Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How Often Do I Have To Forgive?

“How often do I have to forgive my brother?” It’s a question every mother has heard, usually from the mouth of her second child, less often from her first-born. In today’s gospel, it is the question raised by Peter, who adds his own estimate: “As many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” That is the translation from the New American Bible. In the old Douay-Rheims translation, which was the only approved English bible here until the 1950s, Jesus answer was just a bit different: “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times.”

After answering Peter’s question, Jesus begins to tell a story comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to an earthly kingdom were the king had decided to settle accounts with folks who were indebted to him.

The first debtor owed 10,000 talents, which he was unable to repay. He begged the king, “Be patient with me”. The king took pity on him, and forgave the debt entirely.

But when the first debtor went out, he found a fellow who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him, and began to choke him. “Pay back every penny you own!” His fellow servant begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.” But he refused. Instead, he had the man thrown into debtor’s prison for a term equal to the amount of the debt.

The other servants went to tell their master everything that had happened.

The master called the first servant in. “You wicked fellow! I canceled your debt because you asked me to. Shouldn’t you have shown mercy to your fellow servant, just I had for you. In his anger, the master turned him over to the jailors until the debt was completely repaid.


When this parable was subject to discussion at St. Michael’s High School in North Adams, the students asked me what amounts of money we would be talking about in U.S. currency. Since the value of the dollar is different from 35 years ago, and since the talent and the denarius are currency we’re not familiar with, the best course is to measure in terms of wages. A denarius was one day’s wage for a farm hand. One hundred denarii would amount to twenty weeks wages. A talent, on the other hand, was a much more significant amount of purchasing power. One talent was equivalent to 25 years wages. Ten thousand talents would be 2500 years wages. Let’s round that off at $12.5 million. The Attorney General of Massachusetts, a member of that religion class, would surely consider theft of that amount grand larceny.

Clearly, the purpose of Jesus in telling his disciples this parable is that we are infinitely indebted to God for sending His only begotten Son into our world to redeem us from the burden of our sinfulness. “Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave, you gave away your Son”, as we hear in the Exultet at the Easter Vigil.

R/ Remember your mercies O Lord.

Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
Teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
For you are God my savior. R/

Remember that your compassion, O Lord,
and your kindness are from of old.
In your kindness remember me
Because of your goodness, O Lord. R/

Good and upright is the LORD,
Thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
He teaches the humble his way. R/

Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
And to the Holy Spirit.

As it was in the beginning, is now
And ever shall be,
World without end. Amen.

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