I think I have mentioned the desert fathers before – those early Christians who from around the 300s took to the desert and were the beginnings of monasticism – and that they thought that one of the greatest gifts God gives is knowledge of one’s sins. This perhaps for two reasons. First, it means that God thinks that I can improve. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, God thinks that I can handle the bad news. And the only way I can handle the bad news about the bad things I have done is if I am first in possession of the good news, if I first have faith in God’s love and mercy. This has been the lesson throughout the ages: we have to begin with God’s love and mercy otherwise we despair. Despair of the evil in the world, and, more dangerously despair, of the evil we find in ourselves.
Often this gift of the knowledge of our sins comes from God gradually. Often it comes after we know we are forgiven, when God has put us in a safe place through the sacrament of reconciliation. I have often only realised the enormity of what I have done when I have sought forgiveness for a lesser offence. This seems to happen a lot with sins against those people I am closest to. The wound goes deeper than I ever realised, or the consequences reach farther than I could see beforehand. In fact, I think often God does it this way precisely as an immunisation against despair.
(I have read in a number of places that this is not a bad lesson in one’s own life. Only criticise someone else to the extent that I am prepared to walk with them on their road to recovery. If I am not prepared to be there for them, don’t say anything.)
I wonder whether there is not something like this in today’s Gospel parable. I wonder this because of a detail that might pass us by. The servant owes 10,000 talents. The experts tell us that for ordinary people it took about 16+ years to earn just one talent. Therefore the servant would have to work for 160,000 years to pay the king back. Plainly impossible. When we realise this, I think it changes how we hear the servant speaking to the king.
He says, “Give me time, and I will pay it back.” Best case scenario is that he is desperate and just saying whatever pops into his head. But even so, he is treating the king like an idiot. He can never pay it back no matter how much time he has. He is either being dishonest with the king or he is completely unaware of his circumstances. In any case, there is absolutely no humility. And this I think affects what happens next.
When the king pardons his debt, I think the servant is not grateful at all. Instead, I think he just feels relief. He thinks about himself rather than the king. Perhaps the servant thinks he got away with it. Perhaps he congratulates himself on his new found wealth. Perhaps he is still just sweating and shaking at what almost happened. Whatever it is, I think he still doesn’t realise what the king has done. He seems only to be aware about what he has received. Such an attitude goes some way to explaining what happens next, both how the servant treats his fellow servant and, more importantly, how the king then deals with the first servant.
The first servant’s lack of humility and lack of thanksgiving are shown in his treatment of the fellow servant. Where the first servant owed an astronomical sum and was forgiven immediately, the fellow servant only owes three months wages but is throttled by the first servant. Where the king was irrationally generous, the first servant is irrationally mean, let alone merciful. The language is quite interesting on this point. Where the first servant asks the king for time and space (the Greek literally means “Be patient” or “Be long suffering”), the first servant chokes his fellow servant, taking his life, his time and space, from him. This I think explains the king’s subsequent reaction.
One of the central themes of the Bible is that God’s Word is creative. It does what it says and says what it does. It gives love that love might be given. It shows mercy that mercy might be shown. As Jesus tells us, his family is made of those who hear the word of God and keep it. Those who do not keep it, have not received it.
Therefore, the servant who is not merciful shows that he has not received the king’s mercy. By failing to realise the enormity of the gift and more importantly, by failing to realise who the giver is, the servant is locked up in his own ego. He sees life as something to be taken not received. He therefore is unable to realise the divine source of his life nor the humanity of the fellow servant. This is hell: a life without humility, without thanksgiving, without relationship.
In fact, you see this sometimes in films when an evil person cannot handle mercy shown them. They actually choke on it. Mercy shown to an unmerciful person is felt as torture. That is: unless the mercy becomes a new beginning.
A few weeks ago, we had the gospel where Jesus asked, how could anyone pay the price for his or her own soul? Do we think about that enough? Not only in terms of our creation, but in terms of our redemption. How God continues to sustain us notwithstanding our sins? And more than that, in fact lavishes us with gifts even in our sinfulness. Hans Urs von Balthasar, I think in his book on prayer, talks about just this experience: of being aware of one’s sins and then receiving a moment of unlooked-for joy. Perhaps the joke of a friend, the smile of a niece, or an evening sky ablaze at sunset. God’s generosity and mercy are unsurpassed. Of course, shown perfectly on the Cross, when he gives his only Son into the hands of a sinful world.
And so, as the Mass teaches us, let us give thanks for God’s glory and let us participate in that glory, by extending God’s mercy to at least one person in our lives this week, remembering that that one act of mercy is a doorway to the infinity of God.