The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35

Posted by Dim Bulb on February 27, 2016

Mat 18:21 Then came Peter unto him and said: Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

What moved St. Peter to ask this question is variously accounted for. Some say, he was moved to do so, owing to our Redeemer having inculcated fraternal charity, in regard to our sinning brethren, to whom, after having done penance, He wished that pardon should be given (Luke 17:3). Our Redeemer, however, did not say, how often his offences were to be pardoned him; hence, St. Peter proposes this question, “How often shall my brother offend against me?” &c.

Others hold, that St. Peter’s question was occasioned by our Redeemer’s words (Luke 17:4), where He tells us, that if our brother sins against us seven times in a day and repent, we should forgive him. These words, being subjoined by St. Luke to the question regarding fraternal correction, it is likely they were used on this occasion, although omitted by St. Matthew. Our Redeemer meant by “seven,” an indefinite number; and hence, He meant to say, as often as thy brother offends thee, and repents of it, so often oughtest thou to forgive him. Peter, not well understanding what our Redeemer meant by “seven,” whether to be used definitely or indefinitely, asks, “how often?” &c. “Till seven times?” and wishes our Redeemer to explain what precise number of times he should forgive his offending brother. Or, it might be, that these words are expressive of astonishment, on the part of Peter, at the number of times our Redeemer wished our brother’s offences to be pardoned, as it would seem he was unworthy of being pardoned so often. Moreover, such excessive lenity might only seem as a further incitement to sin.

Mat 18:22 Jesus saith to him: I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times.

Our Redeemer, in the clearest possible terms, conveys what He meant, by telling us to forgive our repentant brother, not only “seven times, but seventy times seven,” or 490 times, which is meant to express an indefinite number; so that, no matter how often our brother may sin against us, if he repents of it, we are bound to pardon him, and we should be always sincerely disposed to pardon him from our heart. But this does not imply that we are bound to forego our just rights, either in the injuries done our character or property, or, that the order of justice, or the claims of society should be set aside. It only inculcates the obligation of pardoning our brother from our heart, and of laying aside every feeling of vindictiveness and malice. The words of our Redeemer imply, that we should set no bounds to our charity towards our neighbour. To this the following parable has reference.

Mat 18:23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened to a king, who would take an account of his servants.
Mat 18:24 And when he had begun to take the account, one as brought to him, that owed him ten thousand talents.
Mat 18:25 And as he had not wherewith to pay it, his lord commanded that he should be sold, and his wife and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
Mat 18:26 But that servant falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
Mat 18:27 And the lord of that servant being moved with pity, let him go and forgave him the debt.
Mat 18:28 But when that servant was gone out, he found one of his fellow-servants that owed him an hundred pence: and laying hold of him, he throttled him, saying: Pay what thou owest.

“Therefore,” is interpreted by some thus, because; as if assigning a reason for the foregoing declaration, made to St. Peter, that we should forgive our offending brother, every time he repents. The word may, however, retain its usual meaning, thus: In order that you may understand how just and necessary it is for you always to forgive your repentant brother, know you, “therefore,” that “the kingdom of heaven is likened”—rendered like by Me—“to a king” &c. It has been already observed, that this form of expression only means, that something occurs in the kingdom of heaven similar to what is expressed in the parable; for, it is not the kingdom of heaven that is likened to the king, &c., but it is the King of heaven that is strictly compared to the “king,” referred to in the parable.

By “the kingdom of heaven,” here, is understood, the Church, embracing the Church, militant and triumphant. In truth, it may be said to regard the entire economy or supernatural dealings of God with man. It has been already more than once observed, that in the interpretation of parables, and their application to the subject they are intended to illustrate, there are certain parts of these parables necessarily and directly intended for illustration; there are other parts that are merely ornamental, and introduced solely with a view of rendering the parabolical narrative complete, and in harmony with what usually occurs, without any reference to the principal subject. The ornamental parts and necessary parts can be easily seen from the context and the scope of the parable. There is no difficulty in perceiving what the scope or object of the present parable is. Our Redeemer Himself applies it in the clearest terms, “So shall My Heavenly Father,” &c. (v. 35.) The scope of the parable, and the intention of our Blessed Lord, are, to show, that the Almighty is most merciful towards all repentant sinners; but most severe towards those who refuse to forgive their brethren their offences. Then, the necessary parts of this parable are—

