The Gospel for September 17th, 2017: “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant”
Reflection: I am the Unforgiving Servant
Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.
In today’s gospel Peter asks Jesus how many times we must forgive a brother who sins against us (21). Jesus’ answer, seventy-seven, is not literal. He means always. This is typically radical teaching from our Lord. In His time, as in ours, other recourses for when another wrongs us are available and glorified. Certainly, we can seek to right the wrong through legal or judicial means. Then there is the path of violence that has been glorified time and time again in legend, history, and literature, especially more recently in the era of film. The Christian option of reconciliation and forgiveness, however it may look in practice, is rare and considered weak and unsatisfying by the world.
Jesus knows this. He knows how tightly we hold onto the temptations of wrath and anger, as the quote from Sirach above suggests. So he follows up this teaching with “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant,” which as an analogy or metaphor clearly demonstrates the need for forgiveness. A servant who is in debt to his king is about to be sold. He begs the king for mercy, vowing to pay him back in full. The king is moved to be merciful and forgives the loan. Free again, the servant goes to another servant who owes him money and demands payment. The other servant begs for patience and mercy, as the first servant did with the king, but is flatly denied and thrown in person by the first servant who gave him the loan. Witnesses to this episode are disturbed by it and tell the king. In anger, the king says to the first servant, “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?” (32-33). The king then reverses his decision and hands the wicked servant over to the torturers until he can pay back the full debt, which seems impossible from prison. Jesus sums up the moral of the parable by saying, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart” (35).
As I have argued now many times in these blogs, I don’t think we want to read Jesus’ message using a “works contract” paradigm where the fate of the unforgiving servant is Hell because he failed to act in accordance with the model of the merciful king. This understanding tends to breed the kind of legalistic thinking that Jesus railed against in the Pharisees. We are not being prompted to ask what the law says and how we may follow it to the letter in order to be saved. The grace of our salvation is accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross and Easter resurrection, which demands a change of heart. Jesus is inviting us to vicariously experience the incongruence of the worldly reaction to sin against us and the beatitude contained in Christ’s teaching of divine truth. It is heart-breaking in its irony. Do we feel the pathos of the unforgiving servant’s decision to not pay forward the mercy he experienced at the hands of the king? Do we see how his rejection of the gift of mercy endangers his happiness, not contributes to it? Do we realize the unforgiving servant is we, who fail to recognize all the opportunities in our life to forgive others as we have been forgiven by our Lord?
My heart breaks because I know I am the unforgiving servant. Many times, in spite of my knowledge of my blessed life in Christ, I fail to imitate Him and instead judge and condemn others in a plethora of ways, large and small. I indulge my fantasies of revenge fueled by petty wrath and anger. My heart does not break because I fear a fate at the hands “torturers” in Hell. Rather, my heart breaks because I failed to choose the beatitude of Christ in those moments. Anger and wrath are unfulfilling always. They darken my heart and distance me from the ecstatic happiness found in the Lord. It is pathetic and tragic enough on its own.
I think the lesson from this gospel is to seek peace for past sins through prayer and the sacrament of reconciliation and ask for the Lord’s grace to help me choose happiness in the future by forgiving others daily—always. Jesus knows how hard it is. He is just trying to help us see it is worth it and possible through Him.