Scripture and the Liturgy Uncategorized

Forgiving a Billion Dollar Debt: 24th Sunday of OT

The Readings for this Lord’s Day are unified around the theme of forgiveness.  We begin and end with the words of “Jesus” on this topic: the First Reading records the words of Jesus, son of Sira, and the Gospel records the words of Jesus, Son of God.

One of the last books of the Christian Old Testament to be written, Sirach (also known as Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus) often seems to anticipate the teachings of Christ himself:

1. Reading 1 Sir 27:30-28:7:

Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor’s injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Could anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?
Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself,
can he seek pardon for his own sins?
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
who will forgive his sins?
Remember your last days, set enmity aside;
remember death and decay, and cease from sin!
Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor;
remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.

Although in modern times not all Christians include Sirach in their canon, the book was a great favorite among the Fathers.  Sirach provides us with a beautiful example of what scholars call inner-biblical interpretation, the phenomenon of one Scriptural text expounding on the meaning of a previous one.  Michael Fishbane brought a great deal of scholarly attention to this phenomenon in his classic study, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford, 1985).  In any event, today’s First Reading is itself a meditation on earlier Scriptures like Lev 19:17-18:

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him.  You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Oftentimes we contrast the teaching of Jesus Christ with the instruction of Old Testament, especially on certain issues like marriage and divorce (cf. Deut 24:1-4; Matt 19:3-9).  Today’s Readings, however, stress the continuity of Jesus’ teaching with the early Scriptures.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17).

I have come late in life to the study of Sirach, since I did not consider it canonical—and hadn’t even read it—until I was in my thirties.  I remember the surprise of discovering—while reading Sirach—that some of our Lord’s teaching was not as “original” as I had thought (compare Sir 11:18-19 with Luke 12:13-20).  But our Lord’s agreement and continuity with the earlier sages and prophets comes as no surprise: he is the Word in the flesh (John 1:1).

I want to call attention to the last verse of the reading from Sirach:

Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor;
remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.

The “covenant” that Jesus ben Sira refers to here seems to be the Mosaic or Sinai covenant, which in its law included such commands as Lev 19:17-18 above.  Forgiveness and love toward the neighbor are not simply ethical counsels or a part of the natural law: they are a covenant obligation, part of one’s duty toward the God who has entered into a faithful, familial relationship with you.

The Responsorial Psalm reminds us, too, that the need for us to practice forgiveness is a matter of imitatio Dei, imitation of God:

P. Responsorial Psalm Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12:

R. (8) The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.
He pardons all your iniquities,
heals all your ills.
redeems your life from destruction,
he crowns you with kindness and compassion.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.
He will not always chide,
nor does he keep his wrath forever.
Not according to our sins does he deal with us,
nor does he requite us according to our crimes.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he put our transgressions from us.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.

There is inner-biblical interpretation, or at least allusion, going on also in this psalm.  The verse chosen as the liturgical response (verse 8), is a modification of the declaration of the LORD’s name when he passed by Moses in Exodus 34, proclaiming:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy and faithfulness. (Exod 34:6)

Of course, that term translated “mercy” is the Hebrew “hesed,” a word freighted with covenant connotations, often meaning “covenant love” or “covenant fidelity.”

Thus, the Psalm calls to our mind the memory of God’s greatest revelation of himself in the Old Testament, his self-revelation to Moses, where God proclaimed his “Name” (Exod 33:19), that is, his true nature.  To our surprise, God chooses not to reveal his nature as power and majesty, but as “mercy and faithfulness.”  The common statement, “God’s greatest attribute is his mercy,” is a truth deeply rooted already in the Old Testament.

2. In the Second Reading St. Paul reminds us that we are completely given over to the Lord.  In light of the surrounding readings, we realize: if we have been totally assimilated to Jesus, such that our life is his life and our death is his death, what sense does it make to continue to hold on to petty grudges about what others have done to us?  Aren’t we living on a whole new plane, where the cycle of offense and revenge of our old life don’t make sense any more?

  Romans 14:7-9:

Brothers and sisters:
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.
For if we live, we live for the Lord,
and if we die, we die for the Lord;
so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
For this is why Christ died and came to life,
that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Now, the Gospel:

Matthew 18:21-35:

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

Looking at the context of Matthew 18, we see that a few verses earlier, Jesus had conferred on his disciples a certain religious authority, the authority to “bind and loose,” to make solemn judgments on the application of divine law (halakhah).  The authority of the disciples to “bind and loose” also reminds us of the authority conferred after the resurrection, when Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:22-23).  The two passages seem to have an analogy to one another and may be mutually illuminating.

Now Peter, the head of the apostles who will have the authority to forgive sin, approaches Jesus to question him about the freedom with which he should dispense forgiveness.  He thinks he is being generous: “Shall I forgive up to seven times?”

Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

I depart here from the translation used in the Mass.  To me, “seventy times seven” seems to be the more accurate translation of the Greek.  Furthermore, it is likely that the number is symbolic allusion to a famous prophetic passage, Daniel 9:25, which decreed “seventy sevens” of years from the time of Daniel to the coming of the Messiah.

Seventy times seven is 490.  The number 490 is ten times 49, and 49 is the number of the Israelite Jubilee cycle (See Lev 25:8-9).  In ancient Israel, on the fiftieth year after a cycle of 49 years, the nation observed a year of rest in which all debts were forgiven and all indentured servants set free (Lev 25:10).

In the centuries immediately preceding the coming of Christ, there was a certain amount of speculation that the Messiah would arrive after a Great Jubilee, that is, a cycle of ten jubilees or 490 years.  This number occurs in Daniel 9 as well as two documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls: 4Q383-391 and 11QMelchizedek.  This 11QMelchizedk document is a particularly fascinating Dead Sea Scroll giving evidence of a Jewish belief that at the end of ten jubilee cycles, a figure called “Melchizedek” will arrive and proclaim an eschatological (end-times) Jubilee Year, which will involve the forgiveness of sin rather than monetary debt.  When Jesus announces in Nazareth (Luke 4:19) that he has come to “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,” this was almost certainly a claim to be inaugurating the eschatological Jubilee.

But to return to Matthew:  the point is, “seventy times seven” is ten jubilees.  It is a Great Jubilee.  It is a number which symbolizes an abundance of all that the Jubilee stands for: release, forgiveness, restoration of relationships.  For many Jews, the Messiah was expected at the end of “seventy times seven” years, and then he would announce the Great Jubilee.  Jesus is this Messiah.

Now on to the parable.  The basic meaning is clear.  God is our master to whom we owe an almost incalculable debt, which he nonetheless forgives in his compassion for us.  The offenses of our neighbor toward us are, by comparison, negligible: how can we then fail to forgive.

A few observations: the debt the servant owes the king is ten thousand talents, a truly astronomical sum (1 denarius=~$80; 3 denarius =1 shekel; 60 shekels = 1 mina; 60 minas = 1 talent).  A single talent was worth about $864,000 in modern equivalent, or about 34 years wages for an entry-level worker. So ten thousand talents would translate to about $8.6 billion, a debt so large the average wage-earner could scarcely even incur a fraction of such a debt within a lifetime, much less pay it off.  By contrast, the debt owed to the servant is a hundred denarii, that is, a hundred days wages for a common laborer, or about $8000 in the current U.S. economy. 

I have usually understood the delivery over to the jailers/torturers “till he should pay all his debt” as a reference to hell, on the assumption that it is impossible to pay your debt when you are in jail, and thus you will never leave, just as hell is eternal.

Michael Barber, however, has made the intriguing observation that perhaps the phrase “till he should pay all his debt” is meant in earnest: eventually, the man will pay off his debt and be released.  Michael points out several Rabbinic texts that indicate a Jewish belief in a place of temporary punishment.  In light of such texts, another interpretive option becomes possible: the delivery of the man over to the jailers refers to purgatory.

In any event, the message of the Gospel is clear: the offenses done to us by others in this life can be serious (after all, 100 denarii or $8000 is a significant sum of money for most people).  However, it pales in comparison with the debt of sin we owe to God, which is so great as to be incomprehensible from our standpoint.  Therefore, having experienced the lavish forgiveness of God, we should be willing to excuse the offenses of our fellow human beings, and in this way become God-like, since forgiveness is a divine attribute.

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