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58. Ocean of Mercy (Matthew 18:21-35)

September 13, 2017 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Meditations, The Better Part

“O Christian, be aware of your nobility – it is God’s own nature that you share; do not then, by an ignoble life, fall back into your former baseness.” – Pope St. Leo the Great

Matthew 18:21-35: Then Peter went up to him and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.

‘And so the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants. When the reckoning began, they brought him a man who owed ten thousand talents; but he had no means of paying, so his master gave orders that he should be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, to meet the debt. At this, the servant threw himself down at his master’s feet. Give me time he said and I will pay the whole sum. And the servant’s master felt so sorry for him that he let him go and canceled the debt. Now as this servant went out, he happened to meet a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii; and he seized him by the throat and began to throttle him. Pay what you owe me he said. His fellow servant fell at his feet and implored him, saying, Give me time and I will pay you. But the other would not agree; on the contrary, he had him thrown into prison till he should pay the debt. His fellow servants were deeply distressed when they saw what had happened, and they went to their master and reported the whole affair to him. Then the master sent for him. You wicked servant, he said I canceled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you? And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt. And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.’

Christ the Lord This passage immediately follows Jesus’ instructions to his Twelve about being good shepherds. That instruction took place in a small gathering after a full day of ministry. One can imagine the disciples discussing it. Possibly, one of the many quarrels among them arose as their discussion turned upon how many times they should go after the same sheep if it keeps wandering away. Rabbinic teaching at the time placed the limit of forgiveness at three times – a fourth offense was not to be forgiven. Perhaps Peter was proposing a reform of this custom in light of Christ’s lesson, while some of the others were sticking to the traditional view, and so he brought it to the Lord to settle the question. That was the right thing to do. The buck stops with Jesus. He is the Lord; he is the final word God has spoken to us. In him we have the answers we need for every dilemma we face. Like Peter, we should bring our questions to the Lord in prayer; we should cast the light of the Church’s teachings on our moral and intellectual quandaries. And, also like Peter, we should accept Christ’s solution.

Christ the Teacher  In Christ, God offers us forgiveness of a debt we could never pay – the debt of sin. But when we refuse to forgive the little offenses others cause us, we handcuff God’s mercy and put ourselves under strict justice. Previously, Christ pointed out, “For as you judge, so will you be judged, for post on Matthew 18:21-35and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Matthew 7:2). This is the way God has found to unfurl his mercy without compromising his justice; he leaves each person free to choose between the two.

But this lesson is hard for us to learn. We tend to resent not only willful offenses, but also innocent mistakes. Whenever someone else causes us even a tiny inconvenience, we can easily lash out at the offender. This is especially the case close to home – we often have less patience with our siblings, parents, spouses, children, or roommates than we do with strangers and acquaintances.

In this parable, as in the Our Father, Jesus gives us the secret to forming a patient, forgiving heart. It consists in recognizing the immense evil of our own sin, and thereby perceiving the vastness of God’s goodness in forgiving it. Until we see the ugliness of the ingratitude and selfishness that characterize our relationship with God, we will never grasp how generous his forgiveness really is. When we do, however, our shriveled hearts expand, and our joyful patience knows no bounds.

Christ the Friend This brilliant parable rightly convicts us of our repulsive self-righteousness, but we should not therefore overlook its illustration of Christ’s magnanimity. Jesus himself is the King who forgives the “huge amount.” In the Greek text, this amount is quantified as 10,000 talents – an unimaginable, astronomical quantity of money. Likewise, Christ’s compassion exceeds even the malice of his own murderers: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” he spoke from the cross (Luke 23:34).

Jesus: You can count on my forgiveness. You just need to do what this servant did: kneel down before me and ask for it. I know that sometimes it’s hard for you to accept this forgiveness; your pride keeps you from forgiving yourself, so you hold my forgiveness at arm’s length, or you doubt it. I don’t want you to doubt my forgiveness. I want you to be absolutely sure. This is why I made it tangible in the sacrament of reconciliation. When you come to me through the ministry of my chosen, ordained priest, you actually hear my own words speaking through his voice: “I absolve you from your sins….” I invented this wonderful gift just for you, just so I could flood the depths of your misery with the ocean of my mercy.

Christ in My Life It amazes me to think that I can always come to you; I can always ask you a question; you are always available. You never cease thinking of me. Like Peter, I can turn to you to resolve my doubts. Why do I turn to you so infrequently? Why do I forget about your presence, your guidance, your passionate interest in my life?

Forgiveness is harder for me in some cases than others. Some people who have wounded me really don’t deserve to be forgiven, Lord. And yet, you offer your forgiveness to them. Why, then, do I resist? Free me from this snare of the devil. Teach me to forgive, no matter how I feel. Refresh my embittered heart. You love even those who have offended me terribly, and you can turn them into saints…

Thank you for putting no limits on how much you would forgive me. Thank you for continuing to assure me of your forgiveness through confession. There is no hesitancy in your love for me, no holding back, no tinge of self-seeking. Why don’t I trust you more? Jesus, teach me to trust you more…


PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.


