Twenty-Fourth Sunday: How to Think about Debt

St. Thomas thought justice was a good thing

Justice is not a popular virtue, at least not with my students.  Justice seems stingy, the opposite of mercy, which is generous.

So it’s hard to read traditional accounts that say worship is our “debt” to God, something we owe him in justice.  I have not heard much appreciation for the line in the Mass, “let us give thanks to the Lord – it is right and just.”  Justice seems like the opposite of mercy, something we despise.

Our Gospel reading for this Sunday, the end of the Sermon on Community, seems to confirm that Christians don’t care about justice.  Jesus tells us to forgive seventy seven times.  Forget about debts!

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But then Jesus takes it in a different direction.  “That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.”  The king concludes, “You wicked servant!  I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me.  Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?”  “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.  So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless . . . .”

Accounts, debt, torturers, debt: he talks about all of it in terms of debts.  We should forgive not because debt doesn’t matter, but because we have a debt.

And notice that this passage follows one in which we were encouraged, not only to forgive, but also to correct: “If your brother sins against you.”

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Please be patient for a little Greek:

When it says the servant, “Had no way of paying it back,” the root of the word is “giving”: he had no way

Gift

of giving back.

The master orders him to be sold “in payment of the debt”: same word, to give back.

The servant says, “be patient with me” – “have a great soul” – “and I will pay you back in full”: same word.

The Master was “moved with compassion” (his guts were moved, splagchna) “and forgave him the loan.”  The word for loan is based on the word for “giving”: a loan as a kind of “gift” that you “give” back.

But the servant finds someone else who “owed him” and said “Pay back what you owe.”  Here there is nothing of gift, only obligation.

The other servant says, “I will pay you back”: and again it’s the word for “giving.”

But “he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt”: gave back the obligation.

When the master hears, he speaks no longer of the “gift” but of the “obligation”: “I forgave you your entire debt.”  And so he “gave” him in a different, ironic way: “handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt”: obligation.

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Perhaps I am stretching the linguistic point – perhaps not.  But there are two ways to look at debt and justice.  In one, it is pure obligation.  Our parable talks about that: this way of thinking involves choking people and handing them over to torturers.

(The selling of the family, I must say, is ambiguous: the Greek is less clear than the English about what is going on.  Leave that aside.)

On the other hand, there is the language of gift.  A loan is a gift I give you, expecting that you will give in return.  People ask each other not quite to “be patient,” as in our translation, but “to have a great soul” or perhaps it means, “have a soul that sees the long term.”  Friendship is a matter of give and give in return.

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Let us give thanks

This economy of the gift, I think, is a helpful way to think about justice.  God isn’t going to strangle us if we don’t pay him back.  Rather, he gives gifts, and he expects us to live within the gift, to give gifts to one another, to return gifts to him, even to give the gift of thanksgiving, which is nothing but the recognition that things are a gift.

In Latin and its derivatives, like Spanish, the way you say thank you is with the word for “grace.”  Someone gives you something and you say, “gracias: free gift – that was a free gift, thank you, I appreciate that this is a gift.”  Let us give thanks, it is right and just.

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In our first reading, from Sirach, mercy and forgiveness are a wisdom thing, wrath and anger are stupid.  You don’t want to live in the realm of wrath and anger, he says, live in the economy of gift.

In our reading from Romans, yet again marvelously paired with our Gospel reading, Christ died for us, and so we know that we belong to him and to one another, in life and even in death.  Christ’s death makes clear that we have not a God of choking and torture and obligation, but a God of gift and giving back and thanksgiving.

That’s why we forgive seventy seven times: because we live in light of the gift, because justice is rich and generous, like mercy.

Where in your life have you forgotten the economy of gift?

Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: Christian Community

For weeks we have been reading the stories in Matthew’s Gospel that follow the third great sermon, the Sermon of Parables, on the hidden power of the Holy Spirit.  This week and next week we read from the fourth great sermon, the Sermon on Community, where we find what that hidden power brings about.

Any discussion of grace must have both these poles: both the power of God, which comes first, and the transformation it brings about in us.  And because that power is one, the transformation it brings about in us is unity, Christian community, the Church.

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The Prophet Ezekiel

The first two readings set the scene.  In Ezekiel we read of the prophet’s responsibility to tell the people of their sins.  “If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.”

For the second reading, we are now on chapter thirteen of Romans, the first of the last four chapters of Paul’s masterpiece on grace, where he too discusses the transformation that grace brings about in us.  He tells us that all the moral law, all the wickednesses about which the prophet must warn us, are all about love.  “… And whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The work of the Spirit in us is love.  The commandments are necessary because they are part of (not the whole of) love, and correcting wickedness is necessary as itself a way to love the sinner.

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Our Gospel is about correcting the sinner: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”

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The Visitation: Heart speaks to Heart

The Lectionary has skipped over the first half of the Sermon, where we are taught to be lowly like children, to receive the lowly children, and to go in search of the lost sheep.  Next week we will read the end of the sermon, on forgiving seventy and seven times.  In all, we are talking about the requirements of community.

This week’s reading walks through progressive ways of correcting our brother’s sin.  It ends by talking about the Church, and this point of arrival is essential, because what we are talking about is the Church.  If you can’t correct him, you “tell the church.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” – which, coming from Jesus, means you still seek to save him, Jesus is always reaching out to the tax collectors – but you know he is no living the life of Christ’s body, the Church, no longer full of the Spirit that binds us together.

Then Jesus repeats a line he had said to Peter: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  The jurisdiction he gives to Peter and to the Apostles is a function of the jurisdiction he gives to his Church as a whole.  Peter is important because the Church is important; the bishop is a ministry of the Church, the community of Christians.

