What's the relevance for us, in this Jubilee of Mercy and beyond? The first lesson is about the debt we've incurred to God because of our sins.
The point of this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy is, as the official motto attests, to help us to become "merciful like the Father"(Lk 6:36). It's to be so transformed by receiving God's mercy that we become merciful like God is merciful. Out of all of the teachings and actions of Jesus, perhaps none illustrates this calling and the means to fulfill it than the underappreciated Parable of the Two Debtors (Mt 18:23-35).
The context is Jesus' response to St. Peter's question, "If my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?" Peter suggested an astronomical standard, "As many as 7 times?," which means giving someone an eighth chance before writing him or her off as incorrigible. Jesus replies, "No, Seventy Sevens." Whether that means 70×7 (490) or 70+7 (77) times really doesn't matter, because seven is a number already with a sense of infinity. It means astonishingly never to stop forgiving.
Anticipating the question how one could possibly forgive without limit, Jesus presents the story of the two debtors. The first is brought before the King owing "10,000 talents." A talent was weight of gold equivalent to 6,000 denarii and a denarius was a full day's wage. That means that the man owed 60 million days worth of work, something that would take him 164,271 years to pay off. He begged for time to pay it off, but he would have needed to live to 165,000 years old to have the chance to do so. To monetize his debt in today's figures, if he were making $100 a day (or $12.50 an hour), he would have owed $6 billion. But Jesus tells us that when the King saw the debtor pleading absurdly for time, his "heart was moved with pity" and he forgave the entire debt. He didn't even make him pay what he could. He forgave it all. We're supposed to see in this what God does for us: He forgives our entire debt. He forgives us seven, seventy-seven, 490 times and more.
But then Jesus says that when that servant who had been forgiven the equivalent of billions in today's money went off and met a servant who owed him 100 denarii -- about $10,000 in today's money, for someone making $12.50 an hour -- and that second debtor similarly fell down and begged for time to pay it off, the first refused to show him mercy, but instead started angrily to choke him, saying "Pay back what you owe!," and threw him into prison until his family raised the money to pay him back. The first servant, who had almost certainly loaned the 100 denarii out of the 10,000 talents he had received, was summoned back before the King. The King called him "wicked" and poignantly asked, "I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?" Rather than paying the mercy forward, he stifled the flow. And Jesus says he was sent to prison until he would back the last penny, an impossible task because of the size of his debt. Because he was unwilling to forgive a small debt, he would be in prison forever; his lack of forgiveness, rather than what he owed, was what got him sent to an unending incarceration.
What's the relevance for us, in this Jubilee of Mercy and beyond? The first lesson is about the debt we've incurred to God because of our sins. There's no way we can ever pay it back. We're always debtors, not creditors, in the forgiveness department. God the Father did not write off our debt, but sent his Son to pay for the debt with his own body and blood on the Cross. Since we have been forgiven an amount like the U.S. national debt, we are called to go out likewise and forgive others their much smaller debts to us, because nothing anyone could do to us amounts to what we've done to the Son of God made man through our sins. This is a very important point for us to get. Very often we can think our sins are light matter, simply peccadilloes, but they led to Jesus' crucifixion. If we stopped there, it would be hard for us not to feel infinitely miserable. But God loved us so much that he counted it a bargain to send his Son to die in payment of the debts we incurred.
The second lesson is that God's infinite mercy toward us can be forfeited. In the parable, the Master who had written off the $6 billion debt revoked it when he saw the one he had forgiven refuse similar mercy to the person who owed him. When Jesus taught us to pray the Our Father, he put seven petitions on our lips, but only one had a condition attached: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." And Jesus added: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." In the Parable of the Two Debtors, Jesus makes the point even more strongly: Referring to the decision to throw the first debtor into the eternal slammer, Jesus says, "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart." This will happen not because God wishes to punish us, but because unless we have a heart that's merciful toward others, we're incapable of receiving God's mercy; if our heart is not pumping out the Christ-like blood of mercy, it is dead and can't receive Christ's in-pouring. Framed positively, we need to pay Jesus' mercy forward. God, who is rich in mercy, has restored us the fortune we've squandered, and wants us, as spiritual billionaires, lavishly to share that gift with those who need our mercy, down to the last penny.
That's the transformation that happens when we recognize just how much we've been forgiven. That's the way this Jubilee of Mercy is meant to change us to become merciful like the Father.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.