Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Purgatory Mercy of God: Homily for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

"Purgatory" (detail), Lodovico Carraci, c.1610, Vatican Museums.
My dear brothers and sisters,

The refrain of the psalm this morning has us reaffirming that the Lord is clement and compassionate, and I would like to take cue from this refrain to speak about Purgatory as an example of God’s mercy and compassion.

To do so, let us first turn our attention to a tiny segment of the gospel for today which caught my attention as I contemplated the day's lectionary:

Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.

Now, we know that the crime of the wicked servant was that he did not show the same compassion to his fellow servant which the master had shown to him. Note, also, that when the master summoned the wicked servant for the first time and demanded the recovery of the debt, he simply had him summoned, and on realising that he could not pay, and turned him over to the due process of the law, the pagan law of the time , and thus – “ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt.”

What does this wicked servant do when he encounters a servant who owes him a debt? Does he show his colleague the compassion that the master showed him? No! To the contrary, he seized him and began to choke him. This is to say he does not follow the due process of law, but engages in an extra-legal, illegal even, assault. Further, instead of recognising that thanks to the generosity of the master who had forgiven his debt entirely he was now in the possession of money that he had no right to, and instead of extending this grace to his colleague, he had the colleague thrown into prison until the debt he was due was paid back.

If you had been the master, what would have your reaction to this entire episode been? What does this servant deserve? Does he, or did he, deserve compassion? If one followed the pagan law of the time, some might suggest that the first servant deserved nothing less than death. And yet, what does the master do? He sends him off to prison and the torturers until he pays back his debt. Note, that the punishment that is meted out to him is not the sale of his wife, children and property as was the decision of the master in the first case. On the contrary, the punishment meted out to the wicked servant is the same punishment that the wicked servant had extended to his colleague.

Thus, we have the first example of God’s compassion and clemency, that he does not do to us what we deserve, for what we deserve may often be a hundred times worse. What the servant deserved was death, or perhaps a reprisal of the first sentence. Instead, what he got was in equal measure to his sins against his brother. Let us recall to mind the words from the Lord’s prayer “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. We are forgiven in the measure of the forgiveness that we extend to those who sin against us.

The clemency of God also extends to the fact that this punishment extended to the wicked servant was not for all eternity. On the contrary, it was for only “until he should pay back the whole debt.” In other words, he was obliged to be imprisoned only until he had repaid his debt, he was given the opportunity to eventually get out of jail and return to normal life. As you know, in the Bible life and death, are code for eternal life, and eternal damnation. The parable was speaking of heaven and hell, and the sentence that the wicked servant was handed out was not eternal damnation to hell, but only a temporary period outside of heaven.

But what do we make of the detail in the parable where the master makes to the punishment meted out to the wicked servant. Whereas the wicked servant merely turned his colleague over to the jail, the master now turns the wicked servant over to the torturers. This is hardly paying back in the same coin. On the contrary, this is a terrible punishment! How do we make sense of this?

It is here that I would like to point out how much this portion of the parable shares with the concept of purgatory that is a part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In Para 1030 of the Catechism, Holy Mother Church teaches that:

All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

The subsequent paragraph affirms that “The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire” in Purgatory. The torturers in this case, then, are not a reference to pain inflicted on a person to obtain perverse pleasure, but in fact are a part of a cleansing, a purification so that we are given a chance to be purged of our sins, even after death, i.e. our time on earth. Listen to the words of Psalm 118:18

the LORD has chastened me severely,
but he has not given me over to death.

Or Proverbs 3:12

…the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in.

It is, therefore, love that motivates the anger of God, the God who punishes us so that we may eventually be with Him and enjoy the beatific vision for all time.

It is with this understanding of God’s clemency, His compassion, and His love, that we can perhaps gain a deeper understanding of Jesus’s response to Peter, “I say to you, [forgive] not seven times but seventy-seven times.” God’s mercy and compassion extends not only to our time on earth, where we have been given the opportunity to hear the word of God and to respond to it wholly, but also after we have passed from this world. In other words, we are given a second chance! And bear in mind that the option for eternal life was bought at the price of the torture, the passion, and death of His only Son. Often, we are too casual with this fact. We are the wicked servant, who despite having benefited from the mercy of God, who gives us not the Hell that we deserve for our actions, but the opportunity of eternal life, do not show mercy in turn to those around us. On the contrary, what do we do? We hug wrath and anger tight! We demand vengeance. 

But you may ask, the first reading is plain about the problems with all of this, why have recourse to the idea of purgatory? The idea of purgatory is necessary because it is the last recourse of the persecuted of this world, which is so full of persons who go scot-free despite the great sins that they commit. Let us go back to the gospel:

Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair.

The colleagues of the wicked servant represent the powerless of this world. With no way to find justice on this earth, they raise their voices to God, and it is a sign of the mercy of God that he assures them that the unjust too will find their reward. As God says to Cain in Genesis “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” 

We have been promised that the meek will inherit the earth and the rich and powerful shall be called to judgement. But note, my dear brothers and sisters, how eternal vengeance is not something that is perpetrated by God. On the contrary, after they pay for their sins and purify themselves, these sinners too, if they are open to the saving grace of God, may be given the beatific vision. And remember that in purgatory we pray not for ourselves, but for others, and we rely as much on the prayers of others for us as on our own prayers. There is, therefore, no space for vengeance in the Christian vision of the world, neither here on earth, no in the life to come.

And for this reason, my dear brothers and sisters, I make my own the words of the first reading which I address to you:

Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbour;
remember the Most High's covenant, and overlook faults.

(A version of this homily was first preached in Portuguese at the Capela do Rato, Lisbon, on 17 September 2023. )

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