First. The king, who entered into an account, and forgave the immense sum of ten thousand talents. This illustrates the infinite malice of sin, as being committed against a person of infinite dignity; and the infinite mercy of God, freely and generously, out of His infinite mercy and compassion, remitting His offending creature, this immense debt of mortal sin. A part connected with this is merely ornamental, wherein it is said that the master ordered, “his wife” &c. (v. 25), “to be sold.” This is allusive to the permission among the Romans, and even among the Jews (2 Kings 4:1), given to creditors, of selling all the effects of their debtors, even their wife and children, in discharge of the debt. In the parable, they have hardly any application, unless it be, perhaps, to show the severity of the punishment inflicted for mortal sin. But they, by no means, imply that the Almighty eternally punishes a man’s wife or children, for his sins, or that any one is condemned to eternal tortures, save for his own sins. The amount contained in the “ten thousand talents,” is disputed. However, here it is sufficient to know that it is put for a sum of indefinite magnitude, compared with the sum of “a hundred pence” (v. 28).

The second necessary part regards the servant, who after receiving the remission of an immense sum—“ten thousand talents”—goes forth, and throttling his follow-servant, who owed him a mere trifle, compared with the sum remitted to himself, inexorably casts him into prison, without giving him a moment’s respite or delay. This sets forth, in the clearest light, the cruelty and inhumanity of the sinner, who, after being gratuitously and mercifully forgiven his mortal sins, by his Lord and Master, and Creator, refuses forgiveness to his “fellow-servant,” his fellow-creature, with whom he shares the same common nature, whose weakness he knows, on whom he is often dependent for mutual aid and assistance.

Mat 18:29 And his fellow-servant falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
Mat 18:30 And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he paid the debt.
Mat 18:31 Now his fellow servants seeing what was done, were very much grieved, and they came, and told their lord all that was done.

The third part of the parable refers to the grievous sin, of which the man who refuses to forgive his neighbour, and harbours feelings of vindictiveness towards him, becomes guilty, and to the eternal punishment, which God has in store for such a sinner. The ornamental part, attached to this portion, is, when his fellow-servants complain of the cruel conduct of this servant to their master. This has hardly any application in the parable. It does not imply that the Angels or Saints of heaven accuse the unforgiving man; it is merely added for ornament sake, because this usually happens among men. It may, perhaps be intended to convey, that the Angels and just, and God Himself, are so offended at the ingratitude and cruelty of the sinner, who refuses to forgive his brother, that the most severe judgment is exercised upon him. The part wherein it is insinuated, that the former debt, remitted by God, revives (v. 34), may be also regarded as ornamental, it being natural that such would occur in cases like this, among men; but, it does not imply that sins, once remitted, ever again revive—the common opinion being, that, although our past merits revive, by penance, the guilt of sin being removed; our sins, once forgiven, do not revive, “for the gifts of God are without repentance” (Rom. 11:29), unless, perhaps, it may be said, that the circumstance of receiving the remission of our former sins against God, so aggravates the sin of refusing to forgive our fellow-creature, owing to the ingratitude it contains, that it is virtually equivalent to the former sins, and shall entail as severe a punishment, as the former sins would, if still unremitted; or, at least, that the subsequent sins would be less severely punished, had the former not been forgiven. Besides the ingratitude involved in every sin of relapse, there is a special ingratitude in that of refusing to pardon our neighbour, owing to its opposition to the benefit of forgiveness, already received from God.

The first part of the parable shows us the infinite mercy and clemency of our good God towards repentant sinners. “Being moved with compassion, he forgave him the debt” (v. 27), viz., the immense debt of mortal sin, represented by the ten thousand talents.

The second part shows us the execrable inhumanity of some men towards their fellow-creatures.

