The Gospel for Sunday, November 19th, 2017

The Gospel for November 19th, 2017: “The Parable of the Talents”

Matthew 25: 14-15, 19-21

Reflection: The Problem of Stewardship

Since this gospel is placed near the end of the liturgical year, it offers the opportunity to think about how each of us has used our God-given talents to bring others the light of Christ’s love in the past year. The meaning of “talent” is not precisely the same in this parable as the broader meaning the Church gives it in terms of stewardship. Typically the Church will use the words time, talent, and treasure to cover all the ways we might contribute to the mission of the Church. According to the Wikipedia article on a talent, Jesus was referring to a valuable mass, probably a precious metal. So while the logical analogy is to money, the nature of the parable invites a broader interpretation of all the assets, especially those that are unique, God gives one that can be used in the service of the mission of loving God and others.

In the parable, a master gives three servants “talents” of varying amounts. Two use those talents to increase the master’s wealth and are rewarded with a share of the master’s “joy” (21). One, “out of fear,” buried the single talent he received and then gave it back to the master. He was rebuked as a “wicked, lazy servant” (24-26). The master ends up giving the talent he horded to the most fruitful servant.

I can relate to the mindset of the servant who buried his talent out of fear. It takes a lot of trust in the Lord to identify and use our unique talents. It seems to me some of my talents, such as a gift for listening, a love of music, a willingness to give away money, and an attraction to quiet contemplation, have the potential to draw criticism from others, in some cases from the people I care most about. Or they will take time away from imaginary gifts I desire such as the ability to lead others in heroic causes that will draw praise and admiration. There are people who have such a gift. They might be analogous to the ones who were given five talents in my view. If I am the servant who was given one talent—abilities that will lead me down a quiet, unremarkable path—I should not expect to make five talents from my starting point of one. Instead, I just need to use my modest talent for a modest return. The sin is burying it. The sin is being afraid it is not enough because other servants have made profits of five talents or two talents and becoming paralyzed by that fear. This parable reminds me they have different starting gifts to use in the service of the master. God has a unique plan for each of his servants that contributes to the salvation of His people. It is our responsibility to live the plan that is our own and not someone else’s. My priest sometimes says, “Do what is right there.” I find that very helpful advice. I have a tendency to dream of doing the exciting work of others instead of finding joy in doing that work God has specifically for me. So I pray for the wisdom of knowing what I can do and letting go of those things that I cannot. I pray that all those dreamers like me may share the gifts we have—no matter how small—so that we may experience the joy of harmony with our Lord.

 

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The Gospel for Sunday, November 12th, 2017

The Gospel for November 12th, 2017: “The Parable of the Ten Virgins”

Matthew 25: 1-13

Reflection: Entry to the Banquet

I am sure the cultural references in “The Parable of the Ten Virgins” would be interesting to learn more about and would enhance my understanding of Jesus’ message today; however, I don’t think it is absolutely necessary. So I am going to cut right to the chase of this gospel story: Jesus is warning us that it is possible to ignore our relationship with Him until it is too late. When the virgins who waited until the last minute to fill their lamps with oil return and find the door to the wedding feast locked, the conversation that follows speaks to the heart of the matter in our relationship with Jesus. They beg of the Bridegroom, who symbolizes Jesus, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” In reply, he says, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you” (11-12). As at this moment it is too late for them to enter the wedding banquet, so too might it be too late for an unrepentant sinner to enter the Kingdom of God, if he has not opened his heart to Jesus before dying.

On multiple occasions in this blog I have written about how I think Jesus came to save all of humanity, not to pass a judgment that consists of collecting the saints and casting the sinners to Hell. And yet I have also written about how I think our precious gift of free will—which allows us to love unconditionally so that we may participate in the Kingdom of God—enables us to reject God’s love because it impels us to love others unconditionally, as He loves us. I believe this is the common threat of Satan and the power of sin and the legacy of the fall: we are capable of putting self-love before the love of others for our entire lives. And in that stubborn pride, one sentences himself to a position outside the reach of God’s love. This, indeed, would be Hell.

