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Commentary on a Parable about Forgiveness that Is Unforgiving, Matthew 18.21-35

 
POINTS TO PONDER for Sunday, September 13, 2020

“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’
Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.’”
— Matthew 18.21-22

“Alright, then; 490 times it is! While humorous, it obviously misses the spirit of Jesus’ words. He created a number large enough to make it ridiculous to keep a count of how often one forgives. Even another translation citing ‘77 times’ is sufficient to get the point across that we are simply to forgive and stop trying to legalistically find a loop-hole in which we don’t have to forgive. That is the spirit of Jesus’ words.

Even still, is the statement more nuanced than this generic interpretation? I used to think that the addition of ‘another member of the church’ was a cop-out, and that we really should forgive everyone without counting. Yet in another place Jesus specifically tells his disciples to kick the dirt off their feet as protest to those who will not accept them. This doesn’t sound like forgiveness.

Was he contradicting himself? Some would say ‘yes.’ I have even done so myself. But my own cultural circumstances in 2020 have made me revisit this and come out with a different conclusion.

‘Church’ would have been an inappropriate term while Jesus was still living with the disciples. There was no church. That didn’t come till well after Jesus’ time on earth. His followers were known as ‘The Way,’ and they were a close-knit group of people who had rigorous standards for membership as disciples of Jesus. They not only gave up all their personal possessions, but committed themselves to an egalitarian lifestyle in which each was given to according to their specific need.

It was assumed that this was a life-long commitment, and that disagreements were to be resolved within the group rather than by some leaving because they don’t like how things are going. Interpersonal relationships with one another, treating each other as siblings and family, were highly valued. You don’t abandon family in that culture. You stuck it out no matter how trying it might be to do so.

One can see in such a subculture how important it would be to offer continual forgiveness; for not to do so would inevitably lead to people leaving the group. Forgiveness is to be perpetual because we are always to prize the person who is our spiritual sibling more than the inconveniences, hardships, and turmoil that their presence might bring to the group.

We post-moderns have a different ethic, one in which we are willing to sever ties with people who are abusive, manipulative, controlling, etc. – even if they are family. They are considered not worth the effort to keep on forgiving them. And, indeed, this is, I believe, the way Jesus felt about those who were not part of ‘The Way.’ If one was invited to visit or stay with a person who is not yet a part of ‘The Way,’ then there comes a time in which it is better to kick off the dust of one’s feet and leave their company than to remain and engage in futile efforts of conversion. But for one who has committed him/herself to ‘The Way,’ we have a different obligation to them.

How different 21st century churches are from ‘The Way’ in Jesus’ day! Indeed, the closest thing to ‘The Way’ today might be the Amish or Hutterites who have their own subculture that lives distinctly from the main culture. Remember how amazed people were when the Amish quickly forgave the man who came to one of their Pennsylvania schools and murdered both children and teachers? There was much debate, I recall, even in our churches about whether to forgive such a thing; and, if so, how soon that should happen. Did they have it right? Or not?

Should we, too, forgive indefinitely those who are members of society; or even just our churches? Or does our cultural understanding, especially with regard to the non-acceptance of abuse, make this a less relevant truth for our own day? Or should we perhaps try to transform our culture to be more forgiving? What do you think?”
— Bret S. Myers, 9/7/2020

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king
who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.”
— Matthew 18.23

“Eeegads! Using the metaphor of slavery simply doesn’t translate to our 21st century ears. I cringe at the very idea of using slavery as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, I don’t even care for the idea of a ‘kingdom!’ I much prefer democracies. And, honestly, I think Jesus would have been equally or even more sensitive had he lived in our day.

‘For this reason’ alludes to forgiving each other within ‘The Way’ indefinitely and without counting. Jesus’ point is that because we are so inextricably bound to one another by oaths of fidelity to the community of the faithful and each person within it, the closest example of that kind of bond in his culture was that of slavery. He did not affirm slavery in his culture; indeed, his own vision of an egalitarian society would wipe slavery out completely. But the oath to each other within the group of disciples had to be something we couldn’t simply choose not to be a part of if it got uncomfortable or even quite difficult. We are ‘slaves’ to the values of ‘The Way,’ not necessarily every person within it who may abuse those values for their own ends.

