Compared to the evangelists, Paul isn't much of a story-teller. He usually states a truth, develops it, then walks away from it to explore another facet of faith. But in spite of his "dry methodology," the first verse of Sunday's second reading (Rom 14:7-9), is "a keeper:" "None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself."
Paul doesn't have to weave a story around those words. We weave our own stories. Their force, simplicity and truth trigger our memories and imaginations. We've all had experiences that started off totally directed to and controlled by ourselves, but ended up totally directed to and controlled by someone else.
We, by nature, long to control. We have a need to dominate situations and people. Yet, once we look at faith as a way to achieve a fulfilling life and not just as a system to get us into heaven, we realize that one of the main principles of following God is learning how to let go, how to give up control.
Living for God
Biblical faith revolves around developing a relationship with God, not in controlling God. As Paul put it, "If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord." The Apostle need go no further than Jesus to find an example of someone who did both.
"That's why Christ died and came to life again," Paul writes, "that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living." By surrendering life, Jesus not only gains life, but also becomes a model and support for those striving to do the same. He not only tells us to let go, He shows us by His own dying and rising what happens when we take that step into the dark.
Sirach and Matthew stress the importance of letting go in one very specific area. They reflect on the one act in which we daily give up all control: forgiveness. But they don't just mention forgiveness and then pass over the concept. Each compares our actions with God's. If we don't want God to control us, we'd better avoid controlling others.
"Forgive your neighbor's injustice," Sirach teaches (Sir 27:30-28:7). "Then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should someone nourish anger against his fellows and expect healing from the Lord? Should someone refuse mercy to his fellows, yet seek pardon for his own sins?"
Faith seems to be a package deal. If we have a dominating relationship with others -- controlling them by holding their failings and sins against them -- then we probably have the same kind of relationship with God. But there's one difference. God not only "plays the game" better; He also has much more against us than we could ever accumulate against someone else. If God plays by our rules, we're in deep trouble.
Matthew, in story fashion, takes the concept one step further than Sirach. In Jesus' parable, God doesn't wait to forgive us until we've forgiven others. God makes the first forgiving move, a move which makes our refusal to forgive others even more horrendous (Mt 18:21-35).
"Moved with pity," Jesus tells us, "the master let the official go (the one who owed him a `huge amount') and wrote off the debt. But when that same official went out, he met a fellow servant who owed him a mere fraction of what he himself owed. He seized him and throttled him. `Pay back what you owe,' he demanded."
In the original Greek, the "huge amount" is "ten thousand talents" and the "mere fraction," a "hundred denarii." At that time, one talent was more than 15 years' wages for a common laborer; one denarius was one day's wage.
So there's no comparison between the two debts. That's why the master's last words cut so deeply into our hearts: "Should you not have dealt mercifully with your fellow servant, as I dealt with you?" In other words, "If I refuse to exercise control over you in humongous matters, why do you insist on controlling others in trifling matters?"
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of forgiving is the number of times Jesus expects us to do it; much more than Peter's generous "seven-time" limit for any one individual. Jesus takes the perfect seven figure and multiplies it into infinity.
That seems to be Jesus' way of telling us that we'll reach infinity only when we completely give up any idea of controlling others.