Despite this possibility, I remain hopeful for all of humanity. Why? I think God’s love is irresistible. I also think when Jesus said He came to save all, He meant it. In my creaturely ignorance, I can’t explain the mechanistic details of how this divine salvation will occur. Will it be purgatory? Will it be the intercession of the communion of saints? Will it be a silent confession followed by an implied “yes” to Jesus on the deathbed of every sinner, who like the Good Thief on the cross finally sees the light? This mystery often makes me think about the conversation among Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome in Mark 16, when they go to anoint Jesus’ body on Resurrection Sunday and ask, “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (3). The implied answer is God will. Jesus will. The Holy Spirit will. It is not our role to perform the miracle of salvation. Our role is to be grateful beneficiaries and evangelists.

If like me, you wonder about the fate of humankind, you should not fear if God will roll away the stone of our sin so that we may enter the banquet of the Kingdom of Heaven. If we recognize it is within our power to say yes to Jesus, eventually we will, despite the persistent temptations of sin. It is really only a question of how soon do we want to enter the feast. If we open our hearts wide to Jesus, He will “know” us and welcome us in with open arms.

The Gospel for Sunday, November 5th, 2017

The Gospel for November 5th, 2017: “Denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees”

Matthew 23: 1-12

Reflection: Prayer Fosters Love

In today’s gospel, we see Jesus at His most critical. He rails against the loveless, empty gestures of the Pharisees as they follow the letter, but not the spirit, of the law. His indictment is clear: “For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen” (3-5).

I think this criticism is always a concern for the devout Christian. It is possible to practice the rituals of worship—the law–in order to impress others and to use such a reputation to hide behind, so that one can avoid real self-sacrificial love for others. If we don’t work at accepting the grace of God’s love and sharing it with others with the humility of Mary, we risk becoming directed inward and withdrawing from the radiating power of the Holy Spirit among God’s people. The practice of worship is then perverted into a prideful quest for self-glory.

So how does one avoid this trap? I think the Catholic theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, clues us in to the answer as he writes about the centrality of prayer in Christian worship in his book titled Prayer. Genuine prayer that contemplates the Word of the Lord opens our hearts to the love of God for sharing, in the same way we experience His love at Communion by “consuming” the Eucharistic Lord. As a result regular prayer roots us in the love of the Holy Spirit and maintains our heart’s openness against the hardening effects of self-serving legalism. Von Balthasar describes the impact this way:

The praying person grows more and more out of the world of law, which corresponds to the Old Testament and the promise of love, into the New Convenant, which is the manifestation of pure love. Through its mere existence and its powerful radiance it embraces all laws, and hence is no longer “under” the law (from Prayer, 132).

It is so easy to forget the importance of quiet personal prayer, of contemplative prayer. It requires slowing down, being quiet, and listening. Amongst the busy-ness of many people’s lives, such time for prayer does not come easy. It becomes tempting to narrow the time for prayer to the liturgy in the name of efficiency, which for many people means once a week. But when Jesus publicly calls out the Pharisees in today’s reading, He is telling them—like us—the law, or the ritual, is not enough. Love is shared and grows in relationships, which require time and listening. Prayer is where we give that time and listening to Jesus so that He may share His grace with us through the Holy Spirit. My prayers have grown efficient and hollow. I pray that I may slow down and listen to the Lord every day.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, October 29th, 2017

The Gospel for October 29th, 2017: “The Greatest Commandment”

Matthew 22:34-40

Reflection: Commandments and Bread Crumbs

When asked by a Pharisee, a scholar of the law, which is the greatest commandment, Jesus answers:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments (37-40).

It is so simple and logical it ends the questioning. Matthew’s gospel records no follow-up questions from the scholar or any of the other Pharisees. Still, it is worth considering one question that has come to my mind: Why do we need the other commandments? These two seem to cover everything.

