True Forgiveness: Cancelling the Debt

Matthew 18:21—19:1
Jos 3:7-10.11.13-17 / Ps 114

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.
(Matthew 18:35)

There is no way we can repay
Our debt of sins that God forgave;
As we’ve received, we must forgive
No wrong could ever be that grave.

When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive a brother who offends him (Up to seven times?”) Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Thereupon, Jesus gave a parable about an unforgiving servant who owed his king ten thousand talents. Unable to pay, the king ordered that he and his whole family be sold as slaves to repay the debt. Falling on his knees, the servant begged for more time to pay. Instead, the servant’s master took pity on him and canceled his debt. But when that servant went out and found another servant who owed him a much smaller amount (100 dr), he grabbed him and demanded payment. His fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused, and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they reported the matter to their master. The master called the servant. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled your debts because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Reflection

It strikes me as strange how a mere servant can pile up a debt to his master which would amount to tens of millions of dollars in today’s currency equivalent of the ten thousand talents. Perhaps our Lord is simply emphasizing two points in this parable: 1) the “seventy-seven times” does not only refer to the indefinite number of times we must forgive, but to the amount of the debt or the severity of the sin committed against us; and 2) the enormous amount owed by the servant brings out the parallel debt of Christ’s own passion and death for our salvation, which we can never repay. Which points to the absurdity of those who have received the full gift of forgiveness from God but cannot find it in their hearts to forgive the mere “one hundred denarii” owed them by their neighbors. Jesus said in an earlier chapter: ‘If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions’ (Mt.6:14-15).

Like most parables of Jesus, this presentation is so typical of our human nature. How easily we take God’s forgiveness for granted once we are the ones offended and we demand recompense or apologies. It only shows our lack of appreciation for all of God’s mercies and compassion. Our readiness to condemn or feel bitter for the wrongs done to us is a mark of impenitence and ingratitude. How easily we forget the words we pray so often when we recite the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Mt.6:12).

True forgiveness means cancelling the debt, wiping the record clean. How can we say we have forgiven our spouse or friend if we still keep in our heart a record of past offenses that we recall at the next transgression? Can we say this is forgiveness from the heart?

Father God, as our Lord Jesus shows us in today’s Gospel, You forgive us in grace, and not because of anything we do to earn or deserve it. Remind us always that the offenses we endure are nothing compared to those Your Son endured on the cross for the payment of our debts. Amen.

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