Mar 22, 2022: Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent

1st Reading – Daniel 3:25, 34-43

Azariah stood up in the fire and prayed aloud:
“For your name’s sake, O Lord, do not deliver us up forever,
or make void your covenant.
Do not take away your mercy from us,
for the sake of Abraham, your beloved,
Isaac your servant, and Israel your holy one,
To whom you promised to multiply their offspring
like the stars of heaven,
or the sand on the shore of the sea.
For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation,
brought low everywhere in the world this day
because of our sins.
We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader,
no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.
But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received;
As though it were burnt offerings of rams and bullocks,
or thousands of fat lambs,
So let our sacrifice be in your presence today
as we follow you unreservedly;
for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.
And now we follow you with our whole heart,
we fear you and we pray to you.
Do not let us be put to shame,
but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy.
Deliver us by your wonders,
and bring glory to your name, O Lord.”

Daniel was a prophet to the Israelites in the midst of their exile in Babylon. Although the book that bears his name tells us virtually all that we know about Daniel, the author is unknown.

Daniel was taken into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar and pressed into service. Admirably, he serves the king with loyalty and ability while remaining true to the God of Israel.

Today’s reading comes from the stories of Daniel and his companions at the court of Babylon. Because Daniel’s friends refuse to adore a golden statue erected by the king, they are thrown into a fiery furnace, where they sing canticles of praise to the Lord without coming to any harm.

This specific selection from those canticles of praise is a penitential hymn sung by Azariah. The whole episode bears out the truth of what God told Israel in Isaiah 43:2: “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned.”

Azariah stood up in the fire and prayed aloud: “For your name’s sake, O Lord, do not deliver us up forever, or make void your covenant. Do not take away your mercy from us, for the sake of Abraham, your beloved, Isaac your servant, and Israel your holy one, to whom you promised to multiply their offspring like the stars of heaven, or the sand on the shore of the sea.

Azariah’s prayer has the tone of acceptance. He accepts the circumstances he finds himself in and calls on God in his time of need. He asks God to take action on the grounds of the covenant made with the patriarchs.

For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation, brought low everywhere in the world this day because of our sins. 

Azariah acknowledges that Israel as a nation deserves punishment and has no real right to anything else.

We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received; as though it were burnt offerings of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, so let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.

Azariah humbly asks that God hears his call in their humility. In the midst of the Babylonian exile, they have no mechanism with which to offer a formal sacrifice, so he asks that they themselves be accepted as a sacrifice to God.

And now we follow you with our whole heart, we fear you and we pray to you. Do not let us be put to shame, but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy.

Just as Azariah’s sense of guilt is communal, so is his promise to repent. He seems to speak for the Israelites as a whole.

Deliver us by your wonders, and bring glory to your name, O Lord.”

Our reading ends with Azariah’s insistence that God’s goodness and mercy must now be revealed; God’s very honor requires that he rescue them.

Psalm 25:4-9

R. Remember your mercies, O Lord.

Today’s responsorial psalm is from Psalm 25, a prayer for forgiveness and guidance, written in acrostic form.

This psalm calls to mind the fact that God’s saving action requires a response. Having been saved, what responsibilities do we now have? How should we live so as not to fall back into the situation from which we were saved? If God is just, what kind of lives should we be living? The psalmist’s answer comes in the form of a petition to God: Teach me your ways.

Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;

The word “way” has a very close association with the Wisdom tradition and refers to a manner of living, specifically the way of righteousness or the way or evil. The term often designates movement or direction on a road rather than the road itself. Here it could refer to a style of life.

teach me your paths,

“Path” appears in parallel construction with “way” and also refers to a style of life. When this expression is used in reference to God, it can mean either God’s own ways of acting or the ways God teaches humankind to follow. This psalm seems to allow for both meanings.

guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior.

The psalmist asks the Lord to instruct him in his ways, for it is from God that salvation comes.

Remember that your compassion, O LORD, and your love are from of old. In your kindness remember me, because of your goodness, O LORD.

Covenant language is very strong in this second stanza. “Compassion” comes from the word ráham and might be translated “womb-love.” It refers to a deep and loving attachment, usually between two people who share some kind of natural bond. “Love” is loving-kindness (hesed), which denotes loyalty to covenant obligations.

Good and upright is the LORD; thus he shows sinners the way. He guides the humble to justice, and teaches the humble his way.

