This is my favorite time of the year. Football is back, the Church School and Choir are back, the fall air is here so I’m not sweating up here, and I love fall activities like looking at the leaves and the such. But mostly, I like that we end up gathered back together as a church family after the heat and vacations and summer activities have concluded; relationships are made and resumed, bonds of Christian friendship restored. Today’s Gospel is all about that, really, if only we know the context in which Jesus speaks.
“First-century Mediterranean peasants understood sin, that is, interpersonal transgressions, after the fashion of debts. That is what Jesus taught his followers to ask of God: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). For Westerners accustomed to a money-driven economy, debts almost always translate into “money owed.”
“Since economics is our culture’s predominant institution, everything is viewed from an economic perspective. In drug arrests we hear not of people saved from potential addiction, but rather the dollar value of the drugs confiscated. In natural disasters we hear not so much of people’s misfortunes but rather the economic loss in terms of dollars.
“Not so our peasant ancestors, for theirs was not a money-based economy. Their lives were based on interpersonal relationships even in what we would recognize as “economic” transactions. In such a culture, the purpose of haggling is not economic but interpersonal. T hat the potential buyer will make a purchase is a foregone conclusion. The buyer haggles and the seller willingly goes along because both are building an interpersonal relationship called friendship (see Genesis 18:22-33; James 2:23). Friends will be faithful: the seller will always set and the buyer will always get a good price.
“But the king is sensitive to his honorable reputation. If he deals harshly with a servant of his own household, his subjects will judge him to be shameless, a man without honor. So the king decides to act in “mercy” and forgive the debt. He gains more honor by this decision than he would by insisting on receiving full payment of the debt.
“In behavior that is both shocking and sad, the forgiven slave turns toward a fellow slave in the same household and refuses to forgive a much smaller debt. He refuses to imitate the merciful behavior of the king-patron. If he gets away with this strategy, the king will become a laughing stock. To protect his honor, the king-patron has no choice but to put this brazen slave in his proper place: jail!”1
So that’s the context Jesus is talking about – an economy of personal relationships, and then how that economy fits into the economy of the Kingdom of God. That economy is, right on the face of it, an economy of forgiveness, of mercy, and perhaps most importantly, of reciprocal mercy. Forgive us our sin, O God, as we forgive those who sin against us. Treat others as you would be treated, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because our God is, while merciful, He is also just, and will treat us accordingly. It’s an economy that benefits us, even when we don’t realize it.
“In the church, in our families, in our hearts, we have all experienced the logic of unforgiveness. Even at the age of five, a child might be heard to mutter, “I’ll never talk to them again.” If the judgment hardens, it is only the heart of the judger that grows cold. The words, “I will never forgive you,” can shut tight the heart of the one who utters them, definitively deadened and alone.”2
And so when Peter came up and said to Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” And Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven,” this wasn’t a mathematical equation but an economic model. Jesus says forgive more times than you can count, because that’s what I’m willing to do.
This is my favorite time of year, when we gather back together, together for Mass and for ministry, and when we get to once again model for each other and for the world, what the mercy and love of God looks like.
1John J. Pilch: http://liturgy.slu.edu/24OrdA091717/theword_cultural.html
2John Kavanaugh, SJ: http://liturgy.slu.edu/24OrdA091717/theword_embodied.html