March 10, 2015
by Jay Carney
Creighton University's Department of Theology

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Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent
Lectionary: 238

Daniel 3:25, 34-43;
Psalm 25:4-5AB, 6, 7BC, 8-9;
Matthew 18:21-35

Praying Lent

As I reflected on today's readings, I kept thinking of the title of a book by one of my former teachers: Bishop Peter Storey's With God in the Crucible. Bishop Storey was one of the key Methodist leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1980s, and he titled his memoir to reflect his deep sense of "faith under fire" during those tumultuous years. The resonance with Azariah's powerful appeal to God in the "midst of the fire" is evident. And yet the gospel reading also reflects a high-pressure, high-stakes context.

First we have Jesus "upping the ante" in the practice of forgiveness. After all, Peter's appeal seems reasonable – forgiving someone SEVEN times would generally count as a good faith effort. And yet Jesus goes further, expanding Peter's somewhat calculated response beyond any rational calculation. More importantly, Rabbi Jesus knows full well that his call to forgive "seventy-seven times" directly counters Lamech's limitless revenge of Genesis 4:23 – "if Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times." The curse of sin in Genesis had been marked by the murder of Abel, the vengeance of Lamech, and ultimately the Flood. Now Jesus calls his followers to embody a community of forgiveness that will help to "reverse the curse."

The parable in turn reflects the "high pressure stakes" at work in the politics of forgiveness.  The debtor stands on the edge of a Job-like precipice – losing his family, his property, and his freedom. The size of his debt – ten thousand talents or the annual wages of 600,000 day-laborers – borders on the absurd (like forgiving 77 times!). Like Azariah, the debtor falls into worship mode, pleading for deliverance. And in a miracle akin to walking out of a fiery furnace, the master has a change of heart. The servant is set free…without conditions, without cost.

But wait. This is not the "parable of the grateful servant." This is the parable of the "unforgiving servant." In a stark reminder that the kingdom of heaven is embodied in our relationships in the here and now, the parable takes a dark turn. The unforgiving servant turns into a tyrant, unable to become a channel of the grace he freely received. Not surprisingly, the issue again revolves around money and debt. Cycles of injustice are hard to break. 

Last summer I had the privilege of interviewing several dozen Catholic leaders who have lived through a recent crucible of fire – the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In my conversations with these reconciliation leaders, three themes emerged over and over: 1) to be a Christian is to forgive, 2) forgiveness in the face of genocide is not possible without God's grace, and 3) forgiveness must ultimately be a free human act. Likewise, today's gospel reading reminds us that while all things are possible with God, the decision to bind and loose our brothers and sisters rests in our hands. 

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