by Father Mike Stubbs
Until the mid- 19th century, those unable to pay their debts often ended up in debtors’ prison.
They would stay until they either paid off their debts by working there, or by friends or relatives stepping forward to pay the debt.
For example, at the age of 12, Charles Dickens went to work in a factory, because his father was being held in debtors’ prison. Later on, when Dickens became a famous novelist, debtors’ prisons figured in several of his books: “Little Dorrit,” “David Copperfield” and “The Pickwick Papers.”
Even though debtors’ prisons as such no longer exist in our day and age, sometimes people are put in jail for contempt of court for not paying fines, back taxes or child support. This practice looks suspiciously like the modern equivalent of debtors’ prison.
In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 18:21-35, Jesus tells the parable of a compassionate master who forgives the debt of a servant owing a huge amount of money.
Faced with the prospect of debtors’ prison, the servant has pleaded with the master for additional time to pay the debt: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.”
It is significant that the servant does not ask for cancellation of the debt, but only for additional time to pay it back.
But he gets more than what he asked for. The master forgives the entire debt: “Moved with compassion, the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.”
Jesus tells the parable in answer to Peter’s question: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?”
The compassion that the master shows the servant reflects the compassion that God has for us.
At the same time, the parable calls us to show that same compassion toward those who offend us. We are to forgive them, as God has forgiven us. That need to forgive echoes the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
In the parable, the compassion of the master surpasses the request of the servant. He receives full cancellation of the debt, and not merely additional time to repay it.
Similarly, God’s mercy far surpasses our expectations. God earnestly desires to forgive us, more than we wish to be forgiven. That is why our need to forgive others is similarly unlimited.
In the metaphorical language of Jesus, we are to forgive, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
But who’s counting?