DISCOURSE ON THE FORGIVENESS OF INJURIES
JESUS' REASONS FOR SPEAKING OF FRATERNAL CORRECTION PRUDENCE AND CAUTION IN CHARITY _ THE DENUNCIATION TO THE CHURCH _ EXCOMMUNICATION HOW OFTEN MUST ONE FORGIVE? THE MASTER'S ADMIRABLE RESPONSE THE PARABLE OF THE DEBTOR. (St. Matthew xviii, 1535.)
IN all probability, lively words had been exchanged during the discussion concerning the primacy; hurt feelings had been produced and rancor threatened to trouble the cordial understanding that had thus far reigned among the Apostles.
Thus obstacles were being multiplied to compromise the work of the Messiah, step by step with its advance. Following close upon rivalry, jealousy, and the danger of scandal came intestinal dissensions, personal dislikes, that awful solvent that dismembers and kills the most strongly organized societies.
Jesus observes this danger, and, leaving the evil no time to spread its venom, He says: "But if thy brother shall offend against thee, go and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother." Unity, familylove, the care for one's honor and sanctity are sufficient to inspire this conduct. Inasmuch as all the disciples of Jesus Christ are brothers and members of the same society, the Church, their first duty is to love one another sincerely. If one happens to offend either by giving scandal, by the suspicious character of his morals, or by compromising his faith, or by doing us a personal injury, immediately without waiting for him to go farther, or even to recognize his error, we must go and seek him, and endeavor kindly and bravely to show him the sin, the wrongs which as yet he does not see. A false brother would have scorned him in his weakness or would have abandoned him in his sin. We shall avoid this double excess by a prudent charity. Alone together, we shall make known to him his fault against us or against society. If our heart finds words sufficiently persuasive to move the poor erring one to reflect, we shall have saved our brother, and our merit will be the greater in proportion as the crime of him whose scandal was destroying it was detestable. Our selflove, it is true, must be sacrificed in giving up our desire for public reparation; and our pride, too, which might have moved us to stand aloof in our anger and await the first advance from him, and, perhaps, even our right, which might have exacted public justice. But what matters that? Is not the reward worth the sacrifice? To have saved him who has a guardian angel in heaven, to have led back the lamb which the Son of God came to seek and to redeem on earth, is no ordinary achievement. It means a share in the very work of the Redemption, by recalling to life one who was dead. It means the gaining of our brother, and the life restored to our neighbor enhances the value of our own. The saved soul cries to heaven in our behalf, as the lost soul cries out against us.
"And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more: that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand." This will not be, as yet, a public declaration, but this first formality of justice may fill him with a salutary fear; the support that one will find in those who accompany him will aid, perhaps, in convincing and in persuading him. Ashamed of his fault with which all together reproach him, but without too much publicity and by appealing to his honor, and, at the same time, frightened by a procedure that begins in the presence of witnesses, he will, perhaps, repent. The witnesses themselves may offer him a way of arranging the matter more acceptable than one's own proposals for peace.
"And if he will not hear them, tell the Church; and if he will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican." Here end the external marks of charity. If the culprit, hardened in his sin, scorns the solemn warning of the Christian society, if he means to persevere in his crime against God and against man, we can still pray for him in the depths of our hearts, but as far as our public relations are concerned the bonds of fraternity are burst. Having ignored the voice of authority within the family, he deserves that all fraternal obligations toward him should cease. He is henceforth like the heathen who has never known the truth, or like the publican who has denied it by his misconduct.
This right of excommunication is the Church's arm of defense. Peter first received it in the name of all, after his famous profession of faith on the way to Caesarea; the Apostles receive it individually in the words which the Master adds: "Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven." A strongly organized society must have the right to cut off the rotten members that disgrace her, and it is in the hands of her rulers that this power is placed. The Christian Church has a twofold life, a life of earth and a life of heaven, the one a preparation for the other. To deprive one of communion with the Church here below must be to deprive him of communion with God on high. For there is but one only Church, in different conditions. That Church alone shall be saved. He who remains not with her, who is not a member of her, is and shall be given over to damnation and to eternal pain. Excommunication on earth necessarily has its counterpart in heaven. God ratifies that which the authority of His hierarchy solemnly decrees.
This authority has no need of speaking by the mouth of all its representatives in order to judge the guilty. "If two of you,"1 says Jesus, "shall consent upon earth, concerning anything whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by My Father Who is in heaven." Whereby we see that the ecclesiastical power must take counsel before chastising the guilty. It were becoming, even, that its sentence should proceed as a prayer, and leave it to God to grant it if it be just, or not to grant it if it be guided by error or by passion. Whenever the accused is truly culpable, God will ratify it. If Jesus has promised to be present wherever two or three are gathered together in His name, for far greater reason will He be by the side of His ministers when they fulminate excommunication against the obdurate.
