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Sunday 24, Year A: The debt of mercy

Ten thousand talents are equivalent to what an ordinary labourer would have earned after working for 200,000 years! A hundred denarii would be the equivalent of four months’ wages. The wicked servant could never have paid back his master. He would probably have struggled to pay back the 100 denarii he was demanding from his fellow servant, especially given that he had a wife and children – or did he even care about them?

The point Jesus is making is clear. We can never repay the debt of our sins to God. We can only ask for mercy. But our pleas for forgiveness are empty if we cannot let go of the hurt done to us by others. The wicked servant was obviously spendthrift. Maybe he was a gambler or lived the high life at his master’s expense. Probably the money he had loaned to the other servant was not even his own, but his master’s. So, once his debt had been cancelled, he should not even have been looking for money back from his fellow. The fact that he was, shows that his lust for money was still very much alive despite almost being sold into slavery. He had learned nothing from his mistakes. Worse, he had learned nothing from his master’s generous forgiveness, either for himself or for his fellow. He asked for mercy and got it, but he wasted the mercy as extravagantly as he had wasted the ten thousand talents. It was water off a duck’s back. The mercy did not enter his heart or cleanse his conscience because money had hardened his heart and blinded his conscience.

In fact, the wicked servant had become so blind that he could not see that he was now in the position to be as generous as his master. Indeed, as the master will later say to him, he was bound to show mercy as it had been shown to him. Instead, he oozes what the first reading calls those “foul things”, vengeance and resentment. He is violent and angry towards his brother. Fortunately, the community grasps the injustice of it and the matter is resolved. Unfortunately for the wicked servant, the sentence he gets the second-time round is worse than the first. Before forgiving his debt, the master had ordered that he be sold into slavery. But when he is denounced for being unjust to his fellow, the master orders him to be tortured until he pays his debt. If he was to be tortured to make up for one denarius a day, then he would be tortured for those 200,000 years!

This parable teaches us about the generosity of divine mercy. It also teaches us that divine mercy is just, it’s not a walkover. Mercy is given to us not only for our own peace and freedom from sin and death. It is also given to us as a mission, a duty. We are bound to forgive because we have been forgiven. If we have truly accepted mercy, then we will want to show mercy. In fact, if we don’t show mercy then the mercy shown to us will be revoked, as it was in the parable.

The parable makes clear that mercy is not magic. It will not cleanse our spirits unless we freely cooperate with it. Mercy first requires contrition of heart, a realisation and recognition that we have done wrong, that we are indebted to the Lord. The wicked servant seemed to be contrite. He threw himself at his master’s feet and pleaded earnestly, moving the master to feel sorry for him. But it was a fake contrition, for had it been real he would not then five minutes later be found throttling his fellow for a much lesser offence than the one for which he had been forgiven. In other words, he was not really sorry and so he did not really want or take in the master’s mercy. He only wanted a free slate to go on behaving as before. It is even possible that, emboldened by his master’s mercy, he behaves even worse than before, because he thinks he has his master “in the bag.”

Nor is mercy automatic. Had the wicked servant not asked for mercy, he would not have been given it. Mercy cannot be presumed. The goodness of God, the Cross of Christ, the grace of mercy, are not on tap. Mercy is not cheap, but very costly – look at the Cross! It must be asked for sincerely, with awareness and commitment, with a sense of wonder and humility of heart. To ask for mercy is to ask to become merciful yourself. It is to enter into the divine logic of mercy, to want to think and reason, act and love as Christ himself does. We do not take a drink from the well of mercy and walk away, perhaps a little smug that we are fine now. Instead, when we go to the well, it’s as if we are drawn down into the ocean of mercy from which it flows. We become immersed if not “immercified” in the heart of Christ.

I think that most of us have probably been hurt more or less badly at some point in our lives. Any hurt must be recognised if it is to be healed. Sometimes it may be too painful even to think about, and so it is buried away. And yet, the more it is buried the more it will fester and cause damage, even unconsciously. Perhaps an exceptionally strong person can muster by him or herself the ability to forgive the offender who has caused such pain. But most of us can’t. And so, for many, the sad reality is that we are in some very real sense imprisoned by our pain, bleeding inside with a wound that won’t heal. As life passes, and we have less strength and less to do, these hurts can come back to haunt us all the more. We develop coping mechanisms to help us forget, yet so often those very mechanisms cause even more damage. So, we get stuck and succumb to resignation.

What can we do? We need Christ. We need a deep and honest, no bars held, unburdening of our hearts and consciences before our divine Lover. We need to let his loving mercy snap the chains of fear which hamper us from admitting our sin, our resentment, our anger, our hatred. We need to trust his power flowing into us through the sacrament of confession. From being bent over and weighed down, if not crushed, by our pain and sin, we need to let him lift the burden of the ten thousand talents away, for ever, and raise us up straight, with renewed freedom in our hearts, with integrity of conscience restored and with redeemed joy on our faces. Only in the strength we receive from him will we be able at all to see that the hurt inflicted on us by another is only a hundred denarii, if that. Only with the wisdom born of being forgiven will we be able to look our offender in the eye and say, I forgive you – and say also, I am sorry that I have not forgiven you until now. It is the Lord who has now made it possible.

This parable is worthy of much deeper reflection. It is very rich. But you could say that it is really a commentary by Jesus himself on these words of the Our Father: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The purpose of Christ’s mission was that we would take to heart the mercy of the Father which his death and resurrection made possible. The purpose of mercy is to unite and reunite the scattered children of God, scattered not so much geographically but spiritually; scattered and divided by sin and by all the fake self-righteousness which prevents us from finding, forgiving and loving one another again. Let’s not confuse the few denarii we are owed with the ten thousand talents we owe the Lord. Unburden yourself onto the Lord and so lift the burdens you have placed on others.