September 17, 2017
The gospels for last week and this week center around Jesus’ instruction on the disciples’ need to deal with conflicts in ways that do not cause harm to the community. Last week Jesus told the disciples that when one feels they have been offended, they should seek reconciliation with that person, even if they are unaware of their transgression. The goal of Jesus’ instructions seems to be engaging others over perceived sources of conflicts, before they cause divisions. In today’s gospel Jesus addresses another source of conflict – the need for forgiveness within the community. The text begins with Peter asking about how many times he should forgive, which leads into Jesus’ parable on the importance for the disciples to act out of the same need to forgive others as they hope God will have for them.
Peter asks if forgiving another person seven times is sufficient. Jesus insists the members of his community should forgive seventy-seven times. Other translations of this text render it seventy times seven. The point is the same.
Jesus makes his point through a parable which illustrates the underlying values of sharing with others the forgiveness that they have received from God. Verse 23 especially indicates that Jesus is telling the parable to demonstrate how forgiveness is in the realm of God. It also reflects the Near Eastern reality where kings exercised power of life and death. The first debtor owed ten thousand talents. The second owed one denari. It took six thousand denarii to have the equivalent of one talent. The contrast in the amount owed is consistent with the punishment that each could receive. The first could lose wife, children, all his property and most importantly his status as a free person in society. The second man is put in prison until he can repay what he, his family and friends can raise. The response of both men to the possible punishment is exactly the same; it is only the outcome that is different. The last line of the text makes the point. God is like the generous king in the parable who is willing to forgive our great debt. The disciples are expected to imitate that generosity in their own dealings with one another.
The parable also is a window into a very different culture. The role that the community plays in bringing their non-forgiving member to the attention of the King who had just forgiven him his debt is not out of character. The social pressure on the King to act if he is going to safeguard his reputation within the community is a powerful force that may not be immediately recognized by most westerners as we reflect on this text.
In our society, offenses and events of the day are often reported in terms of economic impact. Wars, hurricanes, and the merger of companies are given a dollar value while relationships and people’s lives that will be affected throughout the community are not taken into account. (Money is easier to count than the number of people affected.) Our approach is much different than what would have been the norm for Jesus. The real damage with sin was what it did to the relationships. In the parable, the king forgives an impossible debt (t would have taken 164,000 years of working 7 days a week for a laborer to earn 10,000 talents). He most likely did so because to not do so would mean he would lose honor with the rest of his household. Equally important is the fact that he also must put the servant in jail because of that same code of honor. This society functioned very differently than our own.
- Have you ever struggled to forgive another?
- Can you recall mistakes that you have made where you have felt like you were never truly forgiven?
- Are there also significant occasions when you have been able to forgive others?
- What do you think Peter is feeling as he asks his question at the beginning of the text?
- What effect does that have on your relationships?
- Are there people you know who seem to have a great ability to forgive?
- AA asks members in recovery to begin to forgive those who have offended them. Why?
- What can you learn from this? Would you benefit from having a mentor in the area of forgiveness?
- In your opinion, is there a difference between forgiving and forgetting?
- Can you talk to God about your awareness of God’s desire to forgive you, your unworthiness of that forgiveness, or some other thought or feeling that this text raises for you?
The gospel background and reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.