We’ve all heard the dictum: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” It’s straight from the Bible. In fact, you’ll find it in three books of the Old Testament: Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. This instruction follows shortly after the Ten Commandments and is offered as a practical application of the 5th Commandment: Thou shalt not kill. After decreeing that “whoever strikes someone a mortal blow must be put to death,” the text goes on to decree the appropriate punishment for lesser injury. It ends with, “if injury ensues, you shall take…eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Although this sounds rather brutal to us, it was actually an improvement over the practice of the day in ancient Israel, which called for seven-fold retribution. We learn about that in the story of Cain and Abel. After Cain kills Abel, God banishes him from farming and condemns him to being a constant wanderer on the earth. When Cain protests that his life is in danger, God assures him that “if anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged seven times.” So, an eye for an eye that is decreed as a follow up to the 10 Commandments is actually an improvement over the practice of the day of seven-fold retribution.
In today’s Gospel account, we hear how Jesus responds to that practice. We first hear Peter ask Jesus how often he must forgive his brother. This follows right after the account that we heard last week, where Jesus offered us good direction about how to bring forgiveness and reconciliation when someone has sinned against us. As a good Jew, Peter is, of course, familiar with the story of Cain and Abel and he considers himself very generous in offering to forgive rather than take vengeance on his brother. He thinks that he is especially gracious in offering forgiveness – rather than inflicting revenge – as often as seven times. Responding to Peter’s question, Jesus calls him to forgive “not seven times but seventy-seven times.” This really means every time because if you’re counting, you’re not really forgiving, you’re just keeping score.
This response was revolutionary for Peter and his companions and it remains a real challenge for us, doesn’t it? For most of us, there is a limit to how often we will forgive. So, why is Jesus so insistent that our forgiveness be without limit? He provides a clear answer in the parable he presents next in today’s Gospel. We’re all familiar with the parable but it’s important to know who the characters represent and how Jesus is applying the message.
As he does in several of his other parables, Jesus speaks of a king and his servants. Of course, we all know that the king represents God and we are his servants. And, these parables speak of the kingdom of heaven. In today’s parable we hear of a very generous king who forgives his servant, wiping out a debt that the servant can never repay. How great is his debt? Today’s Gospel says that the servant owed the king “a huge amount.” The original text, however, identifies this huge amount as 10,000 talents. A talent was the name of a coin used in the Middle East and its value varied, depending on whether it was made of copper, silver or gold. Jesus does not specify the type of talent but, at 10,000, it was a huge amount in any case. The best estimate I have read is about $10 million. Now, what do these talents represent? They represent all that God has given us and not just our talents but the bounty of the earth, our lives, the tremendous gift of our faith and how it shapes our lives. So, how could the man in today’s parable owe so much? Well, think of yourselves. How well have you appreciated all that God has given you and used all of God’s gifts for the building up of his kingdom? If we are honest with ourselves when we examine our consciences, we will all have to admit that we could do much better in loving God and our neighbor. We fall short in giving God the full glory that is his due and we can always be more generous in our love and forgiveness toward our neighbor. Clearly, we have been careless and inattentive, just like the servant who represents all of us. In today’s Gospel, we are assured that, as long as we keep trying God will indulge us just as the king was willing to cancel his servant’s loan. After all, God wants us in his kingdom.
But, just as God indulges us, he calls us to indulge one another. That’s another important lesson of today’s Gospel, echoed in today’s first reading as well, where we hear the wisdom of Sirach advise us: “forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.”
As I mentioned a moment ago, this was a revolutionary message for the Jews of Jesus’ time and remains a real challenge for us even today. So, we are invited to reflect on God’s great love and mercy toward us and then encouraged, in gratitude, to be as loving and merciful toward everyone, including that one person we really struggle to forgive.
Unconditional love and endless forgiveness are among the most important hallmarks of our faith. Every time we look at a crucifix we see the clearest symbol of the forgiveness that God has extended to us. Recall what Jesus cried out as he hung upon the cross: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” Grateful to know that God loves us and will always forgive us, we become eager to do better and to be more patient with those around us. After all, we all want to be part of God’s kingdom, a kingdom of peace and love. So, we are eager to share this good news with others.
One of the ways that the Church does this is through its schools and religious education programs. Today, as another school year gets underway, we commission those in our community who have responded to God’s call in a special way to be the catechists in our PREP and our school. We call on them to strive to live the gospel way of life themselves and to teach the gospel faithfully to the students entrusted to them. I will also pray over the parents of our children. Recognizing that they are, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us so clearly, the first teachers of their children in all things, including the faith, I will ask God to send his Spirit upon our parents so that they will have the knowledge, wisdom, courage and patience to teach their children about their faith and lead them to an ever-closer relationship with God.
Yes, our God loves us with an everlasting love and his love is so evident to us in his willingness to forgive us always when we fail in building up his kingdom. Let us be grateful to God for having revealed himself to us through his son, our Lord, Jesus Christ and, in gratitude, let us always be eager to share our faith and demonstrate God’s love, especially through our forgiveness of others.