58. Ocean of Mercy (Matthew 18:21-35)

“O Christian, be aware of your nobility – it is God’s own nature that you share; do not then, by an ignoble life, fall back into your former baseness.” – Pope St. Leo the Great

Matthew 18:21-35: Then Peter went up to him and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.

‘And so the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants. When the reckoning began, they brought him a man who owed ten thousand talents; but he had no means of paying, so his master gave orders that he should be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, to meet the debt. At this, the servant threw himself down at his master’s feet. Give me time he said and I will pay the whole sum. And the servant’s master felt so sorry for him that he let him go and canceled the debt. Now as this servant went out, he happened to meet a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii; and he seized him by the throat and began to throttle him. Pay what you owe me he said. His fellow servant fell at his feet and implored him, saying, Give me time and I will pay you. But the other would not agree; on the contrary, he had him thrown into prison till he should pay the debt. His fellow servants were deeply distressed when they saw what had happened, and they went to their master and reported the whole affair to him. Then the master sent for him. You wicked servant, he said I canceled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you? And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt. And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.’

Christ the Lord This passage immediately follows Jesus’ instructions to his Twelve about being good shepherds. That instruction took place in a small gathering after a full day of ministry. One can imagine the disciples discussing it. Possibly, one of the many quarrels among them arose as their discussion turned upon how many times they should go after the same sheep if it keeps wandering away. Rabbinic teaching at the time placed the limit of forgiveness at three times – a fourth offense was not to be forgiven. Perhaps Peter was proposing a reform of this custom in light of Christ’s lesson, while some of the others were sticking to the traditional view, and so he brought it to the Lord to settle the question. That was the right thing to do. The buck stops with Jesus. He is the Lord; he is the final word God has spoken to us. In him we have the answers we need for every dilemma we face. Like Peter, we should bring our questions to the Lord in prayer; we should cast the light of the Church’s teachings on our moral and intellectual quandaries. And, also like Peter, we should accept Christ’s solution.

Christ the Teacher  In Christ, God offers us forgiveness of a debt we could never pay – the debt of sin. But when we refuse to forgive the little offenses others cause us, we handcuff God’s mercy and put ourselves under strict justice. Previously, Christ pointed out, “For as you judge, so will you be judged, for post on Matthew 18:21-35and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Matthew 7:2). This is the way God has found to unfurl his mercy without compromising his justice; he leaves each person free to choose between the two.

But this lesson is hard for us to learn. We tend to resent not only willful offenses, but also innocent mistakes. Whenever someone else causes us even a tiny inconvenience, we can easily lash out at the offender. This is especially the case close to home – we often have less patience with our siblings, parents, spouses, children, or roommates than we do with strangers and acquaintances.

In this parable, as in the Our Father, Jesus gives us the secret to forming a patient, forgiving heart. It consists in recognizing the immense evil of our own sin, and thereby perceiving the vastness of God’s goodness in forgiving it. Until we see the ugliness of the ingratitude and selfishness that characterize our relationship with God, we will never grasp how generous his forgiveness really is. When we do, however, our shriveled hearts expand, and our joyful patience knows no bounds.

Christ the Friend This brilliant parable rightly convicts us of our repulsive self-righteousness, but we should not therefore overlook its illustration of Christ’s magnanimity. Jesus himself is the King who forgives the “huge amount.” In the Greek text, this amount is quantified as 10,000 talents – an unimaginable, astronomical quantity of money. Likewise, Christ’s compassion exceeds even the malice of his own murderers: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” he spoke from the cross (Luke 23:34).

Jesus: You can count on my forgiveness. You just need to do what this servant did: kneel down before me and ask for it. I know that sometimes it’s hard for you to accept this forgiveness; your pride keeps you from forgiving yourself, so you hold my forgiveness at arm’s length, or you doubt it. I don’t want you to doubt my forgiveness. I want you to be absolutely sure. This is why I made it tangible in the sacrament of reconciliation. When you come to me through the ministry of my chosen, ordained priest, you actually hear my own words speaking through his voice: “I absolve you from your sins….” I invented this wonderful gift just for you, just so I could flood the depths of your misery with the ocean of my mercy.

Christ in My Life It amazes me to think that I can always come to you; I can always ask you a question; you are always available. You never cease thinking of me. Like Peter, I can turn to you to resolve my doubts. Why do I turn to you so infrequently? Why do I forget about your presence, your guidance, your passionate interest in my life?

Forgiveness is harder for me in some cases than others. Some people who have wounded me really don’t deserve to be forgiven, Lord. And yet, you offer your forgiveness to them. Why, then, do I resist? Free me from this snare of the devil. Teach me to forgive, no matter how I feel. Refresh my embittered heart. You love even those who have offended me terribly, and you can turn them into saints…

Thank you for putting no limits on how much you would forgive me. Thank you for continuing to assure me of your forgiveness through confession. There is no hesitancy in your love for me, no holding back, no tinge of self-seeking. Why don’t I trust you more? Jesus, teach me to trust you more…

PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.


Art for this post on Matthew 18:21-35: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant slightly amended, Jan Sanders van Hemessen, c. 1556, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, “Inside the Passion”–the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”. His most recent books are “Spring Meditations”, “Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength”, and “Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions”. Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage