26 March, 2019

“You wicked servant,” he said “I cancelled 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.

~ Matthew 18:32-35 ~

The anger and violence in today’s parable of the Kingdom is disturbing, even if we acknowledge that parables are meant sometimes to shock us. A parable is a short story (often a short-short story, what today is often called ‘flash fiction’) that often illustrates a moral point, often by presenting an exaggerated case.

We are presented with a case of mercy and forgiveness contrasted with its exact opposite. The debt forgiveness of the Master is contrasted with the violence with which the Servant tries to extract a debt from another servant. Instead of learning gratitude and mercy from his experience, the Servant does the opposite – and is then punished with even more force by the Master when he learns of the Servant’s lack of mercy.

What are we to make of it? How might we relate it to the Kingdom of God?

We might take a hard moral view, suggesting that in the Kingdom while mercy is the ideal to which we should all aspire, the reality of sin must be dealt with forcefully by God or by God’s representatives. This is dangerous particularly since it turns the Kingdom into a kind of ‘dictatorship of virtue’, where violence ‘from above’ (whether human or divine) is somehow good, even purifying. History is littered with the corpses of millions sacrificed to such a ‘reign’.

It might be better to say that mercy and forgiveness are signs of God’s reign, but that it is never there fully until finally God brings it to fulfilment. This saves us from the temptation to imagine any particular community or society or regime that we create or inhabit as the fullness of the kingdom. At best the good society, the merciful community, will be limited by the reality of sin, however residual it may be.

The imperfect kingdom of the parable may in fact be warning us against those who make claims to authority that naively assume an absolute monopoly of mercy and anger, of virtue and terror. Perhaps by this Jesus is calling us to rethink the temptation to imagine human perfectibility this side of the eschaton.

 

Lord, save me from the certainty of my own perfection. Help me, to show your mercy and forgiveness to those in my life, that need it. Grant me the grace to imitate your loving kindness. Amen.

 

Catholic Parliamentary

Liaison Office

Jesuit Institute
South Africa

Reflection prepared by and

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

a.egan@jesuitinstitute.org.za
See more from Anthony Egan SJ
Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ

Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ entered the Society of Jesus in 2005 and underwent the usual course of studies in his formation, which took him to such varied places as Canada, France, Ireland, Kenya, Spain, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, the United States, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Matthew manages the background technical aspects of much of the Institute's work and is involved in the Spirituality work whilst completing the Advanced Spiritual Directors Training Course and Spiritual Exercises Training run by the Institute. He is a member of Spiritual Directors International and is also a part-time lecturer in Sacred Scripture at St Augustine College of South Africa.

m.charlesworth@jesuitinstitute.org.za @mcharlesworth
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