When I was five years old, Dad and the six children were waiting at the hospital to know if we had a young brother or sister. I was curious because they were all crying. ‘What are you all crying about?’ I asked. I thought they had said that Mum had lost her arms. But they were crying because they heard that my young sister had been born without arms. Having and not having took on a new meaning for me.
The whole theme of today’s gospel is about forgiveness. And yet it can only be understood in relationship to mercy.
Peter thought that he was being generous when he asked the question of Jesus: How often must I forgive? As many as seven times. In the Jewish world, seven is the perfect number. So, when Peter said: Should I forgive as many as seven times? He was saying: Should I forgive every time someone does wrong to me?
Jesus reply comes as sort of shock: Not just seven time, not just always: but seventy times seven times. Jesus was multiplying the forgiveness absolutely.
To bring his point home, Jesus told the parable of the man who was in debt to his master. What was his debt? It was 10,000 talents. A talent was the largest amount that could be identified in the world at that time. His man’s debt was so enormous that it was 10,000 times bigger than anyone could imagine.
The man could never have paid this amount so he appealed to his master’s mercy: Give me time and I will pay back the debt. In response to this plea for mercy, the master generously forgave him the whole debt.
To understand what this means, we need to know just what mercy means. We read it in the old and we testaments. We say it in our prayers. But do we really know what we are saying? Yet what does it really mean? The origin of the word is connected to womb. It is not just a nice word. It relates to a personal relationship. Like the intimate personal relationship between a mother and her baby in the womb. God is as close to us as a mother is to her baby. It is a personal relationship that never can be understood unless we see it in this way.
This first servant goes out and finds one of his fellow servants who owes him. What is his debt. It was equivalent to a few weeks’ wages. Nothing at all to compare with the 10,000 talents. This first servant who had been forgiven so much forgot just much he had been forgiven. He took this fellow servant and began to throttle him, He demanded that he pay back a small debt. He locked the servant up and sold his family. There was no way the man could have paid the debt now. It is like cutting off your nose to spite your face!
When the master heard this, he was indignant: He called I the first servant and said:
I forgave you your debt when you asked me.
Were you not obliged then to forgive you fellow servant?
Notice the parallel statements: by the two servants: Give me time and I will pay back the debt. The master said: I forgave you when you appealed to me, were you not bound then to forgive your fellow servant?
God is always forgiving us. Are we not bound then to forgive those who do wrong to us?
Noel Mansfield, MSC