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Admitting our sinful lovelessness and need for forgiveness

On the Readings for Sunday, September 17, 2023.

"The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant" (1556) by Jan Sanders van Hemessen. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

• Sir 27:30—28:7
• Psa 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12
• Rom 14:7-9
• Matt 18:21-35

“To err is human”, wrote Alexander Pope, “to forgive, divine”. Alas, modern readers sometimes assume that “err” refers to an innocent mistake or laughable foible. But to err (from the Latin, “errare”) means to depart from moral truth, to spurn right action. Pope, in fact, was making reference to this statement by St. Augustine: “To err is human, but to persist in error out of pride is diabolical”.

This same truth is presented in this Sunday’s reading from Sirach: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” The text contrasts vengeance with forgiveness. It makes clear all men are sinners. The questions that follow are vital for everyone: Will I forgive those who have committed injustices against me? Will I seek pardon for my sins, knowing life is short and God is a just judge?

It is always challenging to hear this passage, but it is especially difficult to contemplate around the anniversary of the shocking and violent attacks we often simply call “9/11”. What took place that day was diabolical, even while the brave and selfless response of so many to the pain and death around them was dramatic and inspiring. The questions raised by such violence are painful and trying. How, in the face of such evil and destruction, can we forgive those who trespass against us, and who wish to destroy us? Is it possible? Is it necessary?

We can see why Alexander Pope would write that forgiveness is divine, for man’s natural inclination is toward revenge and hatred, to return in kind (but without kindness!) and many times over. We might feel the same desire for retaliation when we are victims of a lie, treated unjustly, mocked for stating the truth, or “crucified” for our beliefs.

Of course, Jesus Christ was the victim of lies, was treated unjustly, was mocked for being the Truth, and was crucified—literally, not metaphorically. And yet the Savior, hanging upon the Cross, cried out, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

In doing so, Jesus provided a radical example of his demanding teaching, as heard in today’s Gospel. In telling the parable of the unmerciful servant, he purposefully exaggerated the immense difference between the two debts. The “huge amount” owed by the king’s servant was ten thousand talents, or about twenty years of earnings (some scholars suggest it was even more). The man could not repay what he owed; he was completely at the mercy of the king. Having begged for his master’s patience, the man was not only shown mercy, but granted complete freedom from all debt. The word of the king transferred him from a state of perpetual slavery to a state of liberation. At one moment, his life was essentially over; the next, he was transformed and free.

Yet he failed to be truly grateful toward the king or gracious toward others. Seeing a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller amount—about a single day’s wage—he demanded repayment, and then had the begging servant cast into prison for not producing the money. We immediately recognize both the rich mercy of the king and the grave injustice rendered by the first servant, whose debt had been forgiven but whose heart remains unchanged.

Why is it so difficult to put Jesus’ teaching into practice? Why is forgiveness so hard? There are many reasons, but a fundamental issue is our failure to love as God loves us and to give up what is rightly ours so that righteousness can flow forth to others.

“Almost no other parable”, wrote Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “confronts us so dramatically with the extent of our sinful lovelessness: we demand incessantly from our fellow men what we think they owe us, without giving a moment’s thought to the immensity of the debt God has forgiven us.”

We all sin; we all need forgiveness. And the forgiveness we receive and give is a divine gift.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 11, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. God is love. God is Perfect. Sin is never loving. Love is never sinful.

    We are tempted like Arius, et al., to teach heresy that denies the revealed Truth of God.

    Since Catholics cannot remain Catholic by denying the Deposit of Faith/Truth, we are also tempted to bypass the Truth of God and live as if sin is not sin, to pretend God can unite to sin we call love.

    It’s not God’s fault that He is Perfect. When we repent of our sins and obey His Commandments, we return His love.

  2. Let’s be realistic Urs von Balthasar [unfortunately you’re not in a position to answer me, though someone might]. If you happened to meet a person among others who owed you, the cause for your arraignment before a magistrate for not paying a debt, would you embrace him lovingly saying, forget what you owe me. Before I go to jail I want you to know I love you and forgive your debt?
    What then is Christ seeking to teach, if the parable scenario is complex? Hard to figure. The person who owed the one arraigned before a magistrate begged forgiveness. What if he didn’t? Would you still embrace him lovingly? What if he laughed saying hope you get ten years? Well, it seems to me [if no one else] that Our Lord is feeding us pablum. Stuff for kids, because we’re unable to digest the hard stuff. That is the fundamental choice to forgive no matter what, because forgiveness is the nature of divine love. He truly ‘gifts’ us as the author notes. That forgiveness is, in this life, nevertheless conditional unless we forgive our debts. We’re called to assume a divine posture of unconditional forgiveness in imitation of the One, who in the end, alone has the right to judge.

  3. Bullseye. Holy Mother Church strikes again.

    You never know, I suppose, when what you write is going to hit the bullseye, as if it were a divine act.

    Mother of God, obtain for me the grace to truly forgive all who have injured me, and to truly love my enemies. For the sake of your Son.

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