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Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese
of Detroit, Michigan *
Sirach 27:30 - 28:9
Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance, for he remembers their sins
Brothers and sisters: None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies
for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die
for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's. For this
is why Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of both the
dead and the living.
Peter approached Jesus and asked him, "Lord, if my brother sins against
me, how often must I forgive? 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
* A longtime national and international activist in the peace movement, Bishop Gumbleton is a founding member of Pax Christi USA and an outspoken critic of the sanctions against Iraq.
has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and has published
numerous articles and reports.
** Scripture texts in this work are in modified form from the American Standard Version of the Bible and are available as part of the public domain.
For your convenience, the
Scripture texts, as they appear in the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the
Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright ©
1998, 1997, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C.,
may be found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic
|As I mentioned last week, this
fourth part of Matthew’s gospel is an instruction to the whole church community
on how we are to interact with one another, especially when disputes arise
among us. The parable that we heard today closes this part of Matthew’s
gospel and we have to listen to it very carefully because it really gives
an interpretation that shakes the interpretation of everything that Jesus
has taught about how we interact with one another, especially when we have
The parable throws light on the reign of God. In other words, Jesus is telling us that if we listen to it very carefully, this helps us to understand what the reign of God is like, what it’s intended to be, what it will be if we really let the reign of God break forth in our lives. This is what it would be like.
He tells the parable very clearly. And there are three parts to it. First, there is the official who owes this huge debt; it’s an enormous debt. I read in one commentary where it describes the debt that this man owed as more than all of the income of the whole Roman province of Asia at that time--so it’s a huge debt. And he comes begging and says, “Give me time and I will pay you back.” And what happens? The king says, “It’s all gone. It’s forgiven.” He has mercy on the man and totally forgives the debt.
Then he goes out and you heard what happened. One of his companions owes him and obviously it’s a very, very small amount, just a pittance. And his debtor says the same words, “Give me time and I’ll pay you back.” And he says, “No,” and throws him into prison. As if he will be able to pay him back in prison.
And then the third part of the story. The friends of this man go to the king and say, “Look what happened. You forgave him everything and now he throws our companion into prison.” And of course the king is angry. And so he gets that official and puts him into prison.
Then, as Matthew tells us, Jesus adds, “So it will be with all of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
We need to ask ourselves what really happens in this parable. What do we really need to draw from it that makes it so clearly something that will enlighten us about the reign of God?
The failure of the man who had been forgiven was the fact that he really didn’t understand and experience deeply what had been done for him. If we think about that king as God, it’s a God who is truly kind and merciful. The man says, “I’ll pay you back. I’ll fulfill my duties.” And God just says, “No, don’t worry about it. It’s gone, the whole debt is gone.”
God far surpasses any idea of duties and responsibilities and paying back. God just forgives. Totally, infinitely, and unlimited in mercy is the God who is portrayed in this parable. But the man didn’t understand that. And so when his companion came, he was treating him the same way; according to duties and responsibilities. And the man said, “I’ll pay you back.” But he didn’t really listen and he hadn’t experienced what God had done for him. So he acted in the same old way that he would have acted anytime.
God was trying and Jesus is trying to get us to understand that if you really follow the way of God, if you really let yourself live according to the way of the reign of God, then you don’t keep demanding tit for tat. You don’t keep demanding, “Pay back or I’ll get even with you.” You begin to exercise an unlimited kind of compassion and forgiveness.
Now many people think that’s foolish. But, in fact, that’s the way God is to all of us. That is how God is to us and that’s what Jesus is trying to get us to realize today. And what each of us has to realize, very deeply, in our own hearts, “I’m a forgiven person. God doesn’t hold anything against me. God forgives. All I must do is open myself to God and I’m forgiven.”
We don’t have to jump through any hoops. We don’t have to do anything except be there to accept God’s mercy and forgiveness.
And then, of course, as Jesus tells us at the end of the parable, ‘”Be that way to one another. Be the way God is to us. Be that way to every other person.”