Such were the rules2 of charity and of justice which were to preside over the development of the various nascent Churches, and to guard them against the elements of corruption which humanity ever bears within itself. We know how from the beginning, every Christian community was only a family in which each member watched over his brother's virtue, while the father exercised supreme authority in expelling from his hearth the refractory and perverse son. Everything was done with kindness, sanctity, and justice, forewarning, segregating, and chastising. Those were happy times when the title of Christian thus surrounded men with salutary legislation and an influence wholly of love! To be sure civil society kept her rights over the disciples of Jesus Christ, but without interdicting the religious society from the exercise of hers. The State had only the jurisdiction of bodies, the Church held and exercised full jurisdiction of souls. Under this discipline accepted by all and consequently terrible to bad Christians of cutting off without pity the dead branches of the tree, the Christian society, ever more vigorous after the most cruel operations, soon filled the world with her beauty and her fruits. Then it was seen that cutting off the hand and plucking out the eye insured fullness and fecundity of life. The Church need not seek to know the number of her children; she lives only by their worth.
Peter, as the appointed head of this Church, and perhaps, for personal reasons, also for it is somewhat probable that the dispute concerning the primacy arose because of him approached Jesus and asked Him, how many times Church discipline or individual charity ought to forgive a repentant sinner: "Till seven times?" He certainly considered this a great concession. Jewish casuistry, relying on certain passages of Scripture3, counseled indulgence to the extent of three times to the same culprit; but this was the limit of forgiveness. Peter thought, indeed, that the New Law, full of love and gentleness, was to go farther, but to pardon seven times this was the number of the jubilee year seemed to him to be the supreme effort of kindness. He knew not that in this pardon of injuries man simply grants to others what he himself is to obtain in far greater proportion from God. He forgives that he may be forgiven. Therefore indulgence in favor of one's brethren could have no other limits than one's own frailty. Besides is it not of the essence of true love to engender inexhaustible mercy, particularly where there is repentance? Jesus replied: "I say not to thee, till seven times, but till seventy times seven times."4 That is to say indefinitely, as He hastened to prove by a touching parable.
"Therefore is the Kingdom of Heaven likened to a king, who would take an account of his servants." The King is God, and we are His servants. Often, before the solemn and final review of the works that determine our eternity, the Master finds an opportunity of inviting us to examine our lives and to consider our wants. Be it the voice of conscience accentuated by grace, be it a word that stirs and enlightens the depths of our soul, a stroke of adversity, or a sign given us by death, it is ever God Who awakens man from his torpor and demands from him an account of his life.
"And when he had begun to take the account, one was brought to him that owed him ten thousand talents." It was an enormous sum, nearly ten millions of our money, if Jesus spoke of the Hebrew talent, or at least six if He meant either the Egyptian or the Attic5 talent. The magnitude of the sum was no doubt intended by the Master to show us how numerous in the eyes of God are the faults of human life. There was no need of a long examination to prove this enormous deficit. A single glance over the records was sufficient. It was because he perceived the awful position he was in, that the wretched man had not come of his own accord, but had to be dragged before the king. There was no investigation; it would have added nothing to the evidence. The faithless servant acknowledged his squandering by the surprise he manifested at having committed it. Thus every day, the sinner enters new crimes to his account in the book of life which the angels keep in heaven, but he is only vaguely conscious of it, until the hour is come for a serious reckoning. Then what surprise! what woe! what despair!
"And as he had not wherewith to pay it, his lord commanded that he should be sold, and his wife and his children, and all that he had, and payment to be made." By Jewish law the insolvent debtor, with his family and his goods, became the property of his creditor for six years;6 but it must not be supposed that Jesus takes His comparisons only from Jewish customs. He seizes upon whatever peculiarities in the usages of other peoples may put His thought in relief; thus the law of Israel permitted neither prisons nor tortures for the debtor, and yet these figures complete the parable. The Master has recourse to them the better to demonstrate that in the settling of his account the sinner, even though he gives all he possesses, is still incapable of offering true satisfaction.
Happily the master was kind; a prayer could move him and repair what had seemed irreparable. The servant knew this, and, "falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all." If he had any merit in not denying his debt, he was wrong in deceiving himself with the hope of being able to pay some day. This is the ordinary illusion of people in debt. They seek to gain time, but time never betters their condition. It is fortunate for sinners that God does not exact a long continued interior work for the reparation of their faults. One good movement of the heart suffices. The sentiment of bitter regret that suddenly penetrates us, and casts us at His feet, checks His justice on the instant. Like the master in the parable, He has pity on the poor debtor; He not only grants him time, He remits his debt. This is much more than the unfortunate man could have dared to ask. By falling on his knees, he has aroused compassion; by his cry for grace, he has gained liberty; by promising to satisfy, he has seen his whole deficit made good. Can he ever forget such generosity?
