Pentecost 13 Matthew 18:21-35
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It is a somewhat canny coincidence that today, the anniversary of 9/11, with the huge tragedy of 2,753 people dying in New York ten years ago, and the huge ramifications of that event as the George Bush gang sought justice through the barrels of guns, we have as our Gospel text a story that questions our presumptions about what is just, what is right, and is what the King/President does really what God would do?
There are some stories best described as a riddle. They are designed to make us think. They are designed to make us feel uncomfortable and make us question. And they don’t always finish with “and they all lived happily ever after”.
Some stories in our Bible are like this. However, because they were told long ago, and in a different land and culture, we often don’t hear the riddle. We take them at face value. We take them literally. And, when they seem to clash with our understanding of the world, we hit delete and send them to the recycle bin.
The story in Matthew 18:21-35, sometimes called “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant”, is a case in point. It is usually told as a cautionary tale: A king forgives a debtor a large amount, but the debtor in turn does not forgive a fellow debtor a small amount. The debtor’s colleagues, upset by his actions, tell the King, and the King sends the unforgiving debtor off to be tortured. The lesson: Forgive as you have been forgiven, or else…
This is how the Matthew, the editor-in-chief of this gospel, seemed to understand this story. He gives his own personal interpretation in v.35 “So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you if you do not forgive…” Yes, you heard right, Matthew equates the King with God, and tells us that God will torture us if we’re don’t forgive!! Like I said there are times to hit the delete button.
Note what I’m saying about composition. The Biblical writers, unfortunately, didn’t follow modern ethical writing practices and tell us their sources. Matthew drew upon many sources for his gospel, written and oral, and stitched those contributions together using his own thread, and often some of his own cloth. In this case it is relatively easy to identify Matthew’s threads and ‘new cloth’ because it is starkly different from the ‘old cloth’.
Take, for example, the torture bit. The word torture appears right at the end of the parable and is the ‘give the game away’ clue if we haven’t by that stage caught on. Wake up George Bush neo-con fan club: you might be into water boarding, but Jesus isn’t!! Jesus, like his Jewish audience, is not into a God who tortures. Jesus, like his Jewish audience, is not into a king who tortures people. It was people like Pilate, Roman overlords, and their sadistic lackeys who did the torture thing. And, despite the furnace fantasies of the hell-fire brigade, the Christian Church does not believe in a God of torture. So, we have a riddle here: why include torture in the story?
Let’s start with the King. Traditionally Jewish stories do equate a king with God – and there are a number of stories in our Bible like that. But this one doesn’t [despite Matthew’s piece of ‘new cloth’ right at the end]. Rather the King is equated with, or symbolizes, a way of justice. This parable is all about radically questioning that way of excessive retributive justice.
Our first clue is its mismatch with Peter’s question [v.21]. Peter asks, “…how often should I forgive?” “Seventy times seven”, says Jesus, meaning forever and ever. Yet in the parable the King only forgives once. Not forever and ever. The King, unlike Jesus and unlike Jesus’ God, is not into repeated forgiveness [i] or mercy. He lashes out at the first failure!
Our second clue is the milieu of the story. Imagine grand scale revenue gathering. Imagine super-rich king, ten times richer than any king you know. That’s what the 10,000 talents of silver [v.24] indicate. King Herod’s total annual collection for Palestine was only 900 talents! The King hands out the tax collecting job to the highest bidder who then, after adding on his percentage, subcontracts out the actual work to others. Imagine the money this highest bidder deals in. The parable's Jewish audience knew all the money and tax collecting talk meant only one thing: Empire; a Roman, gentile empire; ruled, of course, by a Roman gentile ‘king’.
Our third clue is found in the way the King acts. When the highest bidder couldn’t deliver on his promise the King ordered him to be sold along with his wife, kids, and possessions. From a Jewish perspective it highlights gentile cruelty, since Jewish law forbade the sale of wife and children to settle a husband’s debts. From our perspective it is further evidence that the King is a gentile and is certainly not a Jewish God!
Up to now the audience is lapping this up. Poking fun at the high and mighty, at the overlords, and the pagan gentiles, is great sport. They snigger when the highest bidder, the chap we will later call the unforgiving servant, ‘worships’ [read grovels] to the King saying he will repay. No Jew would grovel like that. An audience loves to laugh at those who are different. They love stories that don’t put them on the spot. They are though often blind to their own prejudices.
The King’s pitying of the servant, though, is unexpected. The audience says, “Huh?” Forgiveness for failure doesn’t fit. This isn’t justice! Whatever will come next?? The consistency of the audience’s superiority to the gentile characters is disturbed.
But that consistency is not disturbed for long. The forgiven servant goes out and grabs one his colleagues by the throat demanding that he cough up the little he owes or else. The audience is back on safe ground. “Typical gentile bully”, they might have said to one another. “See how these pagans treat one another!”
In the story, offstage, other tax collectors have seen all this. They’ve seen the King forgiving. They’ve seen the forgiven servant go and demand money from a fellow tax collector who couldn’t pay and then send that colleague to jail. These offstage tax collectors are outraged. The story’s audience joins in that feeling of outrage. “Injustice has happened!” “He should have forgiven his mate, like the King did to him!” So the fellow tax collectors, and in spirit the audience, takes the unforgiving servant to the King. The King, too, shares in this feeling of outrage and injustice.
Yet here at the finale of the story the sympathy of the audience shifts. Instead of usual gentile punishment for debts the servant is sent to suffer forever at the hands and sick minds of torturers. The harshness of the punishment disturbs the audience’s sense of what is just. This is not like justice. Imagine instead of getting his hands tied the offender gets a hand chopped off! “Whoa!” we say. “Hang on a minute mate!” In 9/11 speak: it is one thing to seek justice for 2,753 killed, it’s another to initiate wars of vengeance that have so far killed at least 920,000 people. [ii]
Actually it wasn’t the torture that the audience found most disturbing; it was a King who changed his mind. Remember the King originally forgave the debtor. His debt was cleared. But it obviously wasn’t forgotten. When the debtor transgressed against a colleague, the King heard of it and un-cleared the debt.
So, the theological question is not just whether the God of Jesus is into excessive punishment and torture. It is also whether the God of Jesus forgives but doesn’t forget. When we are forgiven is it conditional on our continuing to be good? If it is, bearing in mind how many mess-ups we can make, are any of us ever really forgiven? What’s all this talk about unconditional love and forgiveness then?
When a 1st century oriental king goes back on his word, when he takes back his forgiveness and reinstates the original debt, the ordered Hellenistic world threatens to fall apart. If a king can take back his forgiveness who is safe? Justice requires a system that is perceived as fair, where there is cause and effect, and where the rules are consistent.
This is a story that challenges us. It asks us whether we are prepared to take seriously the tasks of healing the wrongs in our community. Like-for-like justice might satisfy our desire for vengeance but it doesn’t restore community well-being, and it sure doesn’t build a safer world. We need our leaders to model compassion, so that by offering hope to offenders hope is offered to us all.
The story also challenges us regarding whose job justice is. It is tempting to want to leave justice to a judge, a President, a King, or a God – and then criticize them when they don’t do what we want. The transformation needed to build a just community involves us all. Tougher sentences and more and bigger prisons are signs of failure – failure to listen, initiate change, and help one another. They are the failure of community. Instead of solely relying on some tough judge, or higher authority, we need to get involved. Justice is the job of us all.
Yet forgiveness is hard work. It’s not a simple matter of one saying “Sorry”, and the other, “You’re forgiven, let’s get together, and we’ll forget about it.” Forgiving someone who has used violence, for example, involves a process of protection, education, and reconciliation for the community.
A primary school teacher once explained it well to her students. She took a block of wood and hammered a nail in it. She said, ‘Every time I hit this I want you to think of a time you shunned or verbally abused or physically abused somebody. She pounded away at the nail. Then she pulled the nail out and said, “This is the ‘I’m sorry.’ But,” she asked, “What are we going to do with the hole that’s still left in the wood? When you hurt another person you make a hole in that person that saying ‘I’m sorry,’ doesn’t fix.” [iii]
There needs to be the ‘I’m sorry’, but, in addition, steps to keep it from happening again, and an offering to the person hurt in order to aid their healing. There needs to be resolution, restitution, and reconstitution of the relationship.
This parable is also a story that does not tell us what God is like. It does say God is not like the King. When the King in the story [at the servants’ request] repays violence with excessive violence it results in theological crime not transformed community. But the parable doesn’t spell out what God would do. How would God, sitting in the King’s stead, treat the unforgiving servant? Would God just say, “I forgive you” and let him go?
I prefer not to think of God as a being sitting or saying anything. I think of God, in this instance, as a transformative energy that is present 24/7 [or 70 x 7] when people work at forgiveness: mixing justice and mercy, consequences and compassion, in order that hope and healing happens in the community.
In the interpretation of this parable I have relied heavily on the work of Bernard Brandon Scott Hear Then The Parable: A commentary on the parables of Jesus (Minneapolis,: Fortress, 1989).
[i] In Luke 17:4 the parable is not connected with Peter’s question. Did Matthew purposefully insert it, or Luke purposefully leave it out?
[iii] U.S. Catholic May 2002 ‘Give Poor Parenting’ by Barbara Coloroso.