24th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Reflection: It’s time to cherish gratitude
By SISTER MARY McGLONE
Years ago, one of our wise sisters told me, “Be careful about over-tending your wounds. Some people go through life pressing a bruise so that neither they nor (they hope) the world will ever forget it.”
It was quite an image. I could just see myself focusing on a purple mark on my arm, remembering exactly who had bumped up against me and my schemes and thrown my perfect plans out of whack.
Sister Margaret’s advice was a gentler version of Sirach’s opening observation: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner holds them tight.”
What motivates us to cherish wrath? Sirach doesn’t say, but he suggests that a remedy is to “remember our last days and set enmity aside.”
Where Sirach the sage gives us clear maxims, Jesus tells a story to confound us from multiple angles.
When Jesus talks about a king and two servants, the story sounds pretty straightforward. One person forgave, another didn’t, so the stingy guy loses in the end. Most third-graders will get the message. But what if we dig deeper?
First of all, we have the king. He, of course, is omnipotent. He can buy and sell people and things at will. He calls one of his slaves (that’s the literal translation) to “settle accounts.”
Now the slave is in big trouble; he owes the king something on the order of 6,000 to 10,000 days’ worth of wages — that’s about 20 years of work. Nobody but another king could come through with that amount.
When the slave begs, the king spares him and his family from being banished into obscurity.
What did the king accomplish? He demonstrated and acted with the full extent of his power and authority. The power to erase a debt is even greater than being able to collect on it. As we know from the reaction of the servants, the public saw what he did.
What did the slave perceive? We might say that he pleaded with the king and got what he asked for. Did he think he had pulled one over on the king? Did he feel ashamed that he had to stoop to begging? Did he feel like he had gotten let off? Did he think the king was stupid?
All those attitudes are possible at the same time. Even if the slave had conned the king, the entire situation made the vast difference in their power immensely, painfully, obvious. As slave, whether debtor or released, he would always see himself as beholden to the king — as would others.
In the next act, the tables turn; the absolved debtor has the upper hand over someone who owes him. And what does he do? Having learned nothing about real power, he exposes the puniness of his mind and heart by sending his fellow debtor to prison until the debt is paid — a highly unlikely outcome.
When others see how things progressed, the original debtor ends up in torture that he brought upon himself.
When we go beneath the surface of the story, we see that even after being relieved of his debt, the first slave chose to live in a world of oppression and domination. Although the king’s forgiveness had created an alternative to strict economic justice or tit-for-tat relationships, the slave rejected that option.
Given the opportunity to increase the bounteousness in the world, he instead supported a caste system that offered him petty superiority. By reinforcing a strictly transactional system and the power of domination, he ultimately became his own torturer.
As Sirach warned, he held tight to terrible things: there would always be someone over him and that would always torment him.
What can we take from this in September 2023? In the middle of the Season of Creation (Sept. 1-Oct. 4), we might read this parable from the vantage point of being creatures given an undeserved bounty of life and possibility. None of us has done anything to deserve the life we have, it is a pure gift of God — to us and to every other part of creation.
What does this suggest about the relationships we create with the rest of God’s creation?
Sirach talked about cherishing wrath. That seems to be the direct route to self-inflicted torment. How about the alternative of cherishing gratitude?
Instead of pressing the bruise, we might marvel out our bodies’ remarkable powers of regeneration and healing. Before we call in any debts, we might take account of what we have been given, beginning with life itself, and then all the unmerited advantages of our time and place in history.
God’s creation is lavish. We can be, too.
Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor’s injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Could anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?
Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself,
can he seek pardon for his own sins?
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
who will forgive his sins?
Remember your last days, set enmity aside;
remember death and decay, and cease from sin!
Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor;
remember the Most High’s covenant and overlook faults.
Brothers and sisters:
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.
For 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.
For this is why Christ died and came to life,
that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
(Matthew 18: 21-35)
Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”