Reflection on the Gospel–24th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A, 17 September 2017 (Matthew 18:21-35)
How do we read today’s story of a king who is prepared initially to forgive the debt that his slave has incurred, only to resort to torture when that slave fails to forgive his fellow slave, asks Sister Veronica Lawson rsm.
While the opening verses of this Sunday’s gospel reading have Jesus advocating endless forgiveness (not seven but seventy-seven times), the parable that follows is anything but consistent with this teaching and the teaching of Jesus in the gospel as a whole. We are all familiar with the beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall be mercied” (5:7) and with the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (6:12).
How then do we read today’s story of a king who is prepared initially to forgive the debt that his slave has incurred, only to resort to torture when that slave fails to forgive his fellow slave? This story raises more problems than we can address in this short reflection: the unquestioning acceptance of slavery and the plight of slaves; the absolute power of the king over his subjects; the institution of debt slavery; the treatment of women and children; the collection of crippling taxes to finance the power of the king; an unjust and cruel ruler as an image of the God of Israel; imaging God as a loving father who nonetheless acts in tyrannical ways.
In other words, the parable encodes institutions and practices of the time that Jesus and/or the Matthean community seem to accept without question.
Does this parable come from the lips of Jesus or from the Matthean community? It would be anachronistic to expect a critique of slavery from Jesus or from Matthew’s community since the institution of slavery was simply taken for granted. It persisted without critique for some 1800 years. It is totally out of character, however, for Jesus to image his “heavenly Father” as a merciless torturer. It may be that Jesus did in fact tell such a story in another context and that the Matthean author has rather arbitrarily linked the sayings on forgiveness (forgiving 77 times and forgiving brothers and sisters from one’s heart) with this story. It is conceivable that Jesus insisted on the consequences of refusing to forgive. While God is merciful and forgiving, disciples must not exploit God’s capacity to forgive. Bad behaviour is not to be tolerated. It has its consequences and those who continually fail to forgive can expect to suffer the consequences of their actions.
Whatever we make of the story of the less than forgiving king and the unforgiving slave, we might take on board Jesus’ response to Peter’s question. “How often should I forgive?” We might also note the reminder at the end of the gospel that true forgiveness is “from the heart”. In the biblical world, the heart was the core of the person’s being, the seat of cognition as well as of emotion. To forgive from the heart is to forgive with the whole of one’s being.
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