FROM THE HEART – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year A; Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (RC)

September 13, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Exodus 14:19-31 or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 or Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 114 or Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Lectionary for Mass (RC)

Sirach 27:10 – 28:7
Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12 (8)
Romans 14:7-9
Matthew 18:21-35

It can be exhausting to endure offensive behavior from the same person over the over again. How long do we have to put up with that? In today’s Gospel story, Peter speaks from what he considers a position of compassion when posing this question to Jesus. Relying on the significance of the number seven, which suggests perfection, Peter asks: Should I forgive seven times? We can almost see the smug expression on his face as he displays his generosity of spirit.

Sorry, says Jesus, not good enough. You must forgive even beyond perfection, seventy-seven times. And then Jesus seizes the opportunity to offer a parable and in doing so to raise the question that Peter did not ask: Why forgive?

The story that Jesus tells makes its point by its extensive use of hyperbole. The servant owes his master an astronomical sum of money—far more than one could earn in a lifetime. The master’s judgment is overly severe, since selling people to satisfy a debt was forbidden in Jewish law and rarely enforced in Roman law. The master’s turnabout is nothing short of shocking. Just one plea from the servant moves him from the most punitive position to the most generous—a complete and unconditional forgiveness of the entire debt.

Hyperbole continues as the story unfolds. The second servant’s debt is miniscule—nearly negligible—but the first servant’s reaction is completely out of proportion. He grabs him, chokes him, and sends him off to prison despite the plea for additional time to repay. After the intervention of other servants who witnessed this awful treatment, the master revokes his forgiveness of the first servant’s debt and reimposes the original and very severe penalty.

Despite its dark ending, this is a story of generosity and forgiveness. God, who surely has both power and cause to exact a price for human sin, is rich in mercy, offering forgiveness fully and unconditionally, no matter how large or serious the debt. As we hear this story, each of us can see ourselves as that first servant—beneficiaries of undeserved mercy who struggle to show the same compassion to others when we are wounded.

Why forgive? Because God has forgiven us and has now given us the mission to extend that same gift to others. Seven times is not enough, says Jesus, because we are to be like God, whose generous, full, and unconditional forgiveness far exceeds any reasonable expectation.

Like the servant who was forgiven a huge sum, we may resist the imperative to pay it forward. Jesus is not suggesting, of course, that we should subject ourselves to abusive treatment, but he is making a clear connection between God’s mercy and the mercy that we are to show others even when the offense is personal and hurtful. After the 2015 murders at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, several relatives spoke words of forgiveness at the bond hearing yet acknowledged their anger and profound pain. To forgive is not to deny wrongdoing, but rather to proclaim that love is always stronger than evil.

Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, during his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (6:12). As we sing or recite the Lord’s Prayer, we are committing ourselves both personally and communally to living out this teaching of Jesus, that we must extend to others the forgiveness we have received in abundance.

The question is not how many times to forgive—seven or seventy-seven—but how to forgive others as God does, from the heart (18:35).

A Hymn for Today: “Praise, My Soul, the God of Heaven”

The Lectionary psalm for this Sunday is a jubilant song of praise to the God whose mercy is boundless. Francis Lyte’s nineteenth century hymn based on Psalm 103 was adapted in 1974 by members of the Women’s Ecumenical Center (among whose leaders was Ruth Duck, FHS). While clearing away some of the patriarchal images of Lyte’s original text, this version preserves the beautiful poetic expressions that flow from the psalm. We sing God’s praise because we have been “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.” We rejoice that “God is still the same forever, slow to chide and swift to bless.”

Praise, my soul, the God of heaven;
glad of heart your carols raise;
ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven
who, like me, should sing God’s praise?
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Praise the Maker all your days!

Praise God for the grace and favour
shown our forebears in distress;
God is still the same forever,
slow to chide, and swift to bless:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Sing our Maker’s faithfulness!

Like a loving parent caring,
God knows well our feeble frame;
gladly all our burdens bearing,
still to countless years the same.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
All within me, praise God’s name!

Frail as summer’s flower we flourish,
blows the wind and it is gone;
but, while mortals rise and perish,
God endures unchanging on.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Praise the high eternal one.

Angels, teach us adoration,
you behold God face to face;
sun and moon and all creation,
dwellers all in time and space.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Praise with us the God of grace!

Text: Henry Francis Lyte, 1834, adapt. Ecumenical Women’s Center, 1974.

Image Credit: JESUS MAFA, The Unforgiving Servant

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.