Pass it on – Tuesday, the Third Week in Lent – Daniel 3:25,34-43/ Matthew 18:21-35

The heart of today’s readings is unmistakable; it has forgiveness written all over it. Be it asking for forgiveness from God in the first reading or to consequences of not forgiving others in the Gospel.

The first reading taken from the book of Daniel presents itself in the exilic period of the Babylonian deportation which took place in the 6th century BC. The Babylonian king in the narrative is Nebuchadnezzar. However, the Book of Daniel was written in the 2nd century BC during the reign of the Greek king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

So how do we explain this complexity? Imagine yourself living under a despotic leader (there is no dearth of them in the world right now) who has curtailed your religious freedoms and dictated that you worship his faith and gods. If you were to criticize him openly you would find investigative agencies that would hold you forever in a prison under some trumped-up charges. So, to get your message across you speak of Hitler, from a bygone era, whose very actions are reflected in the despotic ruler of your age. By doing so, your readers know whom you are talking about without the consequence of being witch-hunted. That’s the book of Daniel for you in a nutshell.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes (which means a manifestation of God) erected a statue of the Greek god Zeus and slaughtered a pig and all this was done in the temple of Jerusalem. The writer of the Book of Daniel ‘recalls’ a similar incident when Nebuchadnezzar installed a statue of himself and wanted the Jewish exiles in Babylon to worship it. Three young men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused. The dictator wants to make an example and so they are to be executed in a fiery furnace.

The reading of today is the prayer of one of them. It is not a prayer asking to be saved from death but a prayer of forgiveness for a people whose sins have brought them into exile. It is a prayer of admission of guilt that has brought a nation so low that they have now become the least. These three “contrite souls” stand as witnesses to the fidelity of Yahweh whom they serve (3:17) and even if God, in his wisdom, chose not to deliver them from this persecution, they would bow down to no other god (or dictator).

This prayer of forgiveness is tender and heartbreaking. Four times the young man pleads to God with the words, “Do not.” Yet he asks not for himself but for these people who deserved the exile, who deserved the covenant of God to be withdrawn, who deserved his favour to be rescinded and asks that they be treated as gently as God himself is gentle. We know from history that God forgave his people and sent them home to Jerusalem under King Cyrus.

Which brings us to the Gospel. “How often do I have to forgive my brother?” asks Peter. For Jesus that was an obvious answer, as often as God has forgiven the crazy debt of 10,000 talents that he forgave you of; or to give 10,000 talents a more modern-day equivalent, 1,50,000 years of service. Yes, you read that one right.

You can’t ever repay a forgiving God whose debt is beyond measure. So, what can you do? Well just pass it on. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. But the Gospel of today also comes with a warning; woe be upon you if you don’t.

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