"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
In the Gospels, our Lord occasionally speaks parables that center around people of nobility -- today we hear of a king settling accounts with his subjects; last week our Lord healed the son of a royal official; the week before there was a king giving a wedding banquet; and in two weeks we will celebrate the feast of Christ the King. Kings and nobility were pretty well known by the people in our Lord's own time. If we are not careful, we may lose some of the significance of what He has to say, because in our time the only remaining crowned heads of state are generally figureheads; symbolic rulers who worry more about christening ships, cutting ribbons, and attending parades.
Both the Gospel and the Epistle were written about two thousand years ago. The arrangement of the readings that we hear at Mass -- someone decided which Epistle to read with which Gospel -- goes back well into the middle ages, another period during which people had a practical understanding of their relationship to kings and princes. The particular selection we have today seems to have been chosen as a lesson in the ways of nobility.
Many modern people look down on the feudal system of the middle ages as being little better than slavery. The movies tend to portray an oppressed population of serfs that is required to pamper a self-indulgent nobility. The truth is quite different. Of course, then as now, there were (and always will be) people who abuse their positions in life to make themselves comfortable at the expense of the less fortunate. But the feudal system served a very real purpose. Medieval Christian Europe was in a constant state of siege. As early as the third century, and well into the eighth, Rome and the Empire began to be invaded by Germanic, Scandinavian, and Mongol peoples whom the Romans called "barbarians." Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Franks, Lombards, and Avars: the invaders were eventually absorbed into Roman society, but only after fragmenting it culturally and linguistically. There were also Huns from Mongolia, who swept across the entirety of Asia and Europe. And then there were the Moslems, who have been attacking the Southern "under-belly" of Europe for 1300 years.
Feudalism was a survival mechanism. Europe was able to survive only by dividing into two classes, one to remain in a constant state of military preparedness and training, which protected the other class as it went about the absolutely necessary business of agriculture and industry. The military class, of course, had all the weapons, which gave it something of an advantage over the agricultural class -- but every thinking man of the time recognized that one class could not survive without the other. And, while the details might differ a little, the same was as true in our Lord's time as it was in the middle ages, just as it is true today. For people living in any society it is important to recognize that each citizen who does well makes society as a whole do better. The whole function of society is to improve the common well-being. And this is true in "small societies" like families, and neighborhoods, and parishes as well -- even though we don't generally think of them as divided into different classes.
In our first reading, Saint Paul is urging nobility of virtue. For it to be successful, those who rule any society must insure that virtues like truth, justice, and peace are preserved. No society, big or little, can go on very long if people are cheating, stealing, lying, or attacking one another. Preventing such abuses and fostering the contrary virtues is the primary task of rulers and nations -- it is the central thing which distinguishes good and legitimate government from that which is an evil usurpation.
But Paul isn't finished. The temporal concerns of good rulers can only be met by recourse to eternal concerns. The state -- to the degree that it governs in accordance with the natural moral law -- which is the same as saying, to the degree that it governs legitimately -- governs with authority from God. (You will remember our Lord telling Pilate that he "would have no authority if it had not been given from above"? Well, certainly, that implied that even pagan Rome governed with divine authority insofar as it governed with things like justice, truth, and peace.) Government is bound to deteriorate and even to fail if it ignores the realities of faith and salvation and the word of God. The acknowledgement of what is due to God is part of that natural moral law that measures the legitimacy of each ruler -- and the encouragement of religion is sure to inculcate virtues like truth, justice, and peace in the people themselves, without the heavy hand of the ruler. And, once again, everyone is better off.
In the Gospel, our Lord's focus today is a little narrower. He is reminding all of us -- rulers and citizens, fathers and family members -- about the need to temper justice with charity. The king in the Gospel story is a benevolent ruler, and consequently a successful ruler. He understands that he serves himself and the common good by allowing all of his subjects to contribute to society. He has the means, but understands that it doesn't make much sense, to put a man in jail or otherwise impoverish him completely in order to pay a debt -- such a man becomes a drain on society rather than a contributor. And as the good ruler he is, he finds it offensive when the debtor he pardoned of a large debt takes such extreme steps to collect a small debt from one of his fellow workers.
Understand, though, that this Gospel is not primarily about monetary debt. In this parable, the word "debt" must be understood in the much wider sense, to include the whole array of obligations, and insults, and injuries, and grudges, and animosities that people sometimes have for one another. That is why we translate the words of the Lord's Prayer, "debita" and "debitoribus nostris" as "trespasses" and as "those who trespass against us," rather than as the cognate "debts" and "debtors." In the Gospel and in the Lord's Prayer, our Lord is urging us to understand that it is better for all concerned -- both in the kingdom of earth and in tthe kingdom of heaven -- if we treat others with nobility. As he tells us elsewhere, "leave your gift before the altar, but go first and be reconciled to your brother, and [only] then go and offer your gift" before the altar.
Again, in our century we may not often encounter kings and princes. Yet, that is no reason to lose touch with the virtues of nobility. The people we elect to office -- and, indeed, we ourselves in dealing with those around us -- ought to be noble of character. We must all "put on the armor of God to resist evil; with the breastplate of justice and the Gospel of peace." Above all, that "constant mutual charity"; that forgiveness "of those who trespasses against us." Anything else will make the world much less pleasant, and eternity less certain, "if we do not forgive our brothers from our hearts."