A King, of course, has more power than his slaves. But I don’t think this is the aspect of the metaphor that Jesus wants us, especially for our day, to latch onto. Instead, I think he would argue that a divine King, like God, would never abuse relationships with anyone. God would be merciful, as God would forgive the debts in a spirit of Jubilee (a period time in Jewish law where all debts are wiped clean). Settling the accounts is to end up with complete debt forgiveness – no matter how large it may be.”
— Bret S. Myers, 9/7/2020

“When (the King) began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”
— Matthew 18.24-27

“Ten thousand talents is a gargantuan amount (viz., 168,539 years worth of salary for a daily laborer in Jesus’ time). No one would ever lend that much and expect it to be returned. And how could that amount ever be spent? Jesus is playful in the absurd amount described, alluding to the extravagant generosity of God to give us far more than we could ever repay.

The one in debt is disingenuous in claiming that he will eventually repay all that is owed. That would have been clear to any listener of Jesus. There is simply no way a common person could ever repay such a huge sum. But while disingenuous, the lender has compassion, and clearly sees that the exaggerated claim of the debtor is simply a desperate and frantic plea to not be sold into slavery to a ruthless master. God is compassionate – a good ‘master.’ But the experience of having human masters back then was, as it was in this country, largely horrendous. God won’t sell us out to an evil master, seems to be Jesus’ implication here. God will listen to even disingenuous pleas because God is compassionate; the way we, too, are to be as members of ‘The Way.’”
— Bret S. Myers, 9/7-9/2020

“But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.”
— Matthew 18.28-30

“A hundred denarii is definitely repayable over time (viz., 100 days of wages), and contrasts dramatically with the 10,000 talents (i.e., 60,000,000 denarii). He was owed very little in comparison to what he had owed. He did not behave with compassion, even though compassion was extended to him. This refusal to have compassion after having received compassion is likely Jesus’ real point. We should all be compassionate is his inference; just like God. And if we are forgiven much, we should definitely be able to forgive little, is the moral.

But that is not realistic to life in terms of the metaphor; for those with less assets, where they are barely making enough to survive, are dependent upon the little that they have. Those with much could give huge amounts of money, and it would not have any impact on their survivability. So the metaphor does not ring true to a thinking person’s ears.

Today, we recognize that the two situations, as assumed here, are not morally equivalent. A wealthy king who even has 10,000 talents to loan out to slaves would not be hurt financially if that was not repaid. The presumption would be that he has far more than that or he would not have loaned out such an amount. But for a slave who has little to his/her name, 100 denarii could mean the difference between feeding your family or not. The king is not at the same risk as the slave. So trying to make it seem as if the slave is somehow hypocritical because he did not act like the king is itself suspect. He doesn’t have the livelihood of the king. The king will not ever be at risk of suffering from want of food, lodging, healthcare, and the other necessities of life. The slave, however, most certainly would be at risk for all of those things.

It is unfortunate that Jesus continues with this metaphor given this obvious unequalness in situations between the king and the slave. The king simply forgave his debt, and did not give him any money in which he and his family could live off of. Had the king not only forgiven the debt, but given him more to live on, that would have been much closer to the egalitarian world Jesus has been advocating for in word and deed. Of course, liberating him from his slavery would also be much closer to Jesus’ egalitarian values!

It seems reasonable that the listeners of Jesus would likely have wondered at the unfairness of the example. And maybe that is the point – to help them see how unequal and corrupt the Roman empire was compared to the generosity and abundance in the kingdom of heaven…in the community of the faithful that made up ‘The Way.’ Consequently, the story is not a prescription for how the kingdom of heaven actually should be or is; but rather is a suggestion as to how radically different it is from earthly empires.”
— Bret S. Myers, 9/7-9/2020

“When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.”
— Matthew 18.31

“I’m appalled at the fellow slaves ratting out the first slave to the king. They all should have been able to empathize with the slave, rather than taking the view of empire and siding with the king. Jesus was quick to forgive the poor, weak, and desperate for their indiscretions and crimes, but he was scathing in his critique of the wealthy, powerful, and greedy for their abandonment of the needy.

