Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Readings: Sirach 27:33 – 28:9; Psalm 102(103):1-4, 9-12; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35
17 September 2023
Today’s gospel from Matthew presents us with a very graphic story told by Jesus about forgiveness. Purportedly the story is told in response to the question from Peter: how often should I forgive my brother? Seven times? Jesus responds: “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” No story is needed to drive home Jesus’ point that we should always be willing to forgive another whenever they sincerely seek that forgiveness, no matter how often they have wronged us, and no matter how little time has elapsed since the last time they wronged us. Why? Because the Lord is always willing to forgive us no matter how often we have committed wrong, provided only that we are sincerely seeking that forgiveness. We should try to emulate the Lord in our relations with our neighbour. In so far as we do so, we can see signs of God’s kingdom breaking in here and now.
Matthew then has Jesus tell the story of the king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants. There is no indication that the king is given to forgiveness seven times, let alone 77 times. The king offers absolute and complete forgiveness unsolicited in relation to one humongous debt. But when the forgiven servant shows no such forgiveness to a fellow servant, the King does not offer forgiveness even a second time. Rather in anger, the King “hands him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt”. Jesus declares, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”
Scripture scholars are agreed that the king in the story is a Gentile, not a Jew. A Jew would never have “ordered the servant to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt”. The king is probably modelled on a contemporary like Herod. Being a master who “decided to settle accounts with his servants”, the king is probably dealing with the tax collectors who are commissioned to collect the taxes from the local Jewish community. The servant who owed ten thousand talents is most likely a tax collector who has been making his collections through the year but who has yet to make his annual return to the king. Neither would the servant be a Jew as no Jew would prostrate himself and worship a master or king. With a sense of objective superiority, the Jewish reader is able to observe how these Gentiles treat one another.
Scripture scholar Daniel Harrington tells us: “A ‘talent’ was a very high measure of money, worth between six thousand and ten thousand denarii when one denarius was a day’s pay. So ten thousand talents is an astronomical sum (like a billion dollars for us), a debt so large that the servant could never repay it.” Another scripture scholar, Bernard Scott, tells us, “The present story deals with an exceedingly large collection, since Herod’s total collection was only 900 talents.” Scott says, “The amount, ten thousand talents, creates an expectation of dealing with the high and mighty. The almost fantastic amount distances servant and king from the reader and may also cast the servant in a negative light, since such a rich and powerful one must be greedy and responsible for the woes of the audience”. Scott asserts: “The reader’s viewpoint remains that of the narrator – see how these Gentiles go about their mighty affairs with such cruelty.”
The forgiven servant seeks out a fellow servant who owes him a mere 100 denarii. As Harrington says, “Compared to the debt of ten thousand talents this was a piddling sum (100 days’ wages) that could easily be paid back if the servant showed patience. His treatment of the fellow servant contrasts sharply with that shown to him by the king.” The Jewish reader of the story would have identified readily with the on-looking servants who report the inconsistent behaviour of the forgiven servant who extends no forgiveness whatever to his fellow servant. It’s easy for the Jewish reader to stand in judgment of the Gentile king and of the forgiven Gentile servant. But then the story is brought right back home to the reader: “So also my heavenly Father will do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your hearts.”
Let’s pray for the grace to be open to forgiveness whenever it is sought, and by whomsoever it is sought, no matter how grave the sin and no matter what the damage caused to us. It’s a big ask. It cannot be done without grace. When done, it is a sure sign of the kingdom breaking in here and now.
Today’s first reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus tells us that resentment and anger are foul things. And we’ve seen plenty of that on display in the foul debate on the Voice referendum this past week with protagonists trading insults about racism and stupidity. Moving towards October 14, let’s call to mind and carry in our heart the teaching of Ecclesiasticus:
‘If you nurse anger against another,
can you then demand compassion from the Lord?
Showing no pity for one like yourself,
can you then plead for your own sins?
Mere creature of flesh, you cherish resentment;
who will forgive you your sins?
Remember the last things, and stop hating,
remember dissolution and death, and live by the commandments.
Remember the commandments, and do not bear your neighbour ill-will;
remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook the offence.’ 
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA). Fr Frank’s latest book is An Indigenous Voice to Parliament: Considering a Constitutional Bridge, Garratt Publishing, 2023.
 Bernard Scott, ‘The King’s Accounting: Matthew 18:23-34’, Journal of Biblical Literature, 104/3 (1985) 429-442 at p. 432.
 Ibid, p. 436.
 Daniel J. Harrington, op. cit. p. 270.
 See my latest comment on the Referendum Debate at https://www.skynews.com.au/australia-news/voice-to-parliament/fr-frank-brennan-encourages-voting-on-principle-for-an-indigenous-voice/video/59ffb4f65e7f1a81e9a91c89ab7e1fa1?fbclid=IwAR2RgkfYBiOIIjzymrQYCc8OLjTOQshuukYnRz8DapQ8-wANSnpm6jSrFMo