at this: why keep forgiving people who don’t deserve to be forgiven? In some case, once may see more than enough.
The parable that follows in Matthew 18 seems meant to explain Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. On the surface this new teaching on the ways of the kingdom seems straightforward:
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (18.23-35)
This exchange between a king and his slaves does make sense: if you have been forgiven a great deal, cannot you then forgive others? Here the sequence is this: because you have been forgiven much, then you should forgive. Or perhaps it is a circle: you have been forgiven, therefore you can forgive, and therefore you will be forgiven, again and again.
But the sharp edge of the parable is the size of the debt: ten thousand talents in the first case, and one hundred denarii in the second. We cannot be certain on the modern equivalent of these debts, but it is something like this:
One hundred denarii = about $11,000 in today’s money.
Ten thousand talents = about $7,000,000,000 (yes, 7 billion!) in today’s money
Matthew is making the whole thing seem absurd. It is preposterous to think that the first servant could have borrowed and owed so much, or imagine ever repaying so much. And really, could anyone be forgiven such a fantastic amount and not then be generous? But it seems that the “king” and his “slaves” are displaying how to be and not be in the kingdom of God, wherein one's experience of God dramatically changes how we relate to everyone else. Realizing that God has forgiven us infinitely cannot, I think, mean that we are 1,000,000 times or so more evil than the person who sins against us. But if we truly see our imperfect and finite selves opening up into the Reality of God, then what any person does to us can never measure up to what happens to us in experiencing God. That is, throw quantitative calculations — how many, how much? — out the window. Don’t count up acts of forgiveness, as if balancing the books. Don’t forgive now and then. Let forgiveness define who you are. You will not be a pushover, you will overthrow the ordinary way of seeing things, infinite love in the face of petty evils.
To let God love us infinitely, and to let that infinity guide our lives: such is the challenge and the possibility. This is why the one unforgivable sin is “against the Holy Spirit,” as we heard a few chapters earlier:
“Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (12.31-32)
And what does that mean? It is a mystery, but at the moment I take it to mean that in the Kingdom we need to understand that we are always standing before God: the finite before the infinite, body before spirit, imperfection before fullness, the dead before the living, momentary breath before the Spirit. There can be no counting up of what God has done for us, in us, as if to measure it against what other humans have done against us. To count up acts of forgiveness is as pointless as measuring the billions we have been given, forgiven, against the little that anyone can ever have done against us. To refuse to forgive is like catching the wind and holding it tight in your hand, like pouring the whole ocean into a small hole in the sand. The infinity of God's love and mercy is not ours to give out in small portions.
If we think about the whole of Matthew 18, we starting thinking about forgiveness in two ways:
Right side of the brain (September 6): seek reconciliation, gather witnesses, bring the evil-doer before the community. Do not forgive too much, lest they take advantage of us.
Left side of the brain (September 13): forgive with the recklessness of an infinitely loving God.
Surely we need both sides of our brain, right? Patient, measured justice, but also compassion without limits. We cannot condone wickedness, we cannot turn a blind eye on scandalous abuse. But, Jesus says, after we have done all we can do, we can do as God does, we can overthrow the way of the world by forgiving and loving as conduits of God's mercy, an ocean of love measured against pitiful drops of evil. Or as Jesus put it earlier in Matthew,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous...
"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5.38-45, 48)