As I reflect on the answer, it occurs to me these two commandments may be the greatest and simplest, but they are also the hardest to keep. If they do indeed cover everything (and I think they do), they command us to be saints. They call us to be thoroughly and consistently holy. And yet, with the exception of Mary, none of the saints were holy in every aspect of their entire lives. They became saints by surrendering to God’s grace one sin at a time. The other commandments help us manage that process in units we can handle. We can work on being more honest, being less jealous, being peaceful instead of violent toward others, and on and on. As we do so, we become more holy, less prone to sin, freer to love our God and each other without concern for our own selfish desires or fears.

As a young man, I took umbrage with long lists of rules. All I could see were restrictions and opportunities to fail. The Ten Commandments always felt a little constricting. The examination of conscience for confession felt like a downright straight jacket. I was too young and immature to realize that what I thought was freedom and the key to happiness was in fact a road to becoming weighted with attachments that were far more burdensome then the Ten Commandments. I look back now with hindsight and see the long list of attachments I have accumulated. For example, I am attached tightly to my career, money, and security. These are consistent sources of fear and worry. They interfere with my ability to unconditionally love others, especially family members. Giving up those attachments at this point in my life seems monumental, at times insurmountable. But if I ask the Lord to just give me the strength to not work on a Sunday (or even part of a Sunday), that is a small step I can take. And if I ask the Lord to help me  let go of  one possession for which I need more money—to not make an idol of its convenience or to covet it because someone else has it—that is another small step I can take. These are not arbitrary rules to be followed at the risk of grave punishment. They are a trail of bread crumbs that can be followed to the Lord so that we may find happiness in Him. He is the bread of life. His commands are an invitation to His table, where we will find all we need to be satisfied.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

The Gospel for October 22nd, 2017: “Paying Taxes to the Emperor”

Matthew 22: 15-21

Reflection: Our Creator Unifies All

Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Knowing their [Pharisees] malice, Jesus said,
“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
They replied, “Caesar’s.”
At that he said to them,
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.”

–Matthew 22: 17-21

In the past when I have read Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Herodians in this gospel, I have marveled at its cleverness. The Pharisees try to trap Jesus into an answer that will cause Him trouble with either the Jews or the Roman officials depending on how He answers. His response escapes the trap in its ability to avoid alienating the beliefs of either group. In this moment Jesus reminds me of some great rhetorician in ancient Greece, who uses words to solve political or ethical dilemmas.

On this reading, I realize my admiration of the cunning answer is a flawed reading caused by applying a worldly standard to judge the words of Jesus. Jesus came to join Heaven and Earth into one Kingdom of God; He came to join God’s creation to its Creator. His means is an unconditional love that flows forth from the Creator. So Jesus’ answer does not represent a verbal victory over an opponent as I thought; rather, as Jesus is the Word, His words center us back to the triune God and His love that unifies. There is no inherent conflict in God’s creation except those we put there when we turn away from God. God created Caesar and all government leaders. Governments can be unifying forces when those in charge center their lives of God and live His mission. The fact that they often do not is not in itself reason enough to rebel. We must never forget Jesus forgave both the Roman officials and Jewish leaders who directly played roles in His crucifixion.

If we center ourselves on God—giving Him what belongs to Him—we will become servants in a salvation plan that unifies through love. We may not know ahead of time what specific missions we will be given in that role, but we know it will not seek to divide us as the Pharisees trap was attempting to do. Through the love of the Holy Spirit, God will give us the grace to be peace-makers in those relationships that are at odds from the disharmony caused by the power of sin. We do not need to be clever problem-solvers with cunning rhetorical skills, just humble servants of the Lord. The answer to every conflict begins with centering ourselves on God.

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, October 15th, 2017

The Gospel for October 15th, 2017: “The Parable of the Wedding Feast”

Matthew 22: 1-14

Reflection: The Kingdom is for All Who Accept

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples,
the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever.

–Isaiah 25: 6-8

Like last week’s gospel, Jesus is speaking to the chief priest and elders in a parable about the Kingdom of God. And also like last week there are references in the parable to a horrible fate for those who reject God’s authority and gifts. Last week it was vineyard tenants who failed to cooperate with God as the vineyard owner. The Jewish leaders  suggest that the punishment for their offense should be death to the disobedient tenants. This week, it is those who were invited to a wedding banquet and refuse the invitation or show up without proper dress. Jesus says the consequence of their rejection is banishment to the outer darkness in bindings, where there will be “wailing and grinding of teeth” (Matthew 22: 13).

