Sirach 27:30 – 28:9
This Sunday, we will hear from the Book of Sirach, one of the very last books of the Old Testament. It was written between 200 and 175BC by a man who identifies himself as Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sira (cf. 50:27). Some of your Bibles identify the book as The Wisdom of Ben Sira. This is actually the earliest title of the book; the “ch” was added when the book was translated into Greek. It is an excellent example of Wisdom literature, filled with moral teachings. It is also known as “Ecclesiasticus” due to its extensive use in liturgical celebrations in the early church. As we read it, we will quickly come to see why it was selected – it provides a perfect introduction to this Sunday’s Gospel.
30 Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.
1 The vengeful will suffer the LORD’S vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail.
2 Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
3 Should a man nourish anger against his fellows and expect healing from the LORD?
4 Should a man refuse mercy to his fellows, yet seek pardon for his own sins?
5 If he who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?
Vvs. 2 – 5 seem to be a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer’s second petition – very different than the lex talionis we hear in earlier Old Testament writing: Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:19ff and Deuteronomy 19:21 (cf. Mt 5:38).
6 Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin!
7 Remember the commandments and do not be angry with your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.
8 Avoid strife and your sins will be fewer, for a quarrelsome man kindles disputes,
9 Commits the sin of disrupting friendship and sows discord among those at peace.
We all know people who go through life pressing their bruises. They seem to find comfort or some sort of security in always being the injured party. They’re the doormat that always gets stepped on. Ben Sira warns the person bent on vengeance that we participate in creating the world in which we live. We cannot both nourish anger and look for healing and forgiveness from God. This is good, solid advice and an important message about how our relationship with others affects our relationship with God. And, as I said earlier, this bit of sage advice from Ben Sira provides us with a perfect introduction to this Sunday’s Gospel.
Romans 14:7 – 9
But first, this Sunday we will hear a couple more verses of Paul’s letter to the community in Rome this Sunday. Paul’s message in this selection of Romans follows up directly on the end of the reading from Sirach. Sirach says: remember you are going to die so live with that in mind. Paul says: we neither live nor die for ourselves alone, but for the Lord. As Paul comes to the end of his letter to the Roman community, which has been primarily doctrinal in tone, he now adds an exhortation similar to one he used in 1 Thes 4 – 5; it’s a perfect follow-up to this Sunday’s first reading and again, helps us to understand the Gospel, so let’s look at it before we examine the Gospel passage.
7 None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself: especially today, when we hear over and over again about people living for themselves, defining their own truths, striving to carve their own destinies, we need to remember that God has made us for himself and he has a plan for us. It is only in following that plan that we find true happiness and fullness of life.
8 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.
The Lord: Jesus, our Master. The same Greek word, kyrios, was applied to both rulers and holders of slaves. Throughout the Letter to the Romans, Paul emphasizes God’s total claim on the believer; see the note on Romans 1:1. Although the idea of slavery is repulsive to us today, it was an acceptable practice in many parts of the world in the past. In fact, the liberating act of Jesus Christ, freeing us from enslavement to Law, sin and death (8:2), enables us to live for God (6:10 – 11; Gal 2:19).
we are the Lord’s: we belong to and must acknowledge our relation to the risen Christ, who is Lord of both the dead and the living.
9 For this is why Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
With these two readings as background, let’s now examine this Sunday’s gospel.
Matthew 18:21 – 35
This week, we continue to hear from Matthew’s Gospel, picking up where we left off last Sunday. This, the final section of the discourse that started at 18:1, deals with the forgiveness that the disciples are to give to their fellow disciples who sin against them. Recall last week’s passage in which Jesus instructs the apostles about how to respond to someone who has sinned against them. First, you should address the wrong with the person alone. If that fails, seek advice. If that doesn’t lead to reconciliation, turn to the church. And, if even that fails, treat the sinner as a Gentile or a tax-collector. But, remember how Jesus treated these two groups. He went after them and gently brought them to the truth. And, remember that this teaching followed his powerful parable of the Good Shepherd going after a lost sheep.
It’s important to see last week’s and this week’s within the context of the Parable of the Lost Sheep that is presented just prior to these two pericopes (cf. Mt. 18: 10-14). Clearly, Jesus is calling for drawing people back, not trying to get even or trying to find a reason to reject them. So, then we hear Peter ask the question we sometimes find ourselves asking: “how often must I forgive?” To Peter’s question (Matthew 18:21), Jesus answers that it is to be given without limit (Matthew 18:22) and illustrates this with the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-34), warning that his heavenly Father will give those who do not forgive the same treatment as that given to the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:35). And, this has eternal consequences. As both the reading from the Book of Sirach and the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans remind us, we are going to die and we rely on the mercy of God to bring us eternal happiness.
