As we forgive those: sermon on twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

“The lord of that servant being moved with pity, let him go and forgave him the debt…”

This gospel seems to shed much light on God’s providence in regard to us on earth and the souls in purgatory.

What is the first lesson we learn? The principal intention of almighty God in regard to sinners is to have mercy on them. The servant brought to see the king, who owes him ten thousand talents, is an image for a soul in a state of sin. Ten thousand talents wasn’t just a large sum, it was a fantastically large sum for a private person to owe. It is as if we were to go to see our bank manager, and he were to tell us that we had an overdraft the size of the national debt of the United States of America. Our Lord uses this image because even one mortal sin has a sort of infinitude about it, being an offence against the divine majesty. And yet, out of pity, the king writes off the whole debt. It is an image for the love of God the Father, who sent His Son to earth with many remedies by which mankind, if they really want to, can be disentangled from the bonds of their sins. First there is baptism, then confession, then indulgences (because confession, though it takes away all sins, doesn’t always take away the whole debt of punishment due to them). We can think, for example, of the apostolic pardon, which is part of the last rites, and which makes available to the dying man a plenary indulgence, for the very moment when the soul departs the body. This all shows us not only that our Heavenly Father does not want any soul to be lost, He does not even want any soul to have to pass through purgatory, but rather to be ready to enter heaven immediately after death.

The second lesson that we learn from this parable is perhaps more surprising. Almighty God sometimes makes other people’s deliverance from purgatory depend on our forgiveness of their sins against us. In the parable, the first servant is not willing to forgive the debts of the second servant. This debt, by the way, is not a trifling sum. 100 denarii was a lot less than 10,000 talents, but it was still about three months’ wages for a working man. And so the second servant has to go to a debtors’ prison. Notice that we are not told that the king annuls the action of the first servant. He lets justice run its course. 

If people have wronged us during our life, even though they are repentant in purgatory, then sometimes God delays their release from purgatory until we on earth have forgiven them from our heart. For He takes seriously the wrongs that are done to us. I believe that many souls are in purgatory who might already be in heaven, if those on earth whom they have wronged had fully forgiven them. In a marvellous way, God mingles justice and mercy, and allows us to share in His work of mercy.

The final thing that we learn from this parable is the dire state of those who refuse to participate in God’s work of mercy, and who, so to speak, set themselves up as more just than God. This is the situation of the first servant. Notice that he is not simply sent to a debtors’ prison, but rather handed over to the torturers until he should pay all his debt. We seem to learn from this that there are some distinct regions within purgatory itself. Some of the holy souls are principally waiting: waiting for someone on earth to pray for them, or to forgive them. Others of the souls are suffering in a way that can only be described to us by means of this terrible word “torture”. It is not that God allows the demons to torture them: the holy souls have already won the victory over the demons by dying in a state of grace. It is rather that their remorse of conscience is so acute. And the gospel gives us to understand that the purgation of those who would hardly forgive others while on earth, can be very long-drawn-out.

So, as we prepare to enter the month of the holy souls, let us tell God that we forgive from our heart all those who may have wronged us, as we ourselves hope to be forgiven; and may all His friends soon be reconciled and reunited in His heavenly kingdom.