Fr Frank’s Homily – 13 September 2020

By Fr Frank Brennan SJ, 12 September 2020
Image: Supplied.



Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:7; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35

13 September 2020


We’ve had a week of hearing about unforgivable things being done by all manner of people: the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia; Donald Trump’s lies about the Coronavirus; the Andrews government’s bungling of the quarantine arrangements; the refusal of the Queensland Premier to allow a young woman to attend her father’s funeral while at the same time putting out the welcome mat for footballers and their entourages.  It may be that in a time of pandemic with the isolation and lockdown, things seem more unforgivable than usual.  The inexplicable seems unforgivable, and only once made explicable does it become forgivable.  Then again, maybe more unforgivable things are done by those who exercise power in a time of crisis when there is no sure right answer to every predicament.

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In today’s Gospel, we hear a story from Jesus about a man with an unforgivably humungous debt which is forgiven by the king.  No sooner is the debtor forgiven, then he sets about extracting justice in a most unforgiving way from the little guy who owes him a pittance.  Everyone then teams up against the debtor, and the king wreaks vengeance and justice until the last penny is paid.  You can almost hear the listeners of the story (ourselves included) cheering on the once merciful but now vengeful king and sledging the debtor who is one of the world’s all-time losers.  Having concluded the story, Jesus says, ‘That is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

The scripture scholar Bernard B Scott tells us, ‘The threat created by the parable’s end, when the king goes back on his word, conflicts with the expectation of peace in the kingdom.  But much more is at stake.  The end is of a reader’s own doing, for by joining forces with the fellow-servants in calling on a higher authority, the reader is enticed into a threatening world whose boundaries and guidelines begin to dissolve.  The fellow-servants and the reader seek to make the story follow its narrative logic: failure leads to punishment.  Instead of order and logic, chaos comes.  The story is a narrative imitation of the final petition of the Lord’s prayer, “Let us not succumb to the test.”’[1]

Jesus has told this story in response to Peter’s simple query, ‘How often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me?’  Peter suggests an answer to his own question by plucking the biblical number ‘7’ out of thin air.  Jesus ups the ante to 77.  The readers of Matthew’s gospel would have been well familiar with the early stories in the book of Genesis.  When Cain was driven from his homeland having killed his brother Abel, he was worried that strangers might take vengeance on him.  Yahweh put a mark on Cain and said that whoever kills Cain will suffer sevenfold vengeance.  Cain and his descendants thrived.  It got to the stage that Cain’s great-great-great-grandson Lamech told his two wives, ‘I killed a man for wounding me, a boy for striking me.  Sevenfold vengeance for Cain, but seventy-sevenfold for Lamech.’  Yahweh was protecting Cain and his descendants completely and unreservedly regardless of what befell them, and regardless of the wrongs they committed.

Cain and six generations of his family seem to have learnt nothing, going from bad to worse.  Yahweh’s protection of them is absolute.  God’s mercy towards us is as bountiful and unearned as is Yahweh’s protection of Cain and his descendants.  God offers us mercy and grace even when we are flat out trying to live the way of truth and justice which demands little sacrifice from us when our neighbour is untruthful or unjust.

When wronged, we can usually be convinced to accord justice, but mercy is an altogether different matter.  Restricting ourselves to justice and truth, we can exact the right price which is deemed good for all.  What room is there for mercy and grace in our relationships and in our pandemic-ridden world?

Back in 1975, a general congregation of the Jesuits said: The gospel ‘demands towards those who have injured us, pardon; toward those with whom we are at odds, a spirit of reconciliation. We do not acquire this attitude of mind by our own efforts alone. It is the fruit of the Spirit who transforms our hearts and fills them with the power of God’s mercy, that mercy whereby he most fully shows forth His justice by drawing us, unjust though we are, to His friendship.’

Today’s Gospel strips us back to our dependence on God’s mercy and grace.  The scripture scholar Daniel Harrington tells us: ‘In the parable of the unforgiving servant, the divine attributes of justice and mercy so emphasized in rabbinic Judaism are placed in relation: If you want mercy from God, be merciful to others. If you exact justice from others, expect the same from God.’[2]  Most of us want mercy from God while doing only justice to others.  And the last thing we want from God is only justice.

