A Provocation: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 17, 2017: Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18:21-35
18:21 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?”

18:22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

18:23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.

18:24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him;

18:25 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.

18:26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’

18:27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.

18:28 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.’

18:29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’

18:30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.

18:31 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.

18:32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.

18:33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’

18:34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.

18:35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

A Question or Two:

  • If you were Peter, would you have said “Seven times”?
  • Would you have guessed a higher number?
  • Or lower?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is another well-known, well-worn scene that delivers an important bit of advice: forgive each other, forgive each other, forgive each other even more still.  As with most of the scenes like this in the gospels, the advice good (but worth analyzing) and the text has been the base for many, many basic sermons.

And like most scenes like this, there are always oddities.

In this scene, the oddities start with the basic advice:

Peter asks a good question: How many times is just too many?

If he is asking how many times he has to forgive minor annoyances, then seven times is a ridiculously small number.  Even 77 times is not too many times to be bothered by someone you encounter frequently.  And so you have to wonder if Peter is one of THOSE people who keeps score and remembers EVERY time you did or said something they didn’t like.  Jesus should have told him to get a life.

But if Peter is asking about real offenses, then forgiving seven serious hurts is in itself already odd and surprising.

How many chances do YOU give people before you just write them off?  I’ll tell you the truth: if the hurt is real, I cannot imagine giving a co-worker 77 chances to inflict pain.  I can imagine giving up on such a person; I can imagine ceasing to take them seriously and thus denying to them the right to hurt me.  But that is not the same thing as forgiving them.

And what if Peter is intending to ask whether we are obliged to be punching bags?

If Jesus’ answer to all of this requires that we absorb abuse and then forgive, and forgive, and meekly forgive, then Jesus gives a bad answer.  As a professor and as a pastor I have heard stories of abuse from my students and parishioners and I have not, do not, and will not tell them that they ought to accept abuse.  Forgiveness may indeed set them free, but not if it comes as a demand that perpetuates the abuse.

But the real oddity comes in the parable that Jesus tells.

Its basic narrative structure is ordinary enough: a king forgives a huge debt, the forgiven slave refuses to forgive a smaller (though still significant) debt.  Don’t be that guy.

But this parable is more than its basic narrative structure.  The debt owed to the slave is sizeable: a denarius was the wage earned in a day by a common worker, so 100 denarii approaches four months wages.  That is a lot for anyone, though it is not a crushing debt.  It is worth asking how a slave (who is NOT paid for his work) would ever pay off even THAT debt, but that is another matter.

The REAL oddity is the size of the debt owed to the king.  The parable says that it was 10,000 talents.  Historians give different answers as to the value of a talent, and it will always be difficult to translate ancient money into contemporary amounts.  The economies are basically different, and currency exchange rates must suppose a basic similarity.

But no matter how much a talent was worth, exactly, the amount is huge.  One source imagines that a talent, as a measure of weight, was 130 pounds of silver.  That would mean that the slave owed the king 13,000,000 pounds of silver.  At the current price of silver, that would add up to something like $2,782,000,000.  That debt is oddly large, strikingly enormous.

It is a good practice when interpreting parables to follow the oddities.  The oddities tend to lead to the heart of the story.

So the question is: how in the world did a slave (who does not own even his own body) come to owe such an astronomical amount to the king?

Not on his own.  No matter what the real answer is supposed to be, the slave would not have been able to fail on such a level had the king not enabled him to do it.

The king set him up.

Maybe the king put him in charge of the royal investment fund and imposed a contract under which the slave would receive a percentage of the gains and (oh, by the way) bear the losses, but “In an economy as strong as this one, what could go wrong?”  Maybe the king did this in, perhaps, late 2007.  And then came September 29, 2008.

Or maybe the slave heard the king and his over-privileged buddies telling lies about their success in the stock market.  The king (who was successful, tremendously successful, and really very rich) gave the slave a hot investment tip, and lent him the money (“Can’t miss!  What could go wrong?”) for the investment.  Of course the slave did not have a daddy with money to bail him out of financial failure.  And thus the slave owes the king over $2 billion.

However the debt came about, the king had to be complicit.

Perhaps this what the oddity in the parable wants us to notice.

But, if so, what, exactly, are we supposed to reflect on?

Interpreters generally leap from the enormity of the debt to the idea that human sin creates an infinite debt to God.  This sets up a theological reflection on some variation on the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement, which is a theological construct that begs the question: “How could a good God create an economy that can only result in every creature failing and falling into infinite debt?”  I know that there are Christians who really like the Satisfaction Theory, and I am sure that they can come up with any number of justifications for their continuing to hold this medieval theory.  I have played those justifications through to their conclusions.  I am not impressed.  In the end, God is either poor at creating, or abusive in governing the Creation.  In the end such theories plant a terror in the heart of faithfulness and thus undermine even joy at the fact of forgiveness.

What if we are to direct our interpretive attention to the king’s complicity?

What if the key interpretive question were: “How out-of-touch IS this guy?”  Or: “What was the king thinking when he through the slave into prison until the debt is paid off?”  Let’s just say that the imprisoned slave earns what an inmate earns in my state (South Dakota): $.25 per hour.  That comes to $10 per 40 hour week, or $500 per year.  That means that the imprisoned slave would work off his debt in a cool 556,400 years.  Which is over twice as long as modern humans have been on earth.  What was the king thinking?

No matter how you answer that question, the king appears to be either a petty dictator who first causes the slave to fall into bottomless debt and then dismisses him by “forgiving” him for falling into the debt into which the king dropped him, or the king is simply incompetent and does not bother to do the math that would allow him to understand his effect on his subjects.

But that would make this scene, and this parable, even stronger, even more incisive.  This is not simply a command to forgive more.  It is an indictment of ANY system that sets God up as the one who keeps score.  Such theological structures, even when they are used to encourage us to forgive and grant release, train us to keep score and preserve the patriarchy.  That is maybe why the slave went out from the presence of the king to whom he owed the debt and demanded payment from his fellow slave.  Perhaps he, too, even intended (after threatening imprisonment) to forgive the debt, just as he had been forgiven.  I suppose we could stop short and say that the parable says that the slave didn’t go far enough, didn’t buy into the system of debt and release deeply enough.  But I’m starting to think that the problem is a twisted focus on debt which (not so) subtly preserves the hierarchy that keeps us apart.  When forgiveness is pictured as the act of a king who counts up, and then eliminates, a debt (a debt, from the parable, that he is free to recall and re-impose), then God models hierarchical domination for us, and we will follow suit.

This parable is a warning against that way of thinking of God, the world, and each other.  Maybe it’s time we started taking the Incarnation seriously, and stopped thinking about “salvation” as the payment of a large debt.  Maybe it’s even time we quit heating ourselves up over “salvation” at all.

 

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