When the king began to settle, there was brought before him a man who owed ten thousand talents. Since he did not have he money to pay him back, the master ordered that he and the wife and children and all that he had be sold and he be paid back. The servant fell down, paid him homage, and said: “Be patient with me and I will pay everything back to you.” The master had pity on that servant and released him and forgave him the loan.
Matthew 18: 24-27
But may the contrite soul, the humbled spirit
be as acceptable to you
as holocausts of rams and bullocks,
as thousands of fattened lambs;
such let our sacrifice be to you today,
and may it be your will that we follow you wholeheartedly,
since those who put their trust in you will not be disappointed.
And now we put our whole heart into following you,
into fearing you and seeking your face once more.
Daniel 3: 39-41
Jesus instructs his disciples on the call and context of forgiveness with the familiar parable of the “unforgiving debtor”. To truly appreciate the teaching, however, it is important to understand the amount of the debt that the master forgives. “Ten thousand talents” is, to quote scripture scholar Daniel Harrington, SJ, “an astronomical sum (like a billion dollars for us).” The amount that the debtor, in turn, refuses to forgive is one that could easily be repaid in time. We have here, in another form, the equivalent of the beam in one’s own eye as opposed to the speck in one’s neighbors.
In the prayer of Azariah from Daniel we hear the expression of a truly humble and contrite heart – one that from its place of desperation realizes the call to wholeheartedness in the following of the Lord. Azariah recognizes that the people have been brought to this state of peril and exile because of the half-heartedness of their following, fearing and seeking the Lord.
Lent is a time not for perfecting ourselves but for honesty. Do we recognize who we are and what our life has become in relationship to God? Are we aware of the size of the debt that we owe? Everything we have and are is a gift. How grateful and generous has our response been to that gift? In Psalm 116 we pray: “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?” Jesus suggests that we make that return in the mercy we show to others. He further shows us that it is only living in gratitude that can source such mercy. When we live in the awareness of how much we have been given and forgiven, we can only think and act with mercy and forgiveness toward others. In truth, their slights of and harms to us are but a trifle compared with the gap between what God has given us and what we have lived out in return.
Yesterday on public radio there was a report of a recent study which showed that the greatest source of human violence was an extreme sense of superiority and entitlement. Quite unsurprisingly, the researcher suggested that in raising our children we want to communicate their value and giftedness to them, but not falsely teach them that they are more valuable or gifted than others. Every year each of the great spiritual traditions affords a time for its adherents to focus on the ways that we have become dishonest with ourselves. For us, Lent is the time when we are to attend to and suffer our own sinfulness: the abyss between what we have been given and what we have lived out. What St. Catherine of Siena calls “the cell of self-knowledge” is the place from which we fully experience not only our own lacks but the generosity and love of God. “If God has so loved us, so we ought to love one another,” (1 John 4:11) The “life to the full” that Jesus promises is one continuously lived in the reality of the mercy and forgiveness of God. It is this mercy that we receive that is the gift we are to give to each other.
from this moment forward
I will seek to humble myself completely
and search for you more diligently.
For You, Lord Jesus, treat me
with far greater mercy than I deserve,
indeed far above what I dare
to ask or even hope for.
Blessed are You, O Lord, in all Your works,
for even though I am unworthy of any good from You
You continually offer me Your kindness and Your mercy,
which You extend even to those who are ungrateful
or who have turned away from You.
Dear Lord, please restore me to Your merciful love
so that I may become grateful,
humble, and devoted to You.
For You are my help, my salvation,
and the strength of my body and soul.
Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ, III, 8: 2-3