Forgiveness disarms self-centeredness

Living the Word / By Tim Irwin

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Sept. 17

Sirach 27:30—28:7; Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35

This week’s Gospel teaches the Ethic of Reciprocity. We know it as the Golden Rule. It shows up in virtually every culture and religion across human history. When people discover an idea independently in lots of different places and teach it as a golden rule for the best way to behave, maybe we ought to follow it? Just saying.

In recounting the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, the Gospel offers us an example of the demands of the Golden Rule. It all starts when Simon Peter asks Jesus how often he must forgive his brother. He floats the number seven, suggesting about where his patience ends.

Jesus answers, “I say to you, not seven times but 77 times.” (Matthew 18:22).  Mathew doesn’t record Peter’s response.  “Why should we forgive so often” seems like a good guess.

Jesus explains in a parable:

“That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’  Moved with compassion, the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.” (Matthew 18:23-26)


The Master is God and the debt is sin. The Master models love — the commitment to the good of another for the sake of the other. He forgives the unforgiving servant the debt that surpasses what he could ever repay. The Master is inviting us to be other-centered. We are called to live in terms of others in the context of the common good. We are drawn out of self-centeredness to serve others in relationships of love and acceptance.  We are invited to trust others in a spirit of kindness and compassion.

Our dependence on God is real. We can never repay our debt.  So let us pay it forward in a spirit of reciprocity by forgiving others seven times 70.

The Unforgiving Servant represents us when we are self-centered. He is so consumed with himself he is driven by his self-centeredness to control others in order settle his debt with the Master on his own terms. He has a relationship of domination when confronting his fellow servant who owes him a small debt and resignation when begging for his master’s patience in the face of a debt he could never repay. He neither forgives, nor does he realize the Master has forgiven him. He considers others to be untrustworthy and feels justified in hurting them without pity.

The arrogance of the unforgiving servant deeply disturbed the other servants and they relayed the incident to the Master. “His master summoned him and said to him, ‘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?’” (Matthew 18:32-33)

In addition to the Ethic of Reciprocity, cultures and religions worldwide also teach that if we want happiness — joy and contentment now and into eternity — we must be other-centered.  The self-centered person focuses on pleasure and gratification as their sole source of happiness. It’s a trap that snares every one of us to some degree. Forgiveness disarms the trap and reveals that lasting happiness doesn’t result from getting what we want, but from doing the good we can do for others. Our dependence on God is real. We can never repay our debt.  So let us pay it forward in a spirit of reciprocity by forgiving others seven times 70.

TIM IRWIN teaches theology and philosophy at Notre Dame High School in Peoria. He is a member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Morton.


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