The Roman historian Josephus wrote about the occupation of Israel and reported that in one decade about fifty years before the birth of Jesus, the taxes extracted from the Jews by the Romans equaled about 10,000 denarii. A denarius was the equivalent of one day's wage. This background information helps us to understand the parable that St. Matthew uses to illustrate Jesus' answer to the question Peter poses regarding the number of times one must forgive.
The translation of this parable tells us that the servant owed his master "a huge amount." The Greek actually says 1,000 talents, which is roughly equal to 10,000 denarii. To give yourself a reference point, multiply your daily wage by 10,000. Even if you were working for minimum wage, we are talking about $150,000.00. Although the servant protests and asks the master to give him time to repay the debt, it is obvious that Matthew has chosen this number to impress upon his audience that it would be impossible for anyone of that time and society, let alone this slave, to repay such a debt. When the master actually forgives the debt, the news of his generosity would have stunned not only the people who worked for this man but the entire community. Such lenience in the face of such a debt would have brought the master great honor and respect within his community; and for the Middle Easterner, such honor and respect would have been worth far more than 1,000 talents. Honor and respect were the commodities that drove this society.
So when the forgiven servant turns around and treats his fellow servant harshly because of a much smaller debt, roughly three months wages or ninety denarii, the news of that cruelty also stunned the community. They reacted by telling the generous master of this man's cruelty. Now the master has lost whatever honor and respect he gained by his generosity. His servant has made him a laughingstock within the community. He's been had! So he reacts. He reverses his decision and hands the servant over to the jailers and torturers. He has no choice really. Not to do so would have been cultural and social suicide. He would have looked like a fool in the eyes of his contemporaries if he sat back and allowed this to stand.
St. Matthew is the only evangelist to record this particular parable. He places it within the discourse about the Church in the center of his Gospel, the third of five such discourses. It is, as it were, the centerpiece of his Gospel. Indeed, the issues of forgiveness, reconciliation, mercy and compassion are the keystone to this Gospel. In chapter ten of the Gospel, we heard Jesus tell his disciples, “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give” (Matthew 10:8b). This is especially true of the gift of forgiveness of sins. God has forgiven us our sins and paid the price of our redemption for us. It cost us nothing. If we are disciples of Jesus and the image of God, we must be people of forgiveness, and the Church must be the "locus" or place where forgiveness lives.
The parable is offered to answer a question that Peter raises. How many times must we forgive? The first part of the parable is about God and us. We owe God more than we can ever repay. There is simply no way that we can pay back the debt. What’s more, God does not expect us to repay. The gift is given freely without reservation.
The second part of the parable is about our relationship to one another. First we notice that St. Peter doesn’t ask if he must forgive his brother. He knows that he must as it is part of rabbinical teaching. The rabbis actually set down a code that stated how many times a person must forgive. That code deemed that the number of times one was to forgive was dependent upon the relationship that existed between the offended person and the guilty person – for a wife, so many time; for a parent, so many times, and so on. The greatest number that the rabbis set was seven times. Seven was considered the complete number, the perfect number. For a family member, one had to forgive seven times. Our translation says that Jesus said that he had to forgive seventy-seven times. The Greek actually says seven times seventy times or four hundred and ninety. However, the intention here was not to set a limit. Whether we read seventy-seven or seven time seventy, Jesus means that we should never fail to forgive. Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are reminded of this when we say those fateful words: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Heaven help us if we actually get what we pray for!
There are those who claim that being merciful is a sign of weakness. Yet God would tell us just the opposite. God is merciful because God is powerful. It is the weak person, the frail human being who finds it difficult to forgive. God does not.
When Jesus appeared to the disciples gathered in the upper room on the morning of his resurrection, he greets them with peace. He then tells them that the sins they forgive are forgiven and the sins that they do not forgive are retained. What Jesus is really saying is that if we fail to forgive the sins of others, those sins become a burden that we have to carry. We retain the hurts, the slights, the insults. They scar our psyches and make us miserable. The true path to happiness is through forgiveness. We all need to be forgiven from time to time, especially by those we love. It is easy to forgive the stranger that bumps into you. It is far more important to be able to forgive your loved ones. Only then will you be truly happy.
We gather around the table of the Lord every Sunday to give thanks that God has been merciful to us. We are not here out of a sense of obligation although the obligation is great, so much has God done for us. We are here to learn the lesson of mercy. As God shares Jesus, God’s only Son with us, we remember that as people made in the image of God, we too are called to be merciful, to be people who forgive.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator