Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Parables of Jesus: The Unmerciful Servant

Matthew 18:21-35:

[21] Then came Peter unto him and said: Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? [22] Jesus saith to him: I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times. [23] Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened to a king, who would take an account of his servants. [24] And when he had begun to take the account, one was brought to him, that owed him ten thousand talents. [25] And as he had not wherewith to pay it, his lord commanded that he should be sold, and his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.
[26] But that servant falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. [27] And the lord of that servant being moved with pity, let him go and forgave him the debt. [28] But when that servant was gone out, he found one of his fellow servants that owed him an hundred pence: and laying hold of him, throttled him, saying: Pay what thou owest. [29] And his fellow servant falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. [30] And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he paid the debt. 
[31] Now his fellow servants seeing what was done, were very much grieved, and they came and told their lord all that was done. [32] Then his lord called him; and said to him: Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all the debt, because thou besoughtest me: [33] Shouldst not thou then have had compassion also on thy fellow servant, even as I had compassion on thee? [34] And his lord being angry, delivered him to the torturers until he paid all the debt. [35] So also shall my heavenly Father do to you, if you forgive not every one his brother from your hearts.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and forever. Amen.

I wrote this blog post once, already, but somehow my computer crashed, and Blogger didn't save my work. Alas, I must re-write it. Thankfully, I waiting a couple of weeks since last time, so I don't feel like I'm writing the same thing twice, and I'll probably mention some things I missed last time. So, yay!

The story is a pretty poignant one. Fundamentally, this is a warning to us about our forgiveness of others. Remember, Jesus tells this parable after Peter asks Him how often we are to forgive others. Peter presents Jesus with  a very reasonable proposition: to forgive others seven times. In Jewish numerology, seven is the number of perfection. The creation of the world is completed, or perfected on the seventh day. Peter wasn't asking if we should literally forgive people seven times. He was asking something more substantial.

His question was about meeting the demands of justice. The Jewish people had a long and rich tradition of forgiveness. For example, every Jubilee year, which occurred every seven years, and also every 50 years, all debts were forgiven, and all slaves freed. It was a reflection of the mercy of God, and so connected to the Sabbath day, the day of rest--the burdened were freed from their burdens.

But the logic of forgiveness somehow demands that the one being forgiven recognizes their own need to be forgiven. They must carry the weight of guilt, which leads them to seek forgiveness, to be freed form their burden. From the perspective of the one offering forgiveness, it may be difficult to grant it to someone who doesn't seem to care, or even want forgiveness, or who perhaps thinks that if they just ask for forgiveness, they can offend as often as they like.

And