The philosopher Jacques Derrida puts an intellectual challenge to us: ‘Forgiving is surely not to call it quits, clear and discharged. Not oneself, not the other.  This would be repeating evil, countersigning it, consecrating it, letting it be what it is, unalterable and identical to itself.’  Derrida says ‘it is necessary to begin from the fact that there is the unforgivable. Is this not, in truth, the only thing to forgive? The only thing that calls for forgiveness’.[3]  Derrida asserts, ‘The forgiveness of the forgivable does not forgive anything: it is not forgiveness.’[4]

We Christians accept that there can be no reconciliation between us and God except in and through Christ who forgives those who commit unforgivable acts.  Paul tells the Corinthians, ‘It is all God’s work; he reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. I mean, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding anyone’s faults against them, but entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.’ (2 Cor 5:18-19)   Our reconciliation with God is possible only through the mediation of Jesus who embodies, lives and dies the reality of this reconciliation.  He puts us right with our God and thereby establishes the basis for right relationship with each other.

Those of the most profoundly humanitarian and humanist bent are readily able to profess their commitment to truth and justice.  Are they able to extend forgiveness as well as justice to their neighbour who has committed an unforgivable act?  Are they able to atone for their wrongdoings?  Can we do so, without God’s grace?  With God’s grace, we Christians are called to forgive persons, even those who commit unforgivable acts against us, and to atone for our gravest sins.

Ian McEwan’s popular novel Atonement asks how forgiveness might be offered or atonement made without God’s grace (in which he does not believe).  The main character Briony as a child wrongly accuses her older sister’s boyfriend of a dreadful wrongdoing while he is visiting the family estate in the English countryside. Years later after he has wrongly served a term in prison, he then goes to war, escapes from Dunkirk and meets up again with Briony and the older sister. In the novel, Briony herself is an accomplished novelist and the last chapter consists of her ruminations about how to recount the tale and how to have it end.  After publication of the book, McEwan confided that early in the writing project, he had read the initial chapters to his wife who then asked how it was all going to end. He started to improvise: ‘I told her the last chapter and to my amazement she burst into tears. Ah, well, I thought, this is correct. I hadn’t seen it in quite so emotional terms.’[5]  It was another two years before he wrote his final chapter and in terms almost identical with what he had described to his wife. In this closing chapter, Briony, the all-controlling novelist within the novel, writes what McEwan had in mind those last two years:

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination, she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.[6]

Originally McEwan had named his novel An Atonement but Oxford Professor Timothy Garton Ash on reading it ‘had suggested that he remove the ‘an’, because the novel was not just about Briony’s search for atonement but a more generic sense of redemption, about guilt as something “too great to expiate”.’[7]

We Christians appeal to God, affirming our belief that Christ can forgive the person who commits the unforgivable act and that we can atone for all sins.  In the wake of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, the guilt which is too great to expiate can be the occasion for redemption.  With our faith, we can enter the marketplace of politics, political correctness, conflict and avoidance, finding in ourselves and in the other the sacred meeting place where justice and truth encounter mercy, healing and reconciliation.

Those of us who find fruit in the spiritual or religious when confronting conflict, trauma or injustice can find a way to forgive the unforgivable or to endure the unendurable.  Seeing our lives as graced, we are privileged to have at our disposal practices, community and narrative which allow us to embrace new possibilities in the face of unchangeable realities like diminishment, suffering and death.

In this age of pandemic, lockdown and isolation, let’s be attentive to the unforgivable or inexplicable as the privileged ground where God’s mercy might erupt in our presence precisely because human justice and truthful accountability are just not enough to explain or redeem the situation at hand.  Let’s pray for the grace to forgive the person who does the unforgivable act or commits the unforgivable omission.  Let’s heed the words from Ecclesiasticus in today’s first reading:


Forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you,

And when you pray, your sins will be forgiven.

If a man nurses anger against another,

Can he then demand compassion from the Lord?

Remember the commandments,

And do not bear your neighbour ill-will;

Remember the covenant of the Most High,

And overlook the offence.


When in doubt, remember that 77 is a hell of a lot.


Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).

[1] Scott, B. B., “The King’s Accounting. Matthew 18:23–34.” Journal of Biblical Literature 104 (1985) 429–42 at 441

[2] Harrington, D. J., The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, pp. 271–272.

[3] Jacques Derrida, ‘On Forgiveness’ in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, New York: Routledge, 2001, 27-60, at pp. 32-33

[4] Jacques Derrida in ‘Hostipitality’ quoted by Kim L Worthington, ‘Suturing the Wound: Derrida’s “On Forgiveness” and Schlink’s “The Reader”’, in Comparative Literature, Vol. 63, No. 2 (Spring 2011), pp. 203-224 at p. 220

[5] ‘Atoning for His past’ The Age, 5 May 2002, at

[6] Ian McEwan, Atonement, Jonathan Cape, 2001, 371.

[7] ‘Atoning for His past’ The Age, 5 May 2002, at

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