(There is a strange detail in the Greek, which says “heavens” when it talks about Peter, and only “heaven” here.  The tradition sees in this, perhaps, a reference to Peter’s universal jurisdiction compared to a local jurisdiction discussed here.  But I don’t think the plural “heavens” alone gives us this distinction.)

In any case, what we are discussing here is the bigger question of the Church.  But what is remarkable about our passage is that we are talking about that big question in terms of the little details of personal relationships.

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The Church a communion

Jesus says, “If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.”  That is the goal: brotherhood.  That’s the meaning of all the universal stuff about the Church, the papacy, the bishops, etc.: the transcendent value of brotherhood, which exists above all on this local level of fraternal correction.

And it is expressed not only in our membership in the universal Church, but in the details of personal relationships.   You talk to your brother at all – that is, you are willing to correct him, and in next week’s reading, to forgive him – and you talk to him one on one, and then two or three on one, because you care about the person himself.  That is Christian fraternity.

You begin on the personal level, too, out of respect for the person.  The Catechism’s magnificent section on the Eighth Commandment talks about “detraction” (CCC 2477), whereby you tell people something true about someone else’s faults, but something they don’t need to know.  That is a sin, because you should protect people’s reputations, protect them against other people’s “rash judgment,” another sin against truth and charity in the same place.

The point is, you don’t denounce someone in public, because you care about them and want to help them, not to destroy them.  It is a magnificent little detail of the fraternity that is at the heart of the great universal doctrines about the Church.

What conversations is your love of the Church calling you to have?

Twenty-Second Sunday: Not by Earthly Standards

Last Sunday’s Gospel ended with a baffling command: “He strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.”  Why not?  This week we read the passage that follows, and learn something important about evangelization.

File:Rubens B116.jpgOur reading begins, “Jesus began.”  It leaves out the words before, “From that time”: from the time of Peter’s profession that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus began to tell them about the Cross.  “Jesus began” suggests that he repeated the teaching, and that it took time.

The next verse of our reading has another “began.”  “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.”  From the time Jesus began to teach about the Cross, Peter began to challenge him.

In our translation, Peter says, “God forbid, Lord!”  Those are such strong, specific words – I don’t know why translators choose them.  Paul often uses a phrase translated that way, me geneto, which is strong like God forbid, but doesn’t bring God into it.  It just means, “no way!”  But Peter here uses a different phrase.  It’s something like “gracious me!” except in Greek it’s “gracious you!”  The Greek is even closer to “happy for you.”

It’s a nice choice of words – let’s assume the inspired writers choose their words well – because it is upbeat, positive.  Peter is contradicting, but he’s contradicting with happiness.

For which, of course, Jesus calls him Satan and a scandal.  Jesus’s words are well chosen, too: “get behind me.”  Because Jesus is telling Peter not just to go away, but to follow him.  And where Jesus is leading is not so happy-go-lucky as Peter would prefer.

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Matthew the accountant is making a point that Mark makes in a more artful way.  The tradition tells us Mark was a disciple of Peter.  And so in Peter’s version, no one acknowledges Jesus as Son of God until the crucifixion.  You can’t know who he is until the crucifixion.  Oh, I’m sure Peter said, “You are the Son of God.”  But Peter would be the first to tell us, “I had no idea.”

Because as soon as Peter called him Son of God, Jesus began to tell him what that meant, and Peter Unknown painter - Christ in the Tomb - WGA23483.jpgbegan to contradict him.

We have read about Peter discovering Jesus as savior: “Lord, help me!”  Always we are tempted to misinterpret.  Jesus as savior might mean that we will always go happy places.  To the contrary, Jesus leads us through hard places.

There are plenty of consolations along the way.  The next story is the Transfiguration.  But that story too ends, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”  They will not understand until they pass through the Cross.

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In the second part of our reading, Jesus gives a series of statements about our crosses.  First he says we must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him (get behind me!).  It’s the second time in Matthew’s Gospel he has told us to carry our cross (see Mt 10:38).  As far as I can tell, it was not a normal expression.  Even before he told them about his cross, he was telling them about theirs.

The Greek word for cross is derived from the word for stand.  It means a stake, a post.  Something you are tied to, to be exposed.  You are going to be exposed, hung out to dry.

Follow me!

Jesus explains, “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it.”  Literally, whoever protects his soul will destroy it.  And whoever destroys his soul – it’s a strong word – will find it.

Why?  “For what profit would it be” (I translate literally) “to gain the whole world and damage your own soul?”  Peter wants to push Jesus around according to his earthly idea of happiness, but Peter will damage his soul by those standards.  He needs to learn to follow a different standard, and that means following all the way through the cross.  Otherwise we chase after many things that aren’t what we need, and damage our soul.

And Jesus is coming – this reading looks forward – “in his Father’s glory and then he will repay all according to their deeds.”  How will we stand before his glory?  Will we choose him?  Or wish for earthly things?

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Our first reading, from Jeremiah, “You duped me, O Lord,” talks about God hooking us and leading us into a way that is mocked by earthly standards.

Our Epistle, now in Romans 12, the start of Paul’s teaching on the Christian life, urges us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice and not to conform our minds to the world.

Let not your minds be conformed to this age.

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Jesus tells them not to preach until they have learned about the Cross.  It all looks different in relation to the Cross.  We need to be careful not to follow Jesus, and not to preach him, according to Peter’s earthly standards, before the Cross.  We need to discover the divine perspective, the divine power, the divine goodness, which upends everything.  Perhaps before we preach we need to show both God and our neighbor that we live according to that new standard.

How has Jesus shaken your earthly standards?