So why would Jesus tell the story this way? It is so contradictory to everything that he has previously taught. Jesus has forgiven and healed people who committed all kinds of sins out of compassion for their socio-economic plight; but here, ironically in a story about forgiveness, he portrays others who are in need of compassion having little compassion themselves. Maybe he simply didn’t see the concerns which could be raised about his example. I hope this is the case.
From the perspective of ‘empire,’ they, of course, did the right thing in coming to the king. But in the compassionate kingdom he has been continually referring to prior to this, the slaves should have been forgiving of one who was simply trying to find a way to survive. They would have forgiven, because that is what people of ‘The Way’ are supposed to do. It is odd how much unforgiveness there is in this story that is supposed to teach about forgiveness!

Let us use our moral imaginations to try to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt (just as we should do with each other in our daily lives). We all know that there are those who are poor and suffering who still side with the wealthy and healthy rather than with their own people. It is ironic, but we see such things common even in our own time. People vote against their interests, and buy into the distorted view of those in power – perhaps, as some authors have attested, in hopes that they will one day have that kind of power and wealth themselves.

Within the corruption and falsity of empire, everything is nonsensical. The ruthless seem to win, and the honorable seem to lose. And most definitely the poor and weak, regardless of their ethicalness, are virtually guaranteed to lose. So is Jesus simply continuing with a vivid description of the corruption of the Roman society by which he and his people are oppressed? The metaphor he uses so easily takes us off track from his original intention – which is to remind us how important it is that we all forgive one another. We get distracted by the other slaves having more loyalty to the king, who loans rather than gives, than they do to their fellow slave struggling to make ends meet.

Is it fair to judge a poor person by the same standard as a rich one? A rich person need not steal (or perhaps they have already stolen surreptitiously) for they have far more than enough on which to live. But are they morally better than a poor person who steals in order to help his/her family survive? Their circumstances are so disproportionate as to be morally unintelligible how their actions are anywhere near equivalent.

But again, the primary focus of Jesus’ message is to get us to forgive. And in this example, even the one barely getting by needs to forgive the 100 denarii debt that his sibling in Christ is struggling to pay off.

If Jesus’ intention was to tell a story with various contradictions so as to get us to think in a more nuanced way, well, he definitely succeeded! The story illustrates that we cannot categorically assume the same principles fit people in radically different circumstances. The Romans, and even the Jewish religious hierarchy, are privileged in ways unthinkable to Jewish commoners. Jesus, who has been teaching that each is to be cared for according to their need, may be suggesting that his followers, mostly commoners, not use the ethical categories that those in power consider legitimate. The highest values are not loyalty to those who make the rules, respect for their assets and possessions, and submission to their self-centered perspective. Rather the highest values are forgiveness of those whom empire oppresses and then berates, compassion for their dire circumstance financially, and encouragement to continue to work for a world in which everyone’s needs are fulfilled within the whole community.”
— Bret S. Myers, 9/7/2020

“‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
— Matthew 18.32b-35

“What was Jesus thinking?! Or did he even say this? This is one of my least favorite passages in the Bible, and perhaps the least favorite as attributed to Jesus. The ‘king’ had already forgiven him, and now takes back his forgiveness. That itself is morally and spiritually decadent. It is both retributive and punitive (to the nth degree, since he will be tortured forever -or at least until he dies- given the debt can never be repaid), and is completely contrary to what we hear Jesus say in so many other passages.

Was Jesus baiting his disciples by this inexplicable conclusion? Did the gospel writer leave off the rest of the story where Jesus explains what he was doing here? Or was this attributed to Jesus even though he didn’t really say it?
I have to admit that this is a place where if Jesus actually said this, I, on behalf of all else he has said, cannot agree with him. It is cruel, mean-spirited, and vicious. There are instances in which we should look for nuanced meanings, but some words and actions are so repugnant as to have no redeeming quality.

Torturing someone has to be the epitome of evil. It is intentionally done with the foreknowledge that a person will suffer horribly. I cannot think of anything worse than that. Torture is wrong, always, and forever. Most of life is nuanced; but not that.

