Sirach is one of the deuterocanonical (or in Reformation parlance, “apocryphal”) books. Until recently it was known only in a Greek translation, although we knew from the prologue that it was originally written in Hebrew. Fragments of the Hebrew original have been discovered at Qumran. The author was Jesus ben Sirach, who wrote it about 180 BCE.
It was translated into Greek by his grandson about 130 BCE. It is, therefore, a late book, not too far removed from the New Testament period. The teaching of our excerpt reaches a height not far from the New Testament in what it says about forgiveness (see the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, and today’s gospel about the unforgiving servant).
Slightly different selections of verses from this psalm are used on the third Sunday of Lent and on the seventh Sunday of the year in series C.
The reason for its choice today is that human forgiveness is meant to be patterned after divine forgiveness, as both the First Reading and the Gospel testify.
The context of this passage is a discussion about the relation between the strong and the weak members of the Church. Recent work on Paul’s letter to the Romans suggests that this discussion was occasioned by tensions in Rome between Gentile Christians who were liberal in their attitude toward the law and Jewish Christians who were scrupulous about legal observances; they were the strong and the weak, respectively. Paul urges mutual toleration. The strong in particular should respect the scruples of the weak.
As so often, Paul moves from specific practical problems to the underlying theological principles. The fundamental principle here is that no Christian exists by himself or herself, but only in relation to the Lord (the risen and exalted Kyrios, that is, Christ), and therefore in relation to other Church members, who are equally related to the Kyrios.
This excerpt looks very much like a baptismal hymn. This is indicated by the “we” style common in hymns and by the way the hymn goes beyond the point immediately at issue, namely, the relation between weak and strong, to speak of the living and the dead. As Lord of the living, Christ is the Lord of both groups within the Church.
The parable of the unforgiving servant is found only in Matthew’s Gospel. We do not have to deal, therefore, with a redaction of a known source like Mark or Q. Matthew’s redactional contributions are: (1) attaching the parable to the saying about forgiving seventy times seven, with the connecting link “therefore”; (2) placing this whole complex at the conclusion of the community discourse, thus making the parable a moral exhortation for the community; (3) adding the final saying, which draws the moral.
Note the typically Matthean phrase “my heavenly Father” (Mt 18:35). Also note that the saying of verse 22 and the teaching of the parable do not really fit together. The parable does not inculcate repeated forgiveness but rebukes refusal to show mercy on the part of those who have received mercy from God.
There is no reason to doubt that this is an authentic Jesus parable. It fits in perfectly with the situation in his ministry. Jesus has offered God’s eschatological forgiveness to his hearers already here and now. If they do not share in this forgiveness with other people, God will revoke that forgiveness at the last judgment. This parable was told by Jesus, not as a moral exhortation about life in the Church, but to shame the consciences of his hearers.