Consider this famous parable, contained in a recent daily Mass gospel:
“That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.”
Clearly the lesson here is that we should place no bounds upon our mercy – we must forgive others as God forgives us. But when I was pondering this recently, I was struck by a more literal reading, one that resonates in our current financial crisis. As we all know, the crisis was precipitated by the massive debt and leverage of Wall Street financial institutions. On the verge of collapse and bankruptcy, they were bailed out by the government, and nursed back to health (and large profits). But the assets on their balance sheets are other peoples’ liabilities. Think, for example, of the huge housing debt burden hanging over homeowners, with mortgages held by financial institutions and other investors. And yet these same financial firms that were bailed out by the government in turn were the biggest opponents of any debt relief to homeowners – debt relief on a far smaller scale.
I have a feeling that Jesus has something to say about that.