The ‘king’ in the story is despicable. And to try to justify it as his teaching a lesson to the slave who didn’t show compassion when given compassion is itself a complete rejection of compassion – especially given how disproportionate the punishment was to the crime committed. The 100 denarii is likely to be able to be repaid; but not the 10,000 talents. A few weeks or months in prison versus a lifetime in prison while being tortured has no commensurability. Also, the king threatened to imprison not only the slave, but also his wife and children. That is abominable. All of their possessions are also to be taken. The slave, while bad enough in imprisoning his fellow slave, did not also imprison his family. Two evils don’t make a good, but these evils are not equal – no where close.

It is also repugnant to say that this is what God will do to everyone who doesn’t forgive. That makes God out to be a sociopathic sadist. That is simply unacceptable. Envisioning such a cruel God legitimizes human cruelty. That has to be renounced.

So how do we make sense of this? Honestly, I’m not sure we can without legitimizing barbarity.

Nonetheless, I believe it is important to try. And the only way I can do so is to assume that we look only for the mytho-poetic meaning behind this story, while rejecting the words themselves. If we re-mind ourselves that at the onset of the story, the point Jesus was trying to articulate is that we should forgive others (so bizarre that the ‘king’ did so only to take it back), the point he may have been making in using such graphically unsettling imagery is to connect a life of being unforgiving with a life of self-torture (and, thereby, not torture from God).

By not forgiving others, we infect ourselves with the malignancy of anger, hatred, resentment, revenge, and all the other nastiness of a vicious life. For those who refuse to forgive, they end up not only hurting their happiness (i.e., their emotional, social, and physical well-being), but also their character and spirit. Refusing to forgive corrupts the soul. And we do this to ourselves. No one, not a king nor God, forces us to not forgive. It is our own choice. This seems to be Jesus’ view as we find it elsewhere in the gospels.

It may be that Jesus was trying to ‘scare’ his disciples into right conduct by telling them of the frightening things God would do to them if they didn’t live the right lives. That has been a tactic used by many cultures throughout the millennia of human existence. Yet, I expect more out of Jesus than to employ such scare tactics. If he said it, it would be yet another instance where he was not being his best self. As I’ve said before, we all have those times in our lives when we regret what we said or did, and Jesus was no exception. But this is such a pernicious and abusive teaching that we need to be forthright in calling it out for what it is: purely unacceptable.

There are many who don’t believe we should ever question God or Jesus, but that is not the Biblical precedent. Abraham called out God on several occasions; even getting God to change God’s mind in doing so. Job, we recall, asked for a trial between himself and God, fully believing that he himself would be vindicated in such a trial by an impartial judge. Jacob wrestled with God, and prevailed. The tradition is long about using our minds, as well as our hearts, to consider whether what we are told about God is really from God or not; and even if it is, whether it is right and good. Not to use these gifts from God is more of a rejection of God, from a Biblical perspective, than to never question what we are told about God.

That is one of the things I love about the scriptures: the spiritual audacity and moral rectitude of some of the characters to challenge God for doing the right thing when it appears that God is not doing the right thing. Adherence to divine values and sacred virtues is a Biblical principle even more important than accepting what God says “willy-nilly” without questioning or judging it for ethical soundness. Even God has to be held accountable for God’s side of the covenant; else it is not a covenant, but a dictatorship.

It seems to me that we need to learn this lesson in America in 2020: to value what is right, good, and true, over what we are led to believe that God or Jesus or the church would have us to do when it does not conform with divine values and sacred virtues. Too many Christians today portray Jesus and God in ways that are wholly uncharacteristic of who we have faith that they are. We should never imagine either of them advocating or implementing torture, violence, cruelty, or other evils on people. Whenever we see someone do that, that should be a huge red flag that they are creating God in their own image, not vice versa.

If we learn no other lesson from this story than this; well, that may be quite enough.”
— Bret S. Myers, 9/8/2020

“Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.”
— Thomas Paine

“Cruel men believe in a cruel God and use their belief to excuse their cruelty.”
— Bertrand Russell

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