“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” These words were proclaimed in 2016 by former US president George W. Bush during a memorial service for five police officers killed in the line of duty in Dallas, Texas.
These remarks remind us that for all our platitudes about the Golden Rule – “Treat others as you wish to be treated yourself” – being at the heart of every major religion, as human beings we repeatedly fall short of this standard in the way we judge the actions and motives of others.
Nowhere is this inequality more evident than in the realm of crime and retribution. Consider the comments section underneath any online news article about a court case or a traffic accident, for instance. Or, closer to home, let us consider our own attitudes. When we encounter the foibles and weaknesses of others we expect the book to be thrown at them; yet when we ourselves (or our loved ones) are in the dock, it is mercy that we implore.
This disparity is not limited to our time, obviously. In fact, it features regularly in the teachings of Jesus. Consider the quasi-comical image of the man seeking to remove a speck of sawdust from his brother’s eye while oblivious to the plank in his own.
"When we encounter the foibles and weaknesses of others we expect the book to be thrown at them; yet when we ourselves (or our loved ones) are in the dock, it is mercy that we implore"
Our Lord evidently felt very strongly about this matter; in fact, he places the forgiveness of others as a precondition for a person’s reception of forgiveness from God. He even includes this essential clause within the model of prayer that he offered his disciples: “Forgive us our trespasses as (i.e. inasmuch as) we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Today’s gospel parable unpacks this message even further. It tells of a servant who owes an enormous debt (10,000 talents) to his master. Converting this colossal sum into modern-day currency is almost impossible; scholarly estimates range from hundreds of millions of dollars to a few billion dollars (depending on whether they were talents of gold or silver). Whatever the sum, however, it is clearly an unpayable debt.
The master, moved with compassion, forgives the servant’s debt entirely. However, this same servant, upon encountering a fellow servant who owes him a much smaller debt (the equivalent of three months’ wages), refuses to show mercy, and has him thrown into prison. The unfairness and callousness of his action is emphasised by the fact that both servants beg for mercy using the same phrase: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”
When the master hears about this, he becomes enraged and his great mercy now gives way to terrifying judgement: “You wicked servant! 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?” The unforgiving servant is thus handed over to the jailers until he can repay his debt.
The parable leaves no doubt that we are that first servant. Despite the fact that we are constantly the recipients of God’s awesome magnanimity, we persist in condemning others for debts far smaller than what we owe God. We forget that mercy is a two-way street.
In the words quoted at the beginning of this commentary, Bush was alluding to the increasing polarisation that so often splits apart our communities along political, ideological, religious, and ethnic lines. Seven years later, sadly, the global (and local) situation is markedly worse. Humbly acknowledging that we are sinners in constant need of God’s mercy, and that we too must extend forgiveness to those around us, may go some way towards healing these divisions.