Could this really happen?
As I reflect on this parable today, I almost say, “That’s impossible. You can’t live that way. You have to demand what people owe to you. You can’t just forgive.”
Well, I feel that way until I remember some of the people I have met since last September 11, who had family members killed on that day. I’ve met them and they say, “We’ve forgiven. We hold no grudge. We want no vengeance.” They have even formed a group called Peaceful Tomorrows, some words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon about how you have peaceful tomorrows. It’s through reconciliation and forgiveness.
Or I think about Nelson Mandela and those long and lonely years in that prison. He said, “I came to understand that I not only had to work for the freedom of my own people, the oppressed, but I had to work for the freedom of the oppressor. I had to love those who oppressed me.” And Nelson Mandela changed his whole way of interacting in that terrible, violent situation of apartheid. And because he changed and really was working for the freedom of the oppressor, he didn’t hold a grudge. He forgave. He had no desire for vengeance and the whole situation was transformed.
So it can happen.
Each one of us, individually, in our own lives, if we begin to understand that God has forgiven me. God loves me without limits. God doesn’t demand anything, but that I open myself to that love. If I can really begin to know that, then the reign of God can happen in my life. I would give up vengeance. I would give up hatred. I would give up trying to get even. I would be kind and merciful like God, and how quickly that would change all of my relationships with other people. The reign of god could really break forth in my life.
And I’m really convinced of that. But then I also ask myself, ‘”Could this happen for us as a nation?” Could it happen that instead of saying, “We’re going to go to war,” we would instead try to negotiate. Instead of saying, “No, there will be no negotiations. They will do it our way or no way.” We could have a different attitude. But you know what I think is necessary for us as a people is to begin to understand how patient God is with us--how patient God has been with us, in forgiving us, being merciful to us, in spite of our sins as a people.
You go back to 1945. Our nation committed an atrocity that is the worst atrocity in all of human history. Pope Paul VI called it ‘a butchery of untold magnitude.’ When we obliterated two whole cities and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. God has been very patient with us in forgiving us and being merciful to us despite that kind of atrocity.
If we’re willing to look back into our history since then, we will discover how many times we have invaded other nations and have killed, again, thousands, even tens of thousands of innocent people either by directly invading or by supplying the arms and the support for those who were doing the killing.
God has been very patience with us, forgiving us these terrible sins we’ve committed. And yet we have the temerity and the sense of self-righteousness that says, “We will get them for what they have done to us,” instead of saying, “No, we must be merciful.”
We must begin to be like God, not just individually, but as a nation. Then the reign of God could happen. It could really happen. But you and I, who are followers of Jesus, must begin to stand up for what we believe. And we do believe this. We believe that God is kind and merciful to us and has forgiven us over and over again. Then we, as individuals and as a nation, must stand up together and say “no” to any more violence and war and vengeance. We must say “yes” only to mercy and forgiveness and then, ultimately, we will be saying yes to peace.
I came across another story. It’s a parable that I think helps make very powerful and clear what is being asked of us. The question is whether we can do it. It’s a story about Buddha, so it comes out of a different religious tradition. Buddha was accosted one time by some bandits who were going to rob and kill him. And the bandit had a very sharp sword and Buddha said, “Before you kill me, would you grant me one dying wish, a last wish.” The bandit said, “Sure.” So Buddha said, “That tree there, cut the branch off of it.” And so he did. So Buddha said, “Now restore that branch to the tree.” The man laughed at him. Buddha said, “You act like a child. Anybody can destroy. Anybody can kill. But only the really strong can create and heal.”
The really strong can create and heal. That is what God does. That is what we can do if we summon up that inner strength that Jesus can give to us. Instead of destroying, like anybody can do, we could begin to create and heal, and make a world where there is peace and love.
I pray today that all of us will ask God to give us the strength to create and to heal, and in this way allow God’s reign to break forth as the reign of peace.
In the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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