A reflection on the readings of September 17, 2023 — the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time.
In a reflection I recently read on today’s Gospel, the author did some math to try to put the two debts we just heard about into modern terms. By his accounting, the 10,000 talents the wicked servant owed his master is equivalent to an astronomical six billion dollars, while the man’s fellow servant owed him 100 denarii, a comparatively miniscule ten thousand dollars. The fellow servant could’ve paid off his debt by working 100 days, while the wicked servant would’ve needed more than 160,000 years to pay off his!
Clearly, Jesus is trying to give us a little perspective here by encouraging us to put ourselves in the place of the wicked servant. He wants us to at least attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible vastness of God’s mercy. At a surface level, reading this as a mere morality tale, everyone who hears it is going to say, “That guy is messed up — I totally would’ve forgiven my fellow servant after what my master did for me!” But do we really get the enormity of the mercy shown? Even a little?
To be able to accept mercy and forgiveness presupposes that we accept that there’s something we’ve done that needs to be forgiven, something that requires mercy from another if things are to be made right. So many in our world today have no sense of personal sin — it’s one thing to react with indignation to the all-too-real and numerous examples of oppression or injustice in the larger society, but it’s something else entirely to apply a similarly critical eye to the state of our own moral life.
When I am my own personal arbiter of truth, the subjective doesn’t merely trump the objective, it refutes the very notion that there could even be objective truth. An examination of conscience through that lens becomes nothing more than an opportunity to say “Yep, I’m good!”
The wicked servant in today’s Gospel was granted a pardon by his master — a pardon that spared not just himself, but his wife and children as well — and he was unable to see it. He left the king’s presence a free man released from an impossible debt, but his actions made it unmistakably clear that the king’s mercy had absolutely no effect on him. In his mind, he had escaped the consequences of his actions — nothing more than that. To use a Monopoly analogy, he figured he got lucky and drew a “get out of jail free” card and could simply continue on his merry way around the board. Viewed that way, there’s no need for him to even consider whether his actions were wrong — no consequences means no culpability, right? The incalculable gift of mercy he received went completely unnoticed because in order to see it, he would have had to first acknowledge the debt he owed.
In a society where moral relativism and subjective definitions of truth seem to hold sway, the Church’s mission is to stand as a beacon that can — and will — guide anyone who seeks the eternal Truth that is Jesus Christ. And this makes some people deeply uncomfortable and prompts accusations that the Church is simply an antiquated, hierarchical institution that exists to coerce people to fall in line and just do what they’re told.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In his encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio, St. John Paul II memorably wrote: “The Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience.”
There’s a foundational element of choice here — the choice to accept or reject the proposal Jesus offers us through his Church — and this choice is highlighted throughout our readings today. But what’s also made clear in this choice is that the path we choose will lead to a definitive destination.
The first reading from Sirach makes this clear as can be. You want to embrace wrath and anger and vengeance? Okay, the Lord can do that too. If you refuse to show mercy to another, can you really expect the Lord will show mercy to you? But if you choose to forgive your neighbor’s injustice, if you refuse to nourish anger or cherish wrath, your own sins will be forgiven. St. John Chrysostom reminds us, “If we must remember offenses, let us remember only our own. And if we remember our own sins, we shall never store up the sins of others.” When we choose that path, God will, as the psalm says, pardon your iniquities, heal all your ills, and redeem your life from destruction to crown you with kindness and compassion.
The first and second readings also remind us to remember our own mortality: Memento mori. To take the long view on life with an eye toward its ultimate end, and to live in this world so as to have everlasting life in the next. To recognize the eventual judgment of which Jesus speaks: “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.” Of the seven petitions we present to God in the Our Father, only one comes with a condition attached to it: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Happily, I think that there are many of us who can honestly say that we are free from anger-nourishing, wrath-cherishing, and all-around grudge-holding. When we’re wronged, we manage to forgive. Maybe not right away, but we get there. While that is certainly a good thing, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of other ways in which we can fall short, other ways in which we can sin.
I’m a forgiving kind of person, and I’m grateful that the nature God gave me and the nurture my upbringing provided me has given me that kind of temperament. But I am also keenly aware that I fail God and the people in my life in other ways through my sins of omission and commission. And the greater my awareness and acknowledgment of those sins, the greater my awareness and acknowledgment of my need for mercy and forgiveness. Cue the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
A priest I know told me years ago that he had heard over 25,000 confessions since his ordination almost four decades prior. That seemed at the time like a crazy number, but it actually works out to a dozen confessions a week over the course of 40 years — quite do-able for a parish priest. This is one priest in one parish in one diocese in one country in one generation. Can you even imagine how many times Jesus has forgiven the sins of his people — individual human beings, one at a time — through the ministry of his priests over the twenty-plus centuries since he established the sacrament that first Easter night? “Were I to count them, they would outnumber the sands” seems like an understatement! Contemplating just this one thought can give us a window through which we can glimpse the infinite vastness of God’s mercy.
Walking the pilgrim path of the Christian life can undoubtedly be difficult at times. If we can cast aside the burdens of anger and wrath and unforgiveness, our load is significantly reduced, and the walking is way easier. But we’re still going to stumble, we’re still going to grow weak at times. The God who invited us on this pilgrimage knows that, and he supplies us with his compassion and healing in the Sacrament of Reconciliation when we stumble, and feeds us with his Body and Blood in the Eucharist so we have the strength to continue.
May we always recognize our need for mercy, and know at the very same time that God’s mercy flows in an infinite stream for those who seek it. And may that sure knowledge manifest itself in each of us through lives dedicated to bringing the mercy, compassion, and forgiveness we have received from our Lord to all we encounter.
Image: Joni – stock.adobe.com
Deacon Steve O’Neill was ordained for service to the Archdiocese of Washington in June 2013 and serves at St. Andrew Apostle in suburban Maryland. After four years in the Marine Corps and three years at the University of Maryland (where met Traci, now his wife of 30+ years, and earned a degree in English), he has worked as an analyst with the Federal government. Deacon Steve and Traci have two sons and two daughters and three grandchildren.