Art for this post on Matthew 18:21-35: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant slightly amended, Jan Sanders van Hemessen, c. 1556, PD-US author's life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Guest

    Now this is a truly faith-filling Artcle. I love the way Jesus is reassuring me. I find it hard at times to forgive myself and He has just reminded me I need to do this because He has forgiven me the Mount Everest of my lifetime sins. “My Jesus you really deserve to be loved with every fibre of my body.” And thank you Fr. John for the way you continue to assist me in my journey of Faith

    • Melissa

      Forgiveness of self is the most challenging area of my spiritual life. I also thoroughly enjoyed this article. It also spoke to me about family relationships, how hard we can be on those we love the most

    • I agree. Forgiving myself is one the hardest things for me to do. Just earlier today I was despairing over this. But the good Lord heard me and reminded of His love and mercy. He help me humbly accept His love. This article being linked again today was perfect timing!

      Thank You Lord for Your great merciful love! For loving us even when we cannot love ourselves.

  • Kathy

    What can I do in the situation I am in now where I know I must forgive someone who has hurt me, but that person continues to hurt me? I have tried to stay away from that person, but she continues to harrass me and won’t leave me alone thus causing me great pain and having to forgive her over and over again. Each time this person continues to hurt me, I am finding it more difficult to forgive her as the situation is affecting both my mental and physical health.

    • Joanna

      Kathy, I had … and still have … a similar situation… more than one person actually. My spiritual director advised me that I should keep a healthy distance, as far as possible. Obviously, this might be a person that you have to meet often, so in that case, my spiritual director advised me to be strong with myself and not let such a person ‘overcome’ me so to speak, in the sense that I must not let myself be affected mentally. It is very difficult I know because I have been through it but with perseverance and by time you will manage to be in control of the situation. Nobody has the right to break another person, so don’t let this person rule your life. Having said that, it is also good to pray for this person, and be open to him/her … but keeping guard not to be hurt over and over again. God bless!

      • joan

        I second the suggestion to pray for the “offender”. This was taught to me by someone else and has
        been so effective for me. At first the
        best I can do is “God, you know how I feel , but I know it’s my duty to pray
        for this person so please bless them (blech) because they’re driving me crazy!”
        –  It is like taking yucky medicine and
        probably the least sincere prayer ever. But
        I know that God will hear my prayer and
        bless them, which is why I am so reluctant to say it! Honestly I am jealous at their receipt of grace
        – which I have yet to pray for, but which I know will be given – could I
        possibly be any more petty? Often a powerful
        and deep mutual regard comes from nowhere and remains between me and “my enemy”
        even when that seemed inconceivable. I have several friends who I simply could not stand not long ago. And strangely, we all seem to know “something happened” to change us but we don’t discuss it.

    • Becky Ward

      I agree with Joanna and Joan. In addition, here is a short quote from the Catechism that has helped me very much, and a link to the page where you can find the whole teaching. I would definitely recommend reading it……even if you’ve done so before.

      CCC 2843 – “………It is there, in fact, “in the depths of the heart,” that everything is bound and
      loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the
      heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and
      purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.

      This makes sense to me. People often tell us, “Don’t let them have that much power over you.” But try as I might I always feel the hurt, and I thought I was defective because of it. This tells me otherwise, and provides the necessary guidance in dealing with the hurt at the same time.

      The section I’m referring to begins with 2838, about 1/2 way down the page.


    • Guest

      Kathy, Joanna’s advice is very sound. Hard as the situation is, remember when someone hurts you, you do have the power to decide how you respond to them within yourself. Say a short Prayer and reflect on how Jesus would react in such a situation.  He will give you strength to ignore the hurt and instead of allowing yourself to feel pain, you shall instead respond to that person with kindness and tell them politely that what they are doing is not right. Calmly tell them that if they continue with that habit, you would rather not associate with them again. That way, you deflect the effects of the hurtful action/words by refusing to be hurt. In the end the person hurting you, especially when they are doing so deliberately because they know how you always react, will lose their power to hurt you. It is also wise try to avoid them as much as possible if they persist being so unkind

  • Lyonsjoan

    Fr. John brings to mind how we as a Christian nation have not follwed God’s way. Just as St Paul told the Israelites in Romans 10:3-4: that they did not discern God’s righteousness and establsihed their own righteosness, we too, as a nation have not submitted to God’s righteousness. So as we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin afainst us,” we “tie God’s hands of mercy.” 

  • Tutti

    Forgiving and forgetting, forgiving and not forgetting…it does not probably matter anymore for as long as after forgiving, the hurt is gone, and the person who forgave is happy and have the peace of Christ and one can desire goodness to come to the other and one pray for the other.  Thank you Fr. John for this very enlightening article. God bless you always!

  • Anneli Sinkko

    Forgiveness calls for obedience … obedience to Jesus’ commandment: ‘Love one another as I have loved you’.

    I mean, how in the world could we hold a grudge against somebody when we have not been offended nearly like God has been offended — so highly that he has to pay the life of his Son in order for us to be forgiven? That is exactly the point of Matthew 18 with the parable of the unforgiving servant

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