The final stanza comments on the righteousness of God, which is attentive to both the sinners and anawim (the humble). These groups are seen on the same plane: the humble person is one who acknowledges his sin to the Lord.

Gospel – Matthew 18:21-35

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
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.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
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?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

Today’s gospel reading is from Jesus’ discourse on how to handle problems within the community. Peter’s question and particularly Jesus’ reply prescribe the spirit of understanding and mercy which should govern Christian behavior.

Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? 

Just prior to this passage, Jesus outlined the three-step process that his disciples should use “if your brother sins against you” (Matthew 18:15). Peter understood that if God forgives, as Jesus taught and showed, then God’s disciples must be ready to forgive, too. So Peter wants to know how often he should forgive.

The word used for brother is adelphós, a member of the believing community.

As many as seven times?”

The rabbis taught that the duty to forgive had been fulfilled if one forgave an offender three times. Peter must have thought he was being extraordinarily generous if he forgave seven times, a number that in Hebrew culture symbolized perfection and completeness.

Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.

Peter probably expected a warm commendation from Jesus for his suggestion to forgive as many as seven times. Instead, Jesus teaches that we should forgive seventy-seven times. In Hebrew, the number seventy-seven carries a symbolic meaning of “always”, i.e., without limit, infinite (see Genesis 4:24).

In saying this, Jesus is contrasting humankind’s ungenerous, calculating approach to forgiveness with God’s infinite mercy.

“Therefore, our Lord did not limit forgiveness to a fixed number, but declared that it must be continuous and forever” (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily on Saint Matthew, 6).

That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.

Jesus employs a parable to not only reinforce the teaching that we must forgive but also to illustrate why we must forgive. It is one of the sternest passages in the gospels.

When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.

The Greek text tells us that the first debtor owed ten thousand talents. A talent was 6,000 denarii, and a denarius was a working man’s daily wage. This is 60 million days’ — over 191,000 years’ — wages.

This is not just a huge amount, it’s astronomical.

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.

The unreal amount is matched with a very realistic and common procedure: the sale of a man and his family into slavery for a debt, even though the sale wouldn’t cover the debt. The remaining amount would be written off, but by making the sale, the master would both make an example of the man and ensure he would never cause anyone a problem again.

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.

Moved with compassion (splanchnízomai), the king not only accepts this unrealistic promise of repayment, but forgives the entire debt.

When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount.

The Greek text indicates that the second debtor owed one hundred denarii, only 1/600,000th of the first man’s debt, about 100 days’ wages.

He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

Note that the second man’s actions are identical to the first’s: he falls to his knees and begs for patience with exactly the same words. Neither asked that the debt be forgiven, and they both promised to pay it back. Unlike the first man’s debt, there was a possibility of this debt being paid, if not by him, then by his family.

But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.

The ludicrous contrast in the amount owed demonstrates the difference between the mercy of the king and the hardheartedness of the first debtor.

Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. 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?’

This question encompasses the point of the entire parable.

Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.

The king punishes the official with torture because he has not forgiven as he was forgiven. Torture does not repay the debt, and no end to the torture is possible under these conditions.

So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”

With one sobering statement, Jesus draws a connection between the generosity of the king and that of God. If we are unwilling to show mercy, the mercy already shown us will be taken back, and a severe retribution will be exacted.

But wait, we might ask, isn’t God always willing to forgive? Would he truly withdraw forgiveness and have us tortured? Didn’t Jesus just tell Peter that there must be no limit to our willingness to forgive?

When the servant in the parable refuses to forgive his debtor, he becomes an unrepentant sinner. As long as Peter, or any disciple of Christ, withholds forgiveness from another, he simultaneously separates himself from God’s forgiveness, not because God is unwilling to forgive but because the disciple is. A disciple’s unwillingness to offer forgiveness constitutes an unwillingness to repent of this sin and to receive forgiveness.

Jesus had already taught his followers the connection between giving forgiveness and receiving it when he taught them how to pray: “… and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). To fail to forgive is a kind of torture, but it is self-inflicted.

God is always willing to forgive, and so we, who have already received that forgiveness, must stand ready to forgive as well.

“Force yourself, if necessary, always to forgive those who offend you, from the very first moment. For the greatest injury or offense that you can suffer from them is as nothing compared with what God has pardoned you” (Saint Josemaría Escrivá, The Way, 452).

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