God’s Forgiveness and the Two Sons

September 25, 2011

This little parable (Matt. 21:28-32) from Jesus is more complicated than it first appears. It seems pretty cut and dried when compared with the other parables of Jesus that tend to shock us or twist the meanings of words and situations. This one seems straight forward, the first son, who says “no” to his father, but eventually goes and works in the vineyard seems to be the one who does the will of his father. The one who says “yes” but then shirks his duties is the scoundrel.

To our 21st century American ears, it’s pretty easy to determine which of the two sons did the will of the father. The first one. However, to the ears of the listeners of Jesus in first century Palestine things were a bit more complicated. In a way, both sons brought shame and disgrace to the father. The first son commits the heinous sin of saying no directly to the face of his father. In a culture where family hierarchy was more stratified, this is an unpardonable offense, even if he changes his mind. To publicly say “no” to the face of one’s father was one of the worst things the first son could have done. And his going and working in the vineyard, to the minds of the earliest Christians who would have heard this gospel message from Matthew, would not have made up for or atoned for his betrayal of the father. Read the rest of this entry »

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Zillions of Talents

September 14, 2011

Fr. Pidel’s Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time speaks of “the ‘huge amount’ that we all owe the Father for our very existence and for our redemption.”  I want to add something about how huge that amount really is.

Last Sunday’s Gospel, the parable of the two servants, contains one of my biggest translation peeves in the US Lectionary.  We are told that the first servant owed “a huge amount” (Mt 18:24), which he could not repay, and so his master had compassion on him and forgave his debt.

The Revised Standard Version more accurately renders this “ten thousand talents,” reflecting the Greek, which says “muriōn talantōn.”

The first word there might be recognizable even if you don’t know much Greek, as it comes to us in English as “myriad.”  While it is true that it can mean the number 10,000 (actually, it’s the largest number that can be expressed in Greek with a single word), more generally it means “numberless, countless, infinite” (according to the Liddell-Scott Greek-English Lexicon).

Even more vividly, the Bauer-Danker Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature translates it as “zillion” (“in our lit[erature] used hyperbolically, as in Engl[lish] informal usage ‘zillion,’ of an extremely large or incalculable number”).  So here, “zillions of talents.”

That’s considerably more vivid, and a lot larger, than “a huge amount.”

Just to give some perspective: Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, lists the assets and income of Athens at the height of her strength and as their epic war with Sparta was beginning:  “on an average six hundred talents of tribute were coming in yearly from the allies to the city… and there were at this time still on hand in the Acropolis six thousand talents of coined silver (the maximum amount had been nine thousand seven hundred talents)” (II 13.3, translated by C.F. Smith, Loeb Classical Library Edition).

So this poor man owes zillions of talents, and even taking it literally as 10,000 talents, that is more than the maximum contained in the Acropolis of Athens!

The point of course is that this is a ridiculous amount, utterly impossible to repay.  His only hope is for his master to have mercy on him and forgive his debt.  (And what does it say about the wealth and power of the master that he can forgive such a debt!)  By contrast, the second servant owes a hundred denarii (US Lectionary: “a much smaller amount”), which is a hundred days’ wages: a paltry amount by comparison, quite possible to repay with a little time and forbearance.  The disproportion between what he has been forgiven and what he is owed is beyond all measuring.

Understanding these proportions makes clear the limitless extent of God’s Divine Mercy.  We are such debtors, who owe God more than we can possibly repay.  Our only hope is in his mercy, which we receive in abundance, greater even than the uncountable myriad–the zillions–that we owe.


Happy Faults, Good Thieves, and Divine Mercy

April 27, 2011

This weekend’s beatification of Pope John Paul II means that the spotlight will shine even brighter on Divine Mercy Sunday this year.  While a few liturgical purists criticized the late pontiff for injecting such “Polish piety” into the liturgical calendar so close to Easter, it seems to me that divine mercy is at the heart of the Easter message.

If this intuition isn’t obvious, perhaps it’s because we’re in the habit of selling mercy short.  And if we fail to grasp how beautiful, how shocking, how dazzling mercy is, perhaps this is because we’re inclined to confuse it with a legal acquittal or a God who shrugs his shoulders and says “Whatever” to our sins.  Mercy, it seems to me, is much, much more than that.

We often say we’re sorry, usually without much thought, and in reply we usually hear, “That’s OK,” “Don’t worry about it,” “No problem.”  Rarely, if we knock over someone’s coffee cup or show up late for a meeting do we hear in reply, “I forgive you.”

Perhaps it’s best that such weighty words are not expended on social trivialities, but we shouldn’t so disassociate forgiveness from apologies that we begin to think that when confronted with our sins God just mutters “No problem” and gets on with running divine errands.

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