"But when that servant was gone out, he found one of his fellowservants that owed him an hundred pence." In itself it was a small amount, scarcely sixteen dollars in United States money; compared with ten thousand talents, it was as nothing. Are the offences we sometimes refuse to forgive much more when we place them side by side with those for which we ask God's pardon? They are like a drop of water beside the ocean. But we forget that the eye of Him Who has pardoned us, follows and observes us. The servant of the parable, had he thought that his master was to learn of his conduct, would, no doubt, have been more politic.
"And laying hold of him, he throttled him, saying: Wilt thou pay what thou owest?"7 The recollection of the mercy he had prayed for and received shortly before should have withheld him from dragging him before the judges, much more from treating him with such brutality. This is a strong picture of the Christian who, still favored with divine indulgence, wishes, in the name of his wounded pride, to exact from his brother the most humiliating reparation.
"And his fellowservant, falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me and I will pay thee all. And he would not, but went and cast him into prison, till he paid the debt." As if by chance, the suppliant had, however, employed the same form of prayer which had recently saved his creditor. But the miscreant did not even notice it. His harshness arouses our indignation. Alas! are we not like him ourselves?
But, at last, justice asserts her rights and pitilessly effaces what mercy had inscribed. "Now, his fellow-servants, seeing what was done, were very much grieved, and they came and told their lord all that was done." If God were not possessed of all knowledge, we might say that the angels and saints take care to call His attention to such revolting crimes. But this detail of the parable is unimportant. "Then his lord called him, and said to him: Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all thy debt, because thou besoughtest me shouldst not thou then have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had compassion on thee?" This condescension touches us; the king makes a comparison where all comparison seems impossible; for he had been kind who owed nothing, and the guilty man has been cruel who owed everything to the king. This comparison explains what follows. The master at once summons the criminal; this in itself is a sign of anger. One feels that severity is about to take the place of indulgence. It is time for inexorable justice, and the culprit is handed over to the torturers8 until the entire debt is paid.
It has been rightly observed that since the debt had already been forgiven, the king could not justly have proved false to his word. This is undeniable, and we know that "God's gifts are without repentance." But here we must understand that the servant is thrown into prison, not for a debt already settled and forgotten, but for the heartlessness and unusual barbarity which he had just manifested. However, it is his forgiven debt that still determines the degree of his malice and his guilt. In this way we may solve the difficulty which the Scholastics, after St. Augustine and other Fathers of the Church.9 raised concerning the reviviscence of remitted sin. God, summoning the wicked servants before Him by death, will not demand a new account of sins pardoned, but He will place His mercy and theirs with pitiless severity side by side, and all the sins that have been covered by the divine indulgence shall fall like an aggravating circumstance upon the scales of eternal justice. The unfortunates shall be cast into prison where they shall endure woes upon woes in vain for the payment of a debt which in their helplessness they can never pay. They shall pay forever and shall never wipe out the debt. "So, also," Jesus adds, ending the parable, "shall my Heavenly Father do to you, if you forgive not every one his brother from your hearts."
1 This agrees with Jesus' thought of sending the Apostles or the disciples not separately, but by twos. This left nothing to the caprice of men. For the validity of excommunication, He demands the perfect agreement of two souls who ask God to execute their sentence. This agreement, which is difficult for the wicked, who are frequently able to unite their malice but seldom their hearts, is a guarantee given to the faithful against the abuse of a power which would be formidable were it not wisely regulated.
2 It has been said that in this Jesus only brought to the Christian society a practice in vogue in the Synagogue. Whatever the correctness of this statement, which is sustained by several passages of the Talmud (see Lightfoot on this passage of St. Matthew, and Vitringa, De Synag. Vet., 97), it cannot be denied that, if, the discipline was not new, the spirit was absolutely new; it was a grafting on the stock.
3 Amos i, 3; ii, 9; Job xxxiii, 29, 30.
4 St. Hilary and St. Jerome, explaining this passage, find in it an allusion to the word, of Lamech. (Gen. iv, 24.) According to this, forgiveness would balance vengeance; and good would be the perfect counterweight of evil.
5 The Hebrew talent is valued ordinarily at about $973.58; the Egyptian at about $537.60; the Attic at about $480.
6 Levit. xxv, 39; IV Kings iv, 1; Amos viii, 6.
7 The best critics read this as an interrogation or as a conditional: apodos ei ti ofeileis, instead of uti ofeileis.
8 The torturers here are simply the jailers who guard their prisoners in captivity, or even those men who, by Roman law, can torture debtors with the lash and with leaden shot. (Cf. Livy, ii, 23.)
9 St. Aug., De Bapt. c. Donat., i, 12; St. Greg. the Great, 1. iv, Dial. c. Ult., etc.; St. Thom., Summa, 3 p., q. 88; Cajetan, on the Epistle to the Romans, xi, 21, have solved exactly this very difficulty: "Repetuntur debita semel donata, non ut fuerant prius debita, sed ut modo, effecta sunt materia irigratitudinis."
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