When people ask how my parents reacted when I began the application process for seminary to actively begin discerning the priesthood, I explain how supportive they were. It wasn’t a complete surprise. We had many conversations over the years, and they had met with my pastor and talked with other priests along the way so that they could discuss their understandable questions and concerns, which made them feel a bit more secure and confident in my taking this big step. There was one thing, though, that got my father a little crazy. Back then, to begin formation for the Archdiocese of Newark, seminarians had to take out loans for the four to six years that a man would be studying at Seton Hall University. If you proceeded and were eventually ordained, you would be responsible for 15% of the loan, with the Archdiocese making the rest of the payment each year for however long it took to repay it. You were responsible for all the loans if you left and were not ordained. For my father, that was lunacy. My parents had worked hard to put me and my brothers through college – I worked as a Resident Advisor for three years so that I could graduate from college without any debt. Not having debt was always a big deal drilled into us by our parents and grandparents. Even when my brothers and I went to college and got our first credit card, they were maniacal in warning us to only ever use it in an emergency situation and, even then, to pay it off immediately. That was the mentality we were raised with. So my father thought that as I was considering the priesthood and all the sacrifices that are expected with that calling if I were to discern that this wasn’t my vocation and then to be saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in loans with a Theology Degree was insanity. When he learned that other dioceses not only didn’t make their men do that but were giving their seminarians a stipend just for studying for their diocese, he thought I was insane for not, as he put it, finding better options.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 17, 2023. I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
Long story short, four years later, not long before ordination, the financial aid office at Seton Hall met to explain the different loans that were all in my name, how every October I would get a statement that said I owed somewhere around $700 which was 15% and the Archdiocese would be making a payment for the rest for the next 15 years. I recognized I needed to budget to have the funds available each year for this annual payment that was due. Even though this was a manageable amount, I felt that anxiety from time to time. When an unexpected expense popped up, like needing new tires for my car, did I have enough of a buffer, or did I need to make some cuts to ensure I had enough to cover what I knew was coming due? It was the first time I experienced holding a substantial debt. It helped me appreciate the sacrifices my parents and grandparents had made throughout my life and have more real-world experiences that most of the families that I would be ministering to contend with every day. It’s something that a vast majority of us have a variety of experiences with.
That is what makes this parable of Jesus so accessible and relatable. When we hear some of the other parables Jesus offers in the Gospels, dealing with mustard seeds or sheep, for those of us who don’t have a lot of experience with farming or shepherding, we have to have them explained in a way that makes sense. But the experience of dealing with a debt – for those who get a paycheck, having a lot of it taken away for taxes, and trying to figure out how and what to pay for with what’s left is a far more common experience.
That being said, it’s interesting that this translation we just heard removes a few details that make the example even more striking. The parable has three acts: the King with his high-ranking servant, that servant and his dealing with a fellow slave, and then the second encounter between the King and the high-ranking servant. Our Lectionary translation has Jesus saying that the high-ranking servant owed the King a “huge amount.” What exactly does that mean? My huge might be different from your huge… That’s not quite descriptive enough. The example that Jesus uses in the original text is “ten thousand talents,” which by 2023 US dollars perspective is akin to this guy owing $8.6 billion. This is a guy who made around $25,000 a year, yet he owes $8.6 billion. What he did to get into that pickle, I have no idea. But the point is that it’s practically impossible for the guy ever to pay that back. He’d have to win the Powerball at its highest Jackpot 9 times. It’s unlikely he will ever be able to make even the slightest of dents into this truly astronomical sum. So after that debt is forgiven, the guy encounters someone who owed him; what Jesus says in the original text was 100 denarii – 100 days’ wages, again in US dollars perspective is about $8,000. The more you sit with these details, the more dramatic this example becomes.
