“So shall my heavenly Father do to you, if you do not forgive everyone ...
from your hearts.”
The Gospel today is an interesting one. It is taken out of a longer
selection in which our Lord has been instructing the Apostles about the
necessity to counsel wrongdoers when we see them sinning, but also to be
forgiving of those who do wrong to us. St. Peter asked Him how often we
should forgive someone who wrongs us. He says, "Lord, should we forgive
such a one seven times." And he thought he was being generous, for Jewish
custom suggested only three times. But our Lord turned to Peter and said,
"Not seven times, but seventy times seven times." And then He instructed
them with this parable we read today.
And seventy times seven, by the way, is not our Lord's way of saying four
hundred and ninety. It is His way of saying that we should always be
forgiving, no matter how many times we are offended. Such forgiveness of
those who hurt us is a precondition for receiving God's forgiveness for the
wrongs we have done against Him and His law. “Forgive us our trespasses, as
we forgive those who trespass against us.”
But our Lord is not saying that we are to overlook evil; there is a
difference between forgiving, and condoning bad behavior. In today's
parable, the master forgave his servant because the servant not only asked
forgiveness, but also offered to pay the debt in full. It is the same when
we sin; God doesn't forgive us until we are ready to come before Him,
express our sorrow for our bad behavior, and offer to correct the problem;
hopefully in such a way that it will not happen again. For every act of
forgiveness there needs to be a corresponding act of repentance on the part
of the one who has done wrong.
To understand our Lord's words in today’s parable, we need to know that in
the ancient world failure to pay one's debts was a very serious offense.
Today, we worry that if we don't pay our bills, they might come and
repossess the TV or the furniture, or we might get evicted from our
apartment. Now those are things we don't want to happen to us, but they are
nothing compared to what might have happened in the ancient world. At the
time of Christ, a man who didn't pay his debts might literally be sold into
slavery, and his wife and children with him—and of course all their
possessions would be sold as well. If they didn't think they could get much
by selling you as a slave, they might put you in prison, holding you as a
hostage until a generous friend or relative came and made good on the debt.
Given the uncertainties of life in the ancient world, this fear of being
sold or put into prison was probably in the mind of every common man and
woman. So the apostles, who were all common working men themselves, could
clearly understand the significance of what Jesus was saying.
Now, as with many of the parables that our Lord told, this one can be
understood on two levels. It obviously speaks of the relationship of one
person with another, but it also speaks of our relationship with God. The
two are quite well connected.
We can think of ourselves as debtors, in the sense that every time we have
sinned, we have bartered with the devil. In exchange for some worldly
pleasure or satisfaction, we have taken a loan out, so to speak, with our
soul as collateral. The problem of course, is that we have no way to pay
the loan back ourselves. If our Master didn't intervene, when the time
came, the devil would quite justly call in that debt, and we would have to
surrender our souls to the eternal slavery of hell.
But our Master did intervene. He became one of us, so that just as the
master in the parable, He understands our human problems and He was moved to
compassion for us. Through our Baptism and every time we make a good
Confession, our Lord cancels the debt that we should have had to pay for
sin. Even more than the master in the parable, Our Master forgives us
repeatedly—not just one, not just seven times, but more than seventy times
That in itself ought to inspire gratitude in us. It ought to move us to
frequent prayer and thanksgiving. It ought to move us to amend our ways,
and to deal less frequently with the devil.
But out Lord is telling us another thing. Far beyond our gratitude, our
Master telling us that He wants us to be like Him. As He has compassion on
us, He wants us to have compassion on those around us. Just as He was moved
to compassion on you and me, He also has compassion on everyone else in this
world. We are all His adopted brothers and sisters, so He doesn't want us
to hurt anyone, any more than He wants the devil to hurt them.
In fact our divine Master places a condition on the compassion He shows for
us; if we expect to be forgiven of our sins, then we must also forgive
those who sin against us. We may not have the wealth to be able to forgive
big debts like the master in the parable; but certainly we can overlook the
faults of those with whom we deal, forgive the unpleasant things they may
have said about us, and the difficulties they may have caused for us.
We cannot pray to “Our Father” if we hate our brother; we cannot expect Him
to “forgive us our trespasses,” if we don't “forgive those who trespass