• 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time A

    Posted on September 13, 2017 by in Reflections on Sunday Gospels


    INTRODUCTION:  We continue to hear this Sunday from Jesus’ discourse on 

    life in the community of his followers.  Last Sunday we heard about the

    process of fraternal correction for a person not willing to stop sinning

    and not willing to leave the community.  This Sunday we hear how to deal

    with the person who sins often.



        In the Gospel of Luke chapter 17:3,4 we find these words: “Be on

    your guard!  If your brother sins, rebuke him;  and if he repents,

    forgive him.  And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to

    you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.” We notice in

    today’s Gospel how Matthew has refashioned these ideas.  l) He makes the

    saying a direct response to Peter’s question: “Lord, how often shall my

    brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?”

    (Matt. l8:2l).  2) He changes the numbers from the offense and the

    repentance to the forgiveness .(Luke l7:4, “If he sins against you seven times in the day,

    and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him”

    3) He magnifies the forgiveness:  “Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you

    seven times, but seventy times seven'” (Matt. l8:22).  Also as we shall see,

    the parable itself does not really answer the question of Peter “How often?” but

    deals with the precondition (i.e. the quality) of forgiveness rather

    than with the number of times (quantity) it must be extended._




        The parable of the Unmerciful or Unforgiving servant can easily be

    seen as a little drama in three acts:


        Act I. The King and the Servant with the Immense Debt. _

               Scene 1: narrative vs. 23-25 _

               Scene 2: dialogue vs. 26 _

               Scene 3: action vs. 27


        Act II. The forgiven Servant and the fellow Servant with Debt_
               Scene 1: narrative vs. 28a. _
               Scene 2: dialogue: vs. 28b-29 _
               Scene 3: action vs. 30
        Act III. Fellow Servants, King, First Servant and Second Servant_
               Scene 1: narrative vs. 3l-32a _
               Scene 2: dialogue vs. 32b-33 _
               Scene 3: action vs. 34 _
        MATTHEAN EPILOGUE, vs. 35_

        The power of the parable emerges from progressive engagement with

    the characters.  When the parable begins, our sympathies are with the

    first servant.  The desire of the king “to settle accounts”_ (cf. Matt. 25:l9)

    strikes an ominous note, as

    does the description of the servant s being “brought” before

    the king.  The reason for this threatening situation is held in suspense

    until the final words of v. 24, “who owed him ten thousand talents.”

    Since the annual income of Herod the Great

    was about nine hundred talents and since the taxes for Galilee and Perea

    were two hundred talents a year, such a debt would evoke an unbelieving

    gasp.  The inability to pay is not surprising, and the king’s order of

    slavery for the debtor with his family suggests that he is a tyrannical

    gentile despot, since by Jewish law only a debtor, and not the family,

    could be enslaved for unpaid debts.  At this point the sympathy of the

    hearers would be toward this servant, since an unpayable debt to a

    heartless master is pitiable. 

        In v. 26 the narrative shifts to dialogue and the sevant makes his

    plea:  “Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 

    The shock in the first part of the parable comes in the first words

    of v. 27.  The king, who was

    depicted as heartless, is rather a person who takes pity (lit. “has

    compassion on him”)and forgives the debt.  A reader does

    not expect one who was ready to enslave a whole family to be so moved. 

    The surprising turn of events continues when the king does not heed the

    servant’s request for time to pay but forgives the whole debt. The

    parable could have ended at this point and it would have been a good

    illustration of Matt. 7:7, “Ask, and it will be given you.”


        The parable, however moves forward to the second act., where the

    major thrust is found.  In contrast to his passive earlier state when he

    was dragged before the king, the first servant now “goes out” and

    chances upon a fellow servant who owes him a hundred denarii.  Since one

    denarius is the equivalent of a day’s wage the debt is not

    inconsequential.  Since a talent is the equivalent of fifteen years of

    daily wages, the contrast between the debts of the first servant and the

    second servant is immense.  This second servant now becomes a mirror

    image of the first.  He too falls on his knees and makes a petition in

    the very same words as the first servant.  “Have patience with me, and I

    will pay you.”  The difference is that the terms of his request could be

    met, since in time the debt could be repaid. At this point the story

    could conclude with the first servant remitting the debt or even

    granting the request, and the parable would be a good illustration of

    the “golden rule” Matt. 7:12  The opposite occurs, and with a brutality

    even greater than he experienced–he seized him by the throat–the first

    servant demands payment. The contrast is heightened by the fact that the

    words of the pleas of the two servants are almost exactly alike.  But

    how great the contrast between the different reactions to the pleas. At

    this point the sympathy of the readers or hearers of the parable shifts. 

    The first person with whom we rejoiced earlier now becomes repulsive. 

    Like the fellow servants of vs. 31 we are shocked at the injustice

    (they are greatly distressed.) 

        The third act begins with the actions of these servants.  They do as

    we would like to do and go to the king in the hope of redressing the

    situation.  The king summons the first servant, calls him wicked, and

    tells him what exactly happened in the first act.  He was forgiven

    simply because the king had mercy on him and he should have expressed

    this mercy to his fellow servant.  In v. 34 there is a tragic irony for

    the first servant in that now he will have what he originally requested,

    time to pay his debt, only the time will be spent in prison.




        But why did the first servant act as he did?  The first servant asks

    for time to pay an unpayable debt.  Instead of asking for mercy he

    thinks that the way out of this tragic situation is to restore the order

    of justice, of debts to be paid and obligations met.  The surprise in

    this part is that the king acts out of mercy, not justice.  The servant’s

    request is in the order of justice; the king operates in the order of

    mercy out of compassion.

        The second act plays out the servant’s faulty understanding.  When

    he goes out and hears the request of the second servant, he hears an

    echo of his own disposition.  He enters again the familiar world of

    strict justice.  The forgiveness and mercy that he received were

    something that simply happened to him, not something that changed his

    way of viewing the world.  His self understanding remains unaltered by

    the gift he received.  The master says in effect: Even given your

    predisposition to view the world through the eyes of strict justice, you

    should have seen that the mercy which was “right” in your case was also

    owed to your fellow servant. People are not necessarily changed by

    experiences of forgiveness.  At the same time, the story makes it clear

    that failure to change is not “all right.” This is a warning that unless

    the gospel transforms the innermost dispositions of its hearers, they

    will act in much the same fashion as the first servant.  In this parable

    we have spelled out in a story form the challenge of Jesus in Matt. 4:17 

    Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

      Behind the image of the king stands the God of Jesus who

    summons people to be forgiving because they have experienced


        Jesus is clearly teaching something quite different than people’s

    common understanding.  This teaching is challenging to the listeners of Matthew’s 

    Gospel and to us.

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