Matthew 18:21-35
Calculating the Math of Mercy
by Rev. Jack Peterson

Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

Then Peter approached Jesus and asked him, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?  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 him 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 his brother from his heart." 

How large is your personal forgiveness quota? Trick question. It will seem like a trick question anyway, if you consider it from the point of view of how many times you want to be able to be forgiven. The other point of view would be how many times you are willing to forgive. The teaching of Jesus this Sunday concerns making the two numbers the same, and really, making them no number at all. The way we forgive should match the way we are forgiven.

Peter is at it again today. He is asking the questions others have but don’t dare ask. “How often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Can you hear the calculator of his mind doing the estimates of what he thinks he could actually do, factoring in three or four more times to bring him closer to the answer he anticipates the Merciful Jesus might give? The answer Jesus gives, of course, is more than he expects and more than Peter thinks he can do. Without going into the weeds of translations and original languages (although such would be interesting to do) we notice that Jesus’ answer seems to have changed over the past years — not so long ago we heard at Mass “seventy times seven times.” Today, we hear “seventy-seven times.”  Is it an error? Did Jesus send a correction through the church? Does it matter to you? A way of coping with these kinds of details is to glean the clear meaning of Jesus. Recognizing that He clearly means a great and endless number of times helps us put His merciful ways into action in our own interactions. Honestly, if we can manage to forgive, really forgive someone who offends us 77 times, will the 78th time be more difficult than the time before? Would the 490th time be the last straw?

The key to making sense of this merciful math game is to recognize that it is anything but a calculation. Imagine a coupon system by which we go over to the parish church and receive seven vouchers for this year’s Ordinary Time sins. This system would teach us that there is a limited supply of mercy. Maybe we would like the clear limits and boundaries? Would knowing that there is one more mercy moment possible for a person be enough to make him virtuous until his Lenten coupons came? Instead of these kinds of small-minded ways, Jesus teaches something very different and much better in today’s parable.

The master in the parable forgives his servant a very large debt. He does so when the servant asks him to be patient with him. “Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.” The amount Jesus uses in this parable is an amount that would have taken the servant some fifteen years to pay. In this way, Jesus reminds us that we really aren’t in a position to pay back what we owe when it comes to making up for our sins. The only hope we have is to be able to acquire, so to speak, the kind of abundant wealth the master has. The master in this case simply doesn’t require the servant to pay. The continuation of the parable shows clearly that the meaning of this mercy is that it should be received, learned and passed on.

When we hear what happens next between the forgiven servant and his fellow servant who owes him a very small amount we are bothered rightfully. How could he do that? After he was just forgiven a much greater debt? The answer to our question is sometimes present in our very own ways. We seek mercy from God over and over. Also in life we are asked to forgive others around us. When we are asked to forgive are we connecting this opportunity to the one we just received? Is your Personal Forgiveness Quota able to stand up to an internal, interior audit? God’s mercy should change us. When it does, it changes the world also. When it comes to counting the cost of forgiveness we have to look at the wide open arms of Jesus on the Cross. “Father, forgive them.” Jesus forgives from a heart full of love. Jesus invites us to do the same — without counting how often or how much.

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