XXI Sunday after Pentecost

Collect: Keep Thy household, O Lord, with continual loving-kindness, that by Thy protection it may be free from all adversities and devoted to Thy name in well-doing. 

Epistle: Ephesians vi. 10-17
Gospel: Matthew xviii. 23-35

An image of the torments of Hell attributed to spiritual writers of note, in particular St. Augustine of Hippo (+430), caught my attention although I haven’t been able to snag the exact citation. Whether it goes back to St. Augustine, or, as some say, to St. Anselm (+1109 – who might have gotten it from the Doctor of Grace), St. Alphonsus de Liguori in his Preparation for Death and the Protestant divine Jeremy Taylor (+1667) depicted it in words: In comparatione noster hic ignis depictus est. By comparison to the fires of Hell, the fire of this world is like a mere painting of fire. God may have made the fire of this world for the use of man, but He created the fire of Hell for the chastisement of sinners. As Tertullian put it, “Longe alius est ignis, qui usui humano, alius qui Dei iustitiae deservit.” The idea is that the flames of Hell are like ministers of divine justice.

The squeamish or overly optimistic might retort that, since God is good, surely there is no one in Hell.

Are you willing to bet your eternal soul on that merrily absurd notion?

As I write it is the anniversary of the final apparition of Our Lady to the three children at Fatima. Our Lady, shielding them from the full force of the vision, had in July shown them what Hell looked like: a “vast sea of fire” and souls floating like sparks in the conflagration. I don’t think she lied to them. In Mark 9:43 Jesus speaks of “unquenchable fire.” I believe Him.

The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas (+1274) describes the pains of Hell as being in two main categories. The first is the “pain of loss,” that is, of two things: of Heaven and of the Beatific Vision. The torments of the damned, says Thomas, are infinite because they involve the loss of the infinite Good, who is God. The other torment is the “pain of sense,” caused by one’s own conscience (perhaps described by Jesus in Mark 9:48 – “their worm does not die”), violence by other damned and raging souls, torture by demons (who would be competent at elaborate and creative hurting), and by the aforementioned “unquenchable fire.”

In this Sunday’s Gospel we have the parable of the merciless or unforgiving servant, found only in Matthew 18. For context, Our Lord had just instructed His disciples about how to deal with people who are sinners, especially if they won’t be admonished. He solemnly proclaimed, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 18). Peter, perhaps thinking about the seven-fold vengeance of God against anyone who should harm Cain (Gen 4:15) queried Christ about how many times we are to forgive those who sin against us. “As many as seven times?”, Peter asked. “Seventy times seven,” responded the Son of God. In other words, an extravagant 490 times, which number harkens to Daniel’s cycles of seventy weeks or 490 years (Dan 9:24-27), including the length of time from the decree to restore Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity to the year of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Hence, 490 is symbolically suggestive of forgiveness.

It is also a number far greater than Peter seems to have expected. Keep in mind that in the ancient world, people didn’t deal with numbers like “a trillion here, a trillion there.” For the ancient Romans, sexcentum, or 600, was used for an indefinite, immense quantity. To plant the lesson and drive it home, mayhap especially to Peter who at Caesarea Philippi was dubbed the chief binder and looser of the Church (Matt 16:19), Our Savior delivered this ominous, salutary parable.

You know it well, of course, since it comes around every year at this time, when we are hearing more and more from Holy Church during the Vetus Ordo Mass about the end times and the judgment of the world. In the Novus Ordo, it is read on a Sunday only once every three years.

To review, a great lord settled accounts with servants who owed him money. The first servant owed, in the translation read at the Novus Ordo in these USA, “a huge amount.” Well, sure. But what it really says in Greek is a debt so vast that it is quite simply beyond possibility even to accrue it much less pay it back. Remember, parables have twists in them which grab your attention. The real amount owed by the servant is, in Greek, 10,000 talents which, broken down into denarii (the day-wage coin) is 60 million days of wages, some 168,384 years. The servant groveled and the lord forgave the debt, an extravagance as unlikely, if not more so, than the size of the debt forgiven. That’s how lavish God is with forgiveness, provided we humbly ask for it. Immediately after receiving this largess, the newly exonerated servant put a fellow servant into debtor’s prison for owing him the outstanding sum of 100 denarii, less than a third of one year, after his colleague had begged him for mercy. Everyone was angry at this. Their boss found out. He threw that merciless servant into prison to pay all of his 60 million days of debt. In other words: forever.

The merciless, the unforgiving, wind up in Hell.

Let’s underscore that with something the Lord says elsewhere.

If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matt 6:14-15).

The Lord had in this chapter just taught His disciples how to pray: The Our Father. The only thing Jesus goes back to explain in the Our Father is the need to forgive.

If we do not strive from our hearts to forgive those who wrong us, we risk the fires of Hell.

A Roman, Counter-Reformation painter, Domenico Fetti (+1623) did a series of paintings depicting the parables of the Lord. His painting of today’s parable is of the moment that the unmerciful servant is strangling his debtor in what looks like a remote place of a stony palace, fittingly at the bottom of a staircase. The poor man being choked is clearly in distress. He clutches at the stone. He looks with pleading, terrified eyes out of the painting straight at us.

Trailing into the stairway above them is a long grape vine, suggesting Christ’s description in John 15:5ff of Himself and those who are connected to Him… or not:

I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.

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