How many second chances ought we to give, Lord? Seventy times seven second chances.
In the parable we read at Holy Mass today, the servant owed the king a huge amount. After the servant begged for mercy, the king forgave the loan.
We want to relate to the magnificently magnanimous king. But can we deny that some debtors really do push us too far? Everyone knows somebody who simply doesn’t know how to stay out of debt, and won’t learn. Black holes of the good will of everyone around them, helpless and incorrigible. They try the patience of good people beyond the breaking point.
So: Let’s give the first servant in the parable the maximum benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that he had borrowed from the king only this one time. Meanwhile, his fellow servant had borrowed from him, without repaying, over and over again. Let’s acknowledge that any of us, driven to the extreme by such a deadbeat relative or friend, would long since have let him or her rot in jail, rather than swoop in with an “emergency” loan again.
All this may have been true in the scenario outlined in the parable. But still the king faulted the first servant for his lack of mercy.
Now, is this a reasonable judgment, considering the genuine limitations of human generosity? I’ve had to say it myself; after all, it is true: “Look, I want to help you. But I am not made of money.”
So, to understand all this, I think we need to keep in mind the context of this exchange between St. Peter and the Lord. Peter asked how often he must forgive his brother immediately after the Lord Jesus had explained a particularly amazing power that the Church possesses. The Church, a living family with duly appointed authority figures, has the power to bind and to loose, in the name of God. The living authority of the Church keeps the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Both to bind and to loose. Holy Mother Church can and does bind. She can and does impose penalties–penalties with potentially horrifying and everlasting effects. There are things we have to stay far away from, if we know what’s good for us. Sacrilege, apostasy, abortion.
But the Church, when she binds someone with a penalty, always binds with the hope of ultimately loosing. Church penalties aim at correction and then restoration of communion. She never tires of forgiving the miscreant who repents. No one ever runs out of second chances with the Church. Everything the Church has belongs to everyone who humbly seeks Her goods, even if it’s a deadbeat who has confessed the same terrible sins too many times to remember.
So it doesn’t necessarily make any of us a bad person if we conclude that such-and-such cousin or nephew or old college roommate or former co-worker has come asking for help just one too many times. We individuals on our pilgrim way have our limits.
But what we can’t do is judge anybody any more harshly than Holy Mother Church does. And the Church is always ready to start over, as if today were the first day of a brand new friendship.