By Fr. Jack Treloar, SJ | For The Compass
September 9, 2020
It is always shocking to read or hear the parable of the unjust servant. The lack of gratitude on the servant’s part toward the generosity of the master is appalling. The stern manner he uses toward one of his fellow servants amazes anyone with even a small sense of justice. Then, there are the terrible punishments of both the unjust servant and his fellow servant. On the surface this is a world of strict retribution. It is difficult to find any good news in this story.
However, if we go back to the introduction of the parable, we can find motivation for why Jesus told the story. Peter asked Jesus whether he should forgive his brother, who has given offense, seven times. Jesus responds with an answer that defies comprehension, “I say to you not seven times but seventy-seven times.” We could ask, “Well, what about time 78?” That misses the point; Jesus really means that we should always be open to forgiving one who offends us no matter how many times the offense has occurred.
There is something in this exchange between Peter and Jesus that easily can be missed. Embedded in Jesus’s response is an invitation for us to act as God acts. God continually forgives our faults and sins; no matter how many times we have offended or sinned. If we are willing to forgive as God forgives then we have accepted the invitation to act as God acts.
Forgiveness of offenses is one of the most difficult aspects of our Christian life. We hear people say, “I forgive that person, but I will never forget what he/she has done to me.” If we cannot forget, then we have not forgiven. When the master forgives the debt of the servant he not only accepts the promise of repayment he also absolves the debt itself. When God forgives our sins he also forgets that we have sinned. Our invitation to act as God acts is an encouragement to actually be like God.
There is no place for retribution in the life of a Christian who wants to be like God. It is for this reason that the servant’s treatment of his fellow servant is so offensive. The unjust servant accepts the mercy of the master but fails to bestow mercy on his equal. Embedded in the Lord’s Prayer we ask to be forgiven as we forgive those who offend us. As the Lord forgives we too must forgive to fully live out our Christian life.
The reading from Romans puts this matter in a slightly different way. Paul says, “if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” When Peter asks how many times he should forgive, Jesus responds by showing him how to be like God. Forgive and show mercy without end for this is God’s manner with respect to us.