At the risk of sounding redundant, my reflection on both parables recommends we do not focus our reading of these parables on the mentioned consequences and equate them with a wrathful God sending off sinners to Hell. While it reasonable to read this way, I don’t think it fits with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the Gospels. He does not come to punish; He comes to save and usher in the Kingdom of God. As I stated last week, the Kingdom of God is marked by love and forgiveness, not wrath and punishment.

If we can avoid focusing on the punishment for the moment, then I think the parable speaks to the inclusiveness of God’s invitation to the wedding banquet, which is the Kingdom of God. Consider this line from the auxiliary reading from Isaiah quoted above: “On the mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven all nations….” (Isaiah 25: 8). The Jewish priests and elders thought theirs was the chosen people who alone were invited to the Kingdom. Jesus is saying the invitation will go out to all, including the Gentiles. The veil that separates the tribes of Israel, the unity and relatedness of all God’s creation will be destroyed by Jesus’ coming. Now all may participate in the Kingdom of God.

Once we establish this message as central to the passage, the punishment mentioned by Jesus is not read as coming from Him or from God the Father. It is self-imposed by those who reject the gift of salvation, the invitation to the wedding feast that is the Kingdom of God. God gave us free will to choose to love Him and his creation so that we may actively enjoy the gift of His love and can freely give it to others. The truth of this condition means humans can choose to reject God’s gift of salvation. This self-imposed exile will mean separation from the love that leads to happiness, a condition that leads to “wailing and grinding of teeth.” We choose the punishment by rejecting the invitation to the Kingdom, which of course the Jewish leaders did by crucifying Jesus.

In this understanding, the final line, “Many are invited, but few are chosen,” (Matthew 22: 14) is not about God’s selectiveness, with a few saints in Heaven and a multitude of sinners in Hell. I think this line probably suffers from a difficult translation into English. It should read something like, ‘All are invited, but not all choose to accept.’ Our place at the wedding banquet–in the Kingdom of God– is secured by our daily re-commitment to saying “Yes” to the call of the Lord. We say, “Here, I am Lord,” and then try to carry out God’s plans for us to proclaim His word and love one another as He has loved us. Our moments of weakness and shortcoming will be forgiven as long as we resist the ultimate temptation to harden our hearts to God’s love and live for the temporary pleasures of this life alone. We need Jesus to do this. His grace will flourish in our simple act of surrender to His invitation. All are called and He who created us can help all join the divine feast.

The Gospel for Sunday, October 8th, 2017

The Gospel for October 8th, 2017: “The Parable of the Tenants”

Matthew 21: 33-43

Reflection: The Law is not the Path to the Kingdom of God

The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.

–Isaiah 5:7

The responsorial psalm for this week connects the metaphor of the vineyard in today’s gospel, as well as from previous two weeks, to the people of Israel. It is tempting to draw a further analogy from the people of Israel to the new Israel, today’s Christians. However, the danger of this is that readers can fall into the trap of the “works contract” hermeneutic that leads to the kind of legalistic thinking of the Pharisees Jesus sought to change. Jesus, who loves unconditionally, is the icon for our faith and hope, not the law.

Consider today’s gospel as a case in point. Jesus tells the Jewish chief priests and elders the parable of a vineyard owner who leased his property to tenants and then leaves on a journey. When he returns, he expects a fruitful vintage from the land and sends a servant to collect it from the tenants. The tenants do not comply and violently stop three servants from collecting the vineyard owner’s due, including killing one. In response, the vineyard owner sends his son to collect, thinking the tenants surely will respect the heir to the vineyard and hand over the yield. Alas, the greedy tenants kill the heir as well, thinking the vineyard will now be theirs. Jesus then asks His Jewish audience what the owner will do in response. The chief priests and elders answer, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to  other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times” (41).

If we see God the Father as the vineyard owner, his son as Jesus, and the tenants God’s people, it is easy to interpret this passage as saying God will punish the sinful, perhaps by sending them off to Hell. But keep in mind, Jesus is speaking to those who refuse to accept He is the Messiah. The passage suggests they were aware the tenants in the parable referred to them, who were rejecting the heir. I think this should be the focus of the interpretation.  The vineyard tenants not only sin in a variety of ways, but they fail to recognize the heir as the one comes to make things right. Why does this refer to chief priests and elders? Because they thought their adherence to Mosaic law and tradition was enough to make things right. They failed to see the need for a Messiah who came preaching love and forgiveness. They didn’t realize Jesus was the fulfillment of the law. As I have heard Bishop Robert Barron say, it is not that Jewish law was bad, but that it was gathered up in Christ.

The message is relevant to us as well only if we fail to see Christ as He represents Himself in the “Last Supper Discourse.” There Jesus says to the Apostles, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6). This is not a works contract, but an invitation to live His story in Him. Jesus came to save through love and forgiveness until the very end. The Jewish leaders had it wrong. They thought law and punishment would bring justice. Jesus brings justice through love of others. Jesus as the heir would not have killed the sinful tenants; He would have forgiven them, just as He did His persecutors on the cross. The challenge from today’s gospel is the question that haunts us throughout the New Testament: Can we love our enemies in order to make peace and participate in the building of the Kingdom of God on Earth?

The Gospel for Sunday, October 1st, 2017

The Gospel for October 1st, 2017: “The Parable of the Two Sons”

Matthew 21: 28-32

Reflection: Repent!

Today’s gospel is an uncomfortable scene. Jesus confronts the chief priests and elders with the undeniable fact that they did not accept John the Baptist’s openness toward all repentant sinners, namely prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus indicts them for two sins. First, they fail to love and accept those considered disgraceful. Additionally, in their smug haughtiness, they closed their hearts and minds to the prophetic word of God from John. In other words, John preached repentance; they remained unrepentant.

Furthermore, Jesus demonstrates these sins are not out of ignorance by asking them to answer the puzzling question of which son is doing God’s will in the “Parable of the Two Sons.” In the parable, a father commands both his sons to go work in the family vineyard. One son openly disagrees to do so, but later changes his mind and goes. The other politely replies to the command with, “Yes, sir,” but then fails to go (28-30). Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, which of the sons did their father’s will? Rightly, they answer the first son, who despite disobeying at first, changes his mind and concedes (31). This son repents, just like the prostitutes and tax collectors who turned back to God at the urging of John the Baptist.

Part of the difficulty for the chief priests and elders is that intellectually they probably did not think they had  sins to repent. They thought tradition had already saved and purified them, so there was no need to ask God for forgiveness and mercy. A conscientious searching of the heart would have revealed a different truth, but perhaps they had closed and hardened their hearts for so long they had rendered themselves incapable of such a meditation. I don’t know. I am only speculating.

What I do know is this is a very real danger inherent in the human experience. The power of sin can influence us to focus on ourselves instead of others and to ignore our sins—to look for scape goats instead of face our failures in thought and deed. If we fail to heed John the Baptist’s message of repentance, we may risk pushing away Christ too far so that our hearts no longer respond to His call to love, despite the hollow “Yes, sir” our words may say. I truly believe the best defense against this prideful free fall is a life centered on the sacraments, so that the closeness of Jesus may penetrate the iciness of our hearts. In particular, reconciliation enacts genuine repentance so that our hearts may be completely restored to spiritual health. As I reflect on this gospel, I realize it has been over six months since my last confession. I have put it off too long. Despite the appearance of my words, my heart is unhealthy. It is time to go.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, September 24th, 2017

The Gospel for September 24th, 2017: “The Workers in the Vineyard”

Matthew 20: 1-16A

Reflection: It is Enough to Be with the Lord in the Vineyard

My initial reaction to the parable in today’s gospel about the Kingdom of Heaven is that the outcome is unfair. Jesus tells the story of a landowner who hires four groups of workers to work in his vineyard throughout the day and pays them all the same wage at the end. At the extreme end, the last group, hired at 5:00 pm and who worked only an hour, is paid the same as the group that started at dawn and worked all day in the heat. What sense are we to make of this inequity?