Although the passage begins with two verses that have some correspondence to Luke 17:4, the parable and the final warning that follow are peculiar to Matthew. It is one of the sternest passages in the Gospels. It reinforces the duty of forgiveness by appealing to another motive: the forgiveness granted by man to man as a condition of forgiveness granted by God to man at the final judgment. That the parable did not originally belong to this context is suggested by the fact that it really does not deal with repeated forgiveness, which is the point of Peter’s question and Jesus’ reply. Instead, it focuses our attention on the ongoing role we have in continuing Jesus’ role as the Good Shepherd. As Jesus went after the lost sheep and carried them back to the flock – and he had to do that over and over again – so we are called to offer untiring forgiveness to those who turn away from us as we strive to bring them ever closer to our Lord. Let’s examine the passage with this perspective in mind.
21 Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
Seventy-seven times: as you will read in your footnotes, the Greek corresponds exactly to the LXX of Genesis 4:15, 24. There is probably an allusion – by contrast – to the sevenfold vengeance God warns about for those who would kill Cain and the 77-fold vengeance of Lamech in the Genesis texts. In any case, what is demanded of the disciples is limitless forgiveness; recall that seven was a number that symbolized perfection, completion.
23 That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
kingdom of heaven: here is the clear indication that Jesus is not just talking about forgiving someone who has offended us but preparing them for the kingdom of heaven. We see this same lesson presented in another way in the parable of the talents (cf. Mt. 25:14-30).
24 When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
A huge amount: literally, “ten thousand talents.” The talent was a unit of coinage of high but varying value depending on its metal (gold, silver, copper) and its place of origin. The Greek talent weighed some 50 lbs, the Roman talent weighed 70 lbs and the ancient Israelite talent weighed 130 lbs. So, it was a significant amount and its value varied tremendously, depending on whether it was copper, silver or gold. Although some scripture scholars estimate its value at just $1,000 – $30,000, the most popular interpretation of the value of a talent in the context of this gospel passage is that it was worth 6,000 denari or 6,000 day’s wages. 10,000 talents would be worth 200,000 years of a day laborer’s daily work.
The talent is mentioned in the New Testament only here and in Matthew 25:14-30. This huge amount probably is intended to represent an incredibly large debt, similar to saying today that a person owed the national debt! And, if this man owed that much, he had been paid by a fabulously wealthy man. Although we may be tempted to think only of what the man owed, we can also look at it from the perspective of the king and see a clear indication of God’s incalculable generosity to this man and, by extension, to each of us. Remember, Jesus used parables to teach us lessons about God and our relationship with God.
25 Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt.
Ordered him to be sold…and all his property: this was common practice in those days, since the master owned the slaves. In this case, since the debt was so great, this sale would not pay off the debt but would simply relieve the master of an irresponsible slave.
26 At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Pay you back in full: an empty promise, given the size of the debt. Remember, the people of the Middle East tend toward hyperbole, even today, to make a point.
27 Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.
28 When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’
A much smaller amount: literally, “a hundred denarii.” As I mentioned above, denarius was the normal daily wage of a laborer. The difference between the two debts is enormous and brings out the absurdity of the conduct of the Christian who has received the great forgiveness of God and yet refuses to forgive the relatively minor offenses done to him. The model of God’s forgiveness, which is limitless, should be one that every person follows. If a person cannot forgive, he cannot expect forgiveness. If he does not renounce his own claims, which are small, he cannot ask God to dismiss the claims against him.
29 Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30 But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.
31 Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair.
32 His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
33 Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’
34 Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.
until he should pay back the whole debt: Since the debt is so great as to be unpayable, the punishment will be endless.
35 So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”
So will my heavenly Father do to you: This is an important admonition; let’s read the footnote to see what it means. The Father’s forgiveness, already given, will be withdrawn at the final judgment for those who have not imitated his forgiveness by their own. We should remember this parable every time we recite the Our Father: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As we finish these two weeks with lessons on forgiveness, we are taught very clearly about God’s loving forgiveness and our shared responsibility to be signs of God’s forgiveness as we continue to follow our Lord’s example of the Good Shepherd who seeks out those who have gone astray to bring them back into the fold. It’s an important message for all of us; we’re all sinners and, as we walk with each other to our eternal destiny, we want rely on each other to correct us and get us back on the path back to God.