Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 17.)

Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

When asked how we should pray, Jesus gives us the “Our Father,” in which we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In today’s Gospel, Peter asks, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Jesus replies, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

It is clear in just these three short passages from Matthew’s Gospel that mercy is an essential part of the Christian life. If we want to be happy, we need to forgive. If we want to have richest experience of life in this world, we need to forgive. If we want the fullness of life that God intends for us, we need to forgive.

People are people. We are not gods or angels. We are made in the image of God and thereby have the ability to enter into relationships with one another. Yet we are broken and weak. We make mistakes and we sin. The fractures in relationships that come from our doing beg for healing.

Sometimes we are the ones who cause the fracture or offense; sometimes we are the ones who receive the offense and are hurt in some way because of it. We may try to heal the damage through a variety of means, and we may succeed to a certain degree — but in the end, mercy is the only sure path to healing.

Jesus again teaches us about mercy in the parable of the unforgiving servant. The servant himself has been forgiven. Jesus makes that point that he had “owed a large amount.” When the master decides to settle accounts by selling that servant, his family and property, the servant begs for mercy: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.” Jesus tells us that compassion moved the master and he forgives the servant.

Perhaps there is a bit of “shock value” in this transaction. Certainly society on its own would not require the master to forgive that debt; the probable expectation would actually be the original plan of the master — sell the servant and settle the account.

But the biggest shock is what comes next in the story. The servant who was the recipient of great mercy would not extend that same mercy to one who owed him “a much smaller amount.” Though we have probably heard this parable numerous times, most listeners still experience the shock: “How could he not forgive?” “How could he not see what he was doing?” “How could he be so wrapped up in himself that he forgot the mercy that had just been shown him?”

When Jesus teaches us in parables, he invites us to “ponder” and “reflect” on an aspect of life. In a real way, he wants us to “enter into” the story.

One way in which we can do this is to see ourselves in the characters of the parable. At different times in life, we might relate to different characters. Likewise, in different situations in life, we might gravitate to one or another of the characters. The teaching does not change — the mercy is real, received and required. We are invited to dwell on the richness of mercy and so come to the realization, in many varied ways, that this indeed leads us to life.

One aspect of this parable that permeates all situations and all times, and is perhaps the fundamental teaching, deals with God’s relationship to us. In this sense, the master represents God, the one who shows his servants (us) mercy. He has forgiven the great debt we owe him. He created us, and through Jesus, his Son, he has “redeemed” us — he has forgiven us our sins.

If we think back to the fall in Genesis, the consequence of sin was huge — the burden of death. Yet God’s mercy was greater than any sin. He frees us from that debt through Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. We are all beneficiaries of his mercy. If then we have been forgiven such a tremendous debt, should we not be able to forgive someone who sins against us?

Jesus wants us to have life. He knows what it is to be a victim of someone else’s anger, cruelty, carelessness, ingratitude or obstinacy. There is nothing in the human condition of which he is not aware. There is no situation of brokenness to which he cannot relate. The short dialogue with Peter that introduces this parable serves to highlight this understanding: “If my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Think about it for a moment. We all know how hard it is to forgive just once, let alone seven times. Yet this is not enough for Jesus, and he answers, “I say to you (in a sense, ‘let me be clear about this’) not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

Jesus shows us the way through these situations that beg for healing. He shows us the way to a better place, a place of healing and peace. The path to this healing and peace is mercy. Most of us, at one time or another — or perhaps many times — will say, “That’s hard, I can’t do it.”

Jesus knows this, and perhaps that’s why, when he gave us what would become the most frequently used Christian prayer, he included the plea to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.