Posted September 12, 2020
Yr A Ordinary Time, 24th Sunday of the Year
Today’s parable (Matthew 18: 21-35) consists of three scenes. In the first scene the man owes the king a phenomenal sum. He will never be able to repay it. And yet he pleads: ‘Give me time and I will repay everything.’ Of course, the promise that he will pay back everything is pathetic; so pathetic, in fact, that the king is moved with pity and writes off the entire amount.
We gasp at the man’s predicament. But in fact, his predicament is also ours. I am not thinking so much of our sins, which, as in St Matthew’s version of The Lord’s Prayer, might be seen as so many ‘debts’ that we owe to God. For even without our sins, what we owe to God is beyond calculation. It can’t ever be repaid. Our very existence, all that we have and are, flows from God as pure gift. Of ourselves, we are irredeemably bankrupt. The lesson of this first scene is that our relationship with God cannot be based on any kind of calculus. It can only be based on God’s free and gracious bounty. For that is what God is like.
So much for the first scene in the parable. Now skip the middle scene for the time being and consider the last scene. Things have changed. Now the king is angry. He calls the servant ‘wicked’ (ponēros, a word elsewhere used of the devil). Now the king leaves the servant with no possibility of repentance. He hands him over to the torturers until he repays the original debt. Since the debt came to millions, that means: hope is gone for ever.
Now the question I ask is: How could the king who previously had been amazingly indulgent now turn out to be completely uncompromising? And assuming that the king in the parable somehow stands for God, the question is: How can God melt with compassion one day and be ruthless the next? Oh I know the servant had acted disgracefully, throttling a colleague who couldn’t repay his debts. But if God, at an earlier stage in the parable, could not resist the overpowering movement of compassion, surely he had it in him to show some clemency even now?
Part of the answer lies in those words of the king when he confronts the servant in this third scene: ‘Was it not necessary for you to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?’ Not ‘Wouldn’t it have been fitting?’ but: ‘Was it not necessary?’ The idea is that having experienced compassion himself the servant should have felt himself bound, as by some inner necessity, to show compassion to his fellow servant. Compassion to others is a necessary effect of your transformation as a person. The whole intention of God’s overflowing love is to make us like himself. ‘Was it not necessary for you to show compassion just as I showed compassion to you?’ That is the logic of our salvation, the key to our existence, the single non-negotiable condition of salvation: to experience God’s love as pure gift, and – changed by that experience – to show the same graciousness to others. ‘Freely you have received and freely you must give.’ The alternative is permanent bankruptcy.
The key to the parable lies in the middle scene. When the fellow servant pleaded for more time, the man ‘refused’ – so our translation tells us, though a more accurate translation, given the tense of the Greek verb, would be: he refused and went on refusing. Far from being transformed by God’s generosity, his heart was hardened. Although the parable says that it was the king who returned him to hopelessness, in reality, if you transpose the story into an account of one’s relationship with God, it is not God who returned him to hopelessness. He has returned himself to hopelessness. He is necessarily back in his condition of bankruptcy, for he has blocked the one action that would have taken him out of it.
The lesson for us is that indulgence and compassion towards others is pivotal to our destiny. There are no religious practices that can compensate for their absence. It is just not possible to be open to God’s love unless we allow that love to be decisive in the way we treat others.
A very apt commentary on this parable is to be found in the First Letter of St John: ‘Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.’
Fr Tom Deidun