Jesus uses this dramatic story in response to Simon Peter’s question about how often he must forgive his brother’s sins? This question always makes me laugh wondering, did Simon Peter’s biological brother, the apostle Andrew, do something that day that got under his skin – or maybe one of the other 11 apostles was constantly annoying, butting heads and arguing with him? Whatever was Peter’s motivation, we have to remember that in the passages before this scripture, Simon Peter has been identified as the leader of the apostles by Jesus himself; he’s gotten a pretty clear and direct message that this wasn’t because of anything he did but was directly connected to Simon Peter’s ability to keep his focus on Jesus – Simon Peter can’t go with his first, gut instincts in terms of leadership, he needs to follow Jesus’ example. So Simon Peter’s trying to listen, trying to learn from Jesus. Right before this whole scene, what we heard last week was the importance of bringing up an issue of an infraction done by a brother one-on-one and hashing out a problem with them, desiring to reconcile as the goal. So Simon Peter has heard all that and now is trying to get clarity. How many times, how many infractions, when is enough enough? He’s asking Jesus what’s reasonable in terms of forgiveness.
For Jesus, the reality is there is nothing reasonable about forgiveness.
For many cultures and religions, forgiveness is seen as a weakness. Even for the Jews, while they had experienced God’s mercy multiple times and in many ways, their thoughts of mercy was Moses’ allowing “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Mercy for them was where justice was being harnessed to prevent vengeance.
In this parable, though, Jesus is completely redefining the terms: Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness but acting God-like. Mercy is not about mitigating one’s revenge but being an act of sincere, genuine love. So, in the parable, not to dismiss the $8,000 debt as being no big deal, particularly for these two guys who it would account for 100 days of work. But in light of the extravagant generosity of the King in wiping away $8.6 billion debt, a sum that this man and generations of his family could never have repaid, how does that not completely change his entire worldview?
And that’s the question for us as well: does this change ours? Because that’s the point of the story. That’s the point of the Cross. Jesus the King looks at each and every single one of us who, by our sins, rack up an astronomical sum that would be impossible for us ever to “work off.” He wipes out the debt by laying down His life on the Cross. How does that change our worldview?
Particularly in a world where people, corporations, and even governments run up wild debts saying, “Everyone does it; no one expects it will be repaid.” Where there’s this arrogance that “forgiveness” is something we’re entitled to. These attitudes have disastrous consequences on a worldly level but even worse on a spiritual level.
About five years after my ordination, having made 5 of my Seminary Tuition loan repayments, Archbishop Myers had been recently installed as the Archbishop of Newark. In getting familiar with our Archdiocese, he learned about the tuition repayment. He quite suddenly announced in a letter that from that day forward, he was no longer asking seminarians to take out loans to begin formation for the priesthood here and so he was also forgiving all outstanding loans. Enclosed was the paperwork which released me from any further obligations. Some could have diminished the gift saying “well that’s what they should’ve done in the first place” or even arguing “well do I get those other 5 payments that I already made back?” Forgetting what had been agreed to, ignoring the generosity that had been extended and to receive it with humility and gratitude. Recognizing what had just been done and to look for opportunities to be similarly generous.
We can’t presume God’s mercy and treat Jesus’ death on the Cross as some blank check that allows us to do whatever we want and it’s all good. And we can’t let the gift of that mercy not to affect how we treat one another. The Cross is meant to cause us to desire never to accrue any further debt. So we are to strive to resist temptation actively; we have to repent and turn away from sin when we fail, recognizing how those sins nailed Jesus to the Cross. And we are to just as actively strive to offer forgiveness to others. It is true; some people hurt in ways that seem impossible even to consider the topic. I watched this documentary that revisited memories of September 11th with the anniversary this past week and seeing and hearing stories of families ripped apart by those terrorist attacks 22 years ago, but for many, they sound as grieved and pained as if it happened yesterday – there’s that impulse to say this doesn’t apply to them. But it does. It applies to all of us.
At the same time, I don’t believe Jesus expects us to be as ready, willing, and able to do what He does as perfectly as He does. He does expect us to refrain from saying, “I will never forgive you.” He challenges us to be open to forgiving – not pretending something didn’t happen or forgetting it, or even saying that things will go back to the way things were before whatever it was that hurt us occurred. But He does expect us to try. And when we fail, to try again. And to never give up on trying to forgive someone else. Remembering that no matter how many times we struggle – He has never and will never give up on us.