Which Jesus should I follow? Yes, you read it correctly, “Which Jesus?” Last week’s Jesus or this week’s Jesus?
Last week’s Jesus offered us a rather structured court-like process for dealing with community members (our brothers and sisters) who sin against us. The community is mandated by Jesus to counsel the offender, make sure the offender is aware of their sin, and give the offender a chance to repent before exacting any punishment. Rather than allowing the community to inflict a vengeful kind of rough justice on offenders, Jesus places a heavy burden on the community, trusting us to act in his name, either forgiving or shunning the offender.
In seemingly stark contrast, this week’s Jesus places forgiveness at its source: in the hands of God, who is the fount of all love, mercy and forgiveness. The community’s burden here is to pass on to others this gift of forgiveness, which we have certainly received.
Last week’s Jesus entrusts to us the authority to hand out forgiveness at our discretion. This week’s Jesus cautions us to remember the One to whom forgiveness — the forgiveness which we receive in everyday moments and in the sacraments — really belongs. The God of infinite love grants it to us, but not for keeps. Like all God’s gifts, mercy and forgiveness are given to us to be spread throughout our world. Therefore we are to forgive “seventy-seven times.”
Now we all know that there are not two Jesuses, but only one, whose depths are revealed in passages like these in Matthew 18. Poor Peter had already heard Jesus’ mandate to enter into a careful process of discernment when dealing with the offences of others. But, typically, Peter had to take it one step further and ask how many times he must forgive. So Jesus comes at it from a different, deeper perspective.
I must confess this: I sympathize with Peter. In fact, I identify with him. I suspect that, deep down, I probably prefer that the people who sin against me be treated in the manner of last week’s gospel. “Repent or be gone.” Swift justice, swift closure. But when I am the sinner, I want to be treated in the manner of this week’s gospel — forgiven over and over again. And I also hope to get away with forgetting that business of passing it on. I am uncomfortably like the slave in this week’s gospel.
What a puzzle we human beings are! That slave’s debt was enormous. (I’d rather use his story than one of my own as an illustration.) The king was entitled to balance his books by selling the slave, his few possessions and even his wife and children — possibly to different owners. But the slave asked for patience on the part of the king and was granted mercy in abundance. The king erased the slave’s entire debt. This was much more than the slave had hoped or asked for. His money problems were gone in an instant.
You’d think this slave would be overflowing with “the milk of human kindness.” But no! He had his debt-ridden neighbour thrown into debtors’ prison. Truly, this slave’s behaviour does not make sense. Sin seldom makes sense. That’s why Dr. Phil became famous asking, “What were you thinking?!” When we take time to reflect on our own bad acts, we often realize that we should have known better; we do know better. This is part of the mystery of sin.
But this king’s behaviour doesn’t make sense either. Who in their right mind would simply erase such a large debt? Who could be so gracious? Who but God, the true king! God’s grace is also a mystery. However, this king has great expectations of his graced people. They too must forgive in abundance.
As we leave the liturgy this week, we are sent forth in the peace of Christ, carrying within us God’s mercy and forgiveness, which are meant to be passed on to those we meet in coming days. Let’s try our best to leave the hurts, resentments and grudges behind. They are simply festering within us and are doing more harm to ourselves than to the one who has sinned against us. They certainly do not grow the kingdom of God.
Bick is a happily retired elementary school teacher who lives in Toronto. She is a liturgist with a master’s degree in liturgy from the University of Notre Dame and is a human rights advocate working for prisoners who have experienced prolonged solitary confinement.