Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-22)
Jesus said, “the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” And he found a guy who owed him 50 billion dollars!
Now that’s a round figure of course. I may be a few dollars out. The original text says the man owed him ten thousand talents, which is a little ambiguous, as a talent is a weight. It’s like owing someone a certain number of ounces.
Generally when someone owes you some ounces, we‘re talking about ounces of gold or possibly silver (or possibly cocaine). But there’s no reason in this story not to assume that Jesus was talking about ounces of gold (or rather talents of gold) except for the ridiculous figure that this generates, but I think we’re used to hearing Jesus speak in extreme terms, using extreme images.
The man comes owing 50 billion dollars, and of course he cannot pay. What possible venture, we might ask, had he embarked upon such that he needed to borrow an amount greater than the GNP of any number of countries?
Was he building a second temple perhaps? Was he developing a massive stadium and an over-sized Olympic village in preparation for some incredible international event? Was trying to repair his church’s roof? (sorry, but when it comes to things that never stop costing, it’s hard not to think of that one)
We have no idea. What we can surmise is that the money had been lent and spent, and that he could not therefore repay his debt. So the king decides to cut his losses – selling his financially incompetent servant and all his family into slavery and repossessing whatever worldly wealth he has. One can only imagine though that the King’s losses would have been quite considerable.
The servant though, we are told, starts pleading pathetically with his master, “just give me a bit more time. I’ll have the full amount for you by next week!”
If you’ve watched any number of Mafioso movies you are familiar with this line. “I swear to ya, on me mother’s grave, I‘ll have the money for ya in a few days time!” To which the answer always is, “sure you will, Louie!” but we all know that Louie is going to be sleeping with the fishes before that money ever sees the light of day.
And yet that’s not what happens in this story! The big boss, instead of measuring up his servant for concrete shoes decides to drop the whole thing! ‘Ah … forget about it!’, he says, at which point the stunned servant makes a hasty exit before da boss comes to his senses.
But on the way out he bumps into a guy who owes him about 10 grand ($10,000) – not an insignificant amount by any means, but relative to his own debt, entirely trivial. He pushes this guy for his money. The guy pleads for a bit more time, but the first guy is merciless, and has his debtor arrested!
Word gets back to the king about what has happened, as word was always going to get back to the king sooner or later, and the first guy finds himself in even deeper trouble than he was in the first time. The story concludes with the king handing the first guy over to the gaolers (or as it’s translated in some versions, ‘the torturers’) where he will remain until ever last cent of his original debt has been repaid.
The conclusion appears to be a bit of black humour on the part of Jesus. Obviously torturing someone is not going to help recover a debt, and imprisonment as such won’t do that either. Even so, I’m conscious that there are still magistrates today to apply this sort of logic.
I remember when I was in Bangkok (many years ago) one of the local churches had a ministry to inmates of the immigration prison, which was far more overcrowded and unsanitary than the regular prison. People would be sent to the immigration prison because they had overstayed their visas, normally because they had been unable to afford a ticket out of the country. While they were in prison though they continued to be fined for each day they over-stayed, and while the daily fine was only a few dollars, there were some inmates in that prison who had been there for years and years, with their fine ever accumulating, such that their own governments could not have afforded to get them out even if they’d wanted to (which they generally didn‘t)!
At any rate, It’s a bit of a dark ending to what looked like it was going to be a very happy story about the generosity and love of a gracious king. Instead of ending up like so many of Jesus’ other parables about the Kingdom – with a great big party where everybody is celebrating – this story concludes with the king in a rage and everybody else in prison.
What went wrong? How could that first servant, who had been forgiven such an unbelievable debt, be so heartless towards his buddy, who owed him such a relatively trivial amount? It just doesn’t make sense!
And yet of course, the behaviour of the king’s behaviour doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense either!
How could he afford to overlook a debt the size of which is likely to cripple his national economy. Is that generosity or irresponsibility? And of course we’re told that he forgives the guy that debt, but did he ever really forgive him? He certainly didn’t forgive and forget, did he? As the end of the story makes clear, he hadn’t forgotten at all. Hence the forgiven man finds himself suddenly unforgiven – a reminder perhaps that this king’s forgiveness is not to be presumed upon or trifled with!
Of course this is just a story, and perhaps we shouldn’t be squeezing every element of the story to its logical conclusion. And yet this is a pretty crazy story with some pretty crazy characters. But of course, forgiveness is a pretty crazy thing!
It’s not natural – forgiving people. You learn this very quickly when you take up boxing. I can tell you with some authority that when someone punches you in the nose, the natural reaction is not to say, ‘nice shot’! The natural response is to punch back.
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – this is what comes natural. This is the normal way we work as human beings. Indeed, not only is it natural, but the concept of responding in kind is actually built in to our fundamental concept of justice! Forgiving people who have done wrong is not natural. Indeed, it is not only contrary to the normal inclinations of our human nature, but it would appear to be a denial of natural justice.
I think of a good friend of mine whose daughter was killed in a car accident by a maniac unlicensed driver who flew through the red light and hit his girl’s car at a terrible speed, killing her instantly. Forgiveness was not the outcome we were looking for when the matter went to court. Indeed, the very concept of forgiveness in that context seemed abhorrent!
It’s not natural, and it doesn’t seem to be right. And it must be said that there’s nothing especially religious about the concept either (broadly speaking). Apart from in the teachings of Jesus, forgiveness, I think you’ll find, is not always even upheld as a virtue by the religions of the world.
I got to hear an excellent presentation on Hinduism this week by a friend of mine, where he spoke about the concept of ‘karma’. Good actions bring good ‘karma’, and bad actions don’t lead to forgiveness. They lead to bad ‘karma’.
I remember when my buddy Morde Vanunu was first arrested in 1986, and a spokesman for the Israeli government was talking about the punishment that was going to be meted out to him, and this person said, “remember that we are not a Christian country”, but which I assume he meant that forgiveness was not something highly valued in his culture (at least as he understood it).
Most religions have at their heart solid concepts of justice and fairness that entail good rewards being reserved for the good people. It was only Jesus who insisted that the Kingdom of God would be made up of persons from across the moral spectrum, as from across every spectrum – red and yellow, black and white, male and female, rich and poor, sinners and saints – as He indeed told us that there would be tax-collectors and prostitutes waltzing into the Kingdom of Heaven with joy ahead of so many upright religious persons.
Jesus, it seems, believed that grace, mercy and forgiveness were ultimately more important to God than seeing people get what they deserve – that it is part of God’s very nature to forgive.
Sometimes it seems He just forgives people like some crazy king, in ways that don’t make sense! But this is our God, and this is hence to be the nature of our Christian community – not the society of the upright, but the fellowship of sinners who live by the Grace of God in the cross of Christ, and who pray, “Lord, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.