The third, the severity of God’s judgment against such, viz., “judgment without mercy,” &c. (St. James 2)

Mat 18:32 Then his lord called him: and said to him: Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all the debt, because thou besoughtest me:
Mat 18:33 Shouldst not thou then have had compassion also on thy fellow servant, even as I had compassion on thee?
Mat 18:34 And his lord being angry, delivered him to the torturers until he paid all the debt.
Mat 18:35 So also shall my heavenly Father do to you, if you forgive not every one his brother from your hearts.

This is the application of the parable, by our Redeemer Himself. “So shall My heavenly,” &c., that is, He shall “deliver us to the torturers till we pay all the debt” (v. 34); that is to say, punish us eternally, since, for eternity, we can make no atonement whatever, even by the most excruciating tortures, for the infinite evil of mortal sin.

It is observed, that our Redeemer says, “My” (not your) “Heavenly Father,” to convey, that the man of vengeance cannot properly call God his Father, whose children he persecutes and injures.

“Every one his brother.” The circumstance of our neighbour being our brother, destined for the same common inheritance of glory, should move us to extend forgiveness to him.

“From your hearts.” It will not do to affect forgiveness externally. It must come from the “heart,” under pain of our being refused forgiveness by God. For the gall of hatred, our Lord wishes us to substitute the honey of charity.

This parable shows us how grievous a sin, and how hateful before God it is, to cherish rancour or hatred in our hearts, against our neighbour, who may chance to have given us offence; and how agreeable an act of sacrifice before God it is, to lay aside all such feelings, and forget all past injuries done us, as if they never took place. We have but little to forgive our neighbour, compared with what God has remitted to us. He forgave ten thousand talents; we forgive, at most, but two hundred pence. What a powerful stimulus, therefore, the consideration of all God has forgiven us, and that repeatedly, should be for us to remit from our hearts all personal insults, comparatively trifling, offered us by our neighbour.

Besides the reasons already adduced in the foregoing, to aid us in forgiving our enemies, who may have gratuitously and ungratefully injured, and are still bent on injuring us, from which our corrupt nature so strongly recoils, there are several considerations to aid us still more.

First. There is no precept more emphatically inculcated by our Lord than this (see Sermon on the Mount). We should, therefore, make every sacrifice to show our gratitude to Him, by obeying His commandments, be they ever so opposed to flesh and blood. Our enemy may not be entitled to our forgiveness. But God, our Sovereign Benefactor, for whose sake only we pardon, is.

Secondly. The prayer we every day repeat, “forgive us … as we forgive,” &c., points out our duty in this respect. We tell a lie to God, whenever, with rancour and hatred in our hearts, we address to Him, this, His own prayer.

Thirdly. The example of the Saints of old. Consider the unprovoked hostility of Saul, and his bitter, persistent, unmitigated persecutions of David, and how David, when he had him in his power, spared him. He publicly bewails his death on the mountains of Gilboe. Consider the example of Joseph—his treatment of his unnatural brethren.

Fourthly. The peace of soul, and tranquillity of conscience, produced by this victory over one’s self, illustrated in the life of St. John Gualbert (July 12).

Fifthly. The dreadful consequences of harbouring feelings of vengeance. See this illustrated in the History of Sapricius, who lost the crown of martyrdom, and denied the faith, by not pardoning Nicephorus, while the latter, owing to his spirit of forgiveness, merited the martyr’s crown (Lives of Saints, 9th February).

Sixthly. Consider all God pardoned us, and how often; His countless benefits, general and particular, in consideration of which, He asks us to pardon His delinquent children. How often do we not see in the world, worthless, undeserving children pardoned, on account of their good parents?

Seventhly. The most important consideration of all—our Lord’s example, pardoning His enemies, during life, and at death. He, the God of heaven, pardons offences He could not deserve. We, sinful creatures, cannot pardon our fellow-creatures, offences we richly deserved, and which we should lovingly accept from God’s hands, as a trifling commutation for the eternal torments of hell, we so often merited. “Why is earth and ashes proud?” (Eccles. 10:9).

Eighthly. The chief means for achieving this victory over corrupt nature, is God’s grace, which is to be obtained only by fervent and persevering prayer.

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