To begin, we can interpret God as the landowner and the workers as His people. The work done in the vineyard is living  life as a faithful follower of Christ. If we read the parable this way, the meaning that emerges forces an understanding of the Christian life that is at odds with worldly wisdom. What Jesus is telling us is the reward for being a faithful servant of Christ is the same whether a person embraces it early or late in one’s life. That reward is a life in Christ: the Kingdom of Heaven, which will be fully instituted on Earth with resurrection of all His people. Worldly wisdom suggests that those who have worked longer deserve more. This is the basis of the full-day workers’ complaint to the land owner: “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat” (12). Can we accept that those who come to God without a long record of doing His work are just as deserving of the Kingdom of Heaven as those who have spent a lifetime in His service? Or do we reject the deal Jesus is offering on the grounds it is unfair?

These questions prompted by the parable are the same ones suggested by the conversion and salvation of Dismas, the Good Thief, who repents to Jesus as they are on the cross dying and is promised paradise by the Lord (Luke 23: 43). They are also the same as those begged by the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 13: 11-32), because the wayward son receives an abundance of love on his return that seems to be more than that received by the faithful son who stayed at home and dutifully worked for his father. In each of these cases, I think we can only accept the outcomes as being just if we reflect on why Jesus came and died on the cross. He did not come as merely another prophet to warn of God’s impending judgment against the unfaithful. He came as the Messiah of Israel, who comes to gather all of God’s people to the Lord’s presence. He came to save all from sin and death. Furthermore, when we see the story of His salvation unfold in the gospels, it becomes clear that we who know Him are being asked to participate in this glorious vision. We are witnessing to God’s glory in word and action and loving one’s neighbors and enemies alike.

In view of the salvation plan, the goal is not to pay each worker in the vineyard according to his due. This brings us no closer to the realization of God’s vision for all. Instead, it is to gather all into the vineyard, which is the Kingdom of Heaven. This is what the full-day workers in the vineyard and the Dutiful Son have lost sight of in their pride. Happiness is found in the presence of Christ and in His work. The world can offer nothing better. The injustice that needs correcting is that not all of God’s people live in the light of His love. As the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, we should rejoice each time another lost son comes home to Christ and when another unemployed worker is hired for the vineyard. There is no need to be envious of those who are lost or unemployed. Those workers who are outside the vineyard “standing idle all day” are not happy (6). They are the lonely, the alienated, the exploited, the sick, and the dying. We who are in the vineyard have been saved from a miserable existence and can participate in the glory of the Kingdom by welcoming all those latecomers to receive the same gift of happiness and life we are enjoying. Until the God’s Kingdom is fully realized on Earth, until all the workers are gathered in the vineyard, it is tempting for those us blessed with knowing Christ to attempt to horde His love out a sense of self-preservation. But since it is truly a gift, its value is only experienced in reciprocation. Our sense of love and freedom come from giving the gift to others. We are called to act as the Father to Prodigal Son and generously give the love we have received so graciously to those in need, rather than to attempt to turn God’s love into an economic transaction as the Dutiful Son suggests.

This is true justice in the Kingdom of God. When the landowner in the parable hires the workers in the morning, he promises them “what is just” (4). Life in Christ is justice; it is happiness. If we can accept this and reject the worldly notion that we can have more happiness if we horde and possess God’s gifts, we will enjoy God’s happiness and peace. In addition, we are prepared to participate in the salvation plan by sharing God’s love unselfishly. We who have worked in the vineyard all day are the lucky ones. We need to remember to be grateful for that gift and share it with the rest of the world. To think or act otherwise is to reject the happiness given to us so generously by Christ.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, September 17th, 2017

The Gospel for September 17th, 2017: “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant”

Matthew 18: 21-35

Reflection: I am the Unforgiving Servant

Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.

–Sirach 27:30

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.