Can we get something worthwhile from scripture every day? I’m hoping to find out as I use the daily bible readings of the Catholic Church.
Reading 1, Daniel 3:25, 34-43
25 Azariah stood in the heart of the fire, praying aloud thus:
34 Do not abandon us for ever, for the sake of your name; do not repudiate your covenant,
35 do not withdraw your favour from us, for the sake of Abraham, your friend, of Isaac, your servant, and of Israel, your holy one,
36 to whom you promised to make their descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as the grains of sand on the seashore.
37 Lord, we have become the least of all nations, we are put to shame today throughout the world, because of our sins.
38 We now have no leader, no prophet, no prince, no burnt offering, no sacrifice, no oblation, no incense, no place where we can make offerings to you
39 and win your favour. But may the contrite soul, the humbled spirit, be as acceptable to you
40 as burnt offerings of rams and bullocks, as thousands of fat lambs: such let our sacrifice be to you today, and may it please you that we follow you whole-heartedly, since those who trust in you will not be shamed.
41 And now we put our whole heart into following you, into fearing you and seeking your face once more.
42 Do not abandon us to shame but treat us in accordance with your gentleness, in accordance with the greatness of your mercy.
43 Rescue us in accordance with your wonderful deeds and win fresh glory for your name, O Lord.
Gospel, Matthew 18:21-35
21 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?’
22 Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.
23 ‘And so the kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants.
24 When the reckoning began, they brought him a man who owed ten thousand talents;
25 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.
26 At this, the servant threw himself down at his master’s feet, with the words, “Be patient with me and I will pay the whole sum.”
27 And the servant’s master felt so sorry for him that he let him go and cancelled the debt.
28 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, saying, “Pay what you owe me.”
29 His fellow-servant fell at his feet and appealed to him, saying, “Be patient with me and I will pay you.”
30 But the other would not agree; on the contrary, he had him thrown into prison till he should pay the debt.
31 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.
32 Then the master sent for the man and said to him, “You wicked servant, I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me.
33 Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow-servant just as I had pity on you?”
34 And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt.
35 And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.’
(The passage from Daniel demands a historical note. The book of Daniel tells stories about the time of the Persian rule over Israel but in fact comes from the time of the Greek rule in second century BCE. The passage quoted here comes from a Greek translation of an original Aramaic chapter which has been lost.)
Both passages demonstrate the greatness of the Bible. The first is very strange: a man stands praying to God in the midst of a furnace. Far from being burnt to a crisp, he is able to offer a beautiful and lengthy prayer for God’s help. The deliberate lack of realism in the narrative is intended to remind the reader, that Israel has often sought God from the midst of the cauldron of oppression. A burning man prays eloquently to his God-what greater image of Israel could be given? The whole work of a modern Jewish prophet like Eli Wiesel could be described by this image. The prayer acknowledges the sins of Israel, and the justice of God’s punishment, but in humbly offering himself and his companions in place of the burnt offerings, which cannot be made, because the temple has been destroyed, the speaker makes an offer which he knows God must refuse. How could God agree to be known as the God who accepted the offering of three burnt worshippers? Even from the midst of the fire, Israel bargains with God, and at least in this case, wins.
When Eli Wiesel prayed at the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz, “God, do not forgive those who did these things,” he also was challenging God. He was asking, “Do you want to be known as the God who accepted the burnt offering of six million Jews?” We do not know what God said in reply. The writer of Daniel has imagined a way of expressing faith from within the most extreme suffering, a faith which rebels even as it endures.
Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant might be an illustration of the petition, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” in the Lord’s Prayer. The language of debt is appropriate to a society plagued by problems of debt in Jesus’ time, when traditional land ownership and business was being destroyed by new money flowing through the conduits of the Roman Empire. The possibility of being sold into slavery to pay a debt was real enough. The master’s cancellation of his servant’s whole debt goes beyond justice (the man just asked for more time), and shows generosity, graciousness. The servant accepts but does not understand the master’s goodness and treats a brother with the full rigour of the law, which is in turn brought to bear on him by his justifiably outraged master.
In Thomas Merton’s phrase, Jesus asked his followers to live in a “climate of grace,” receiving and giving the same generosity. Some scholars have seen in Jesus’ use of the language of debt-cancellation, the old laws of the Jubilee year from the book of Leviticus: every 50th year, slaves were to be set free and debts cancelled. Whatever the source, Jesus’ announcement of God’s advance of trust to his children, in order that they may treat each other with a like generosity, remains a profound challenge to every kind of meanness.
Would Wiesel’s great prayer have any point if deep down he didn’t intuit God’s desire to forgive?