Love and compassion for always
By Sister Mary McGlone, CSJ
Catholic Key Scriture Columnis
The Good News for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 15, 2002
When I was little, my mother threatened to bite any one of her chil-dren who bit another. I don't remember that she ever did it, probably because her threat made us think that a snap at a sibling wasn't worth the risk. (We were still sporting baby teeth; hers were much bigger and more lethal.) She later explained that her purpose was to make us understand biting from the point of view of the one bitten rather than one biting. Old-time moms often worked with the same folk-psychology we find Jesus using in the Gospel. They both used ridiculous images to vivify their point and to lead us to think differently.
This week's readings amplify last week's teaching about forgiveness. In the Gospel, when Peter asks "Must I forgive seven times?" he's trying to find out just how far this business of forgiveness is supposed to go. Jesus' answer, "Not seven, but seventy-seven" was a cultural way of saying "not just always, but infinitely and forever." Then, just in case he hadn't made himself clear, he went on to tell a story about a king and debtors.
In our translation, the debt owed by debtor number one is called "huge." The original text is much more specific; that servant's debt amounted to 10,000 talents - the equivalent of more that 150,000 years of work. His preposterous request that the king be patient while he worked it off is simply a parley to continue the conversation and get into a bargaining session.
Although this story talks about money, in Jesus' culture, relationships, not money, were the measure of all things. The underlying theme here deals with participation in a group and interpersonal indebtedness. The real story in this first section is about a king who is great enough to relieve an impossible burden. The servant, whose debt would have removed him from active life, is freed to remain in the kingdom. At the same time, the ruler has demonstrated that his kingdom will thrive because even its most powerful member has compassion for the poor and weak.
Then comes the shock. That servant who did so well in haggling with the king, refuses to commiserate with one of his peers. The former debtor reveals that he is a traitor. He bargained with the king, but refused to negotiate with another servant. He asked the king to focus on him and not what he owed, but deliberately ignored the humanity of his companion. Like the "sinner" described in Sirach who "hugs" anger and wrath, relationship would not sway him. He ignored the debtor and saw only the debt. With that, he invalidated everything that the king had done for him.
Like every parable, this one is designed to make us ask new questions. We could hear this as a story of a vengeful God. If we take the last part literally, it sounds worse than the "three strikes and you're out" policy that has given the U.S. the highest prison population in the developed world. But that understanding would be based on fundamentalist interpretation of the last phrase of a story that is chock-full of hyperbole.
Jesus told this story because Peter asked "How many times must I forgive?" As our representative, Peter was asking Jesus just how much it costs to participate in the Kingdom. Jesus' teaching about forgiveness sounded impossible, and Peter was seeking a little assurance. As usual, he got just the opposite.
Peter was asking how much he would be asked to stretch the limits of his human weakness. He wanted to know how frequently he would be expected to disregard his pride and have compassion for another. The answer was "not just always, but infinitely and forever." The absurdity of that response shows that Jesus was trying to refocus Peter's question. By telling this story, Jesus moved the spotlight off the debt and onto the person. When Peter asked "How often must I forgive?" he was focusing on himself and his feelings of injury. Jesus showed him that his real, but unstated, question was "how often should I love my sister or brother?" Peter represents all of us in this Gospel vignette. He knew the wisdom of Sirach. He knew that nourishing feelings of injury leads away from the Kingdom of God. Still, he wanted to know how far he had to go before he could quit. Jesus told a wild story to help him - and us - understand that the very question is ridiculous - even after Sept. 11, 2002.
Sister of Saint Joseph of Carondelet Mary McGlone is executive director of Fuvirese USA, a nongovernmental organization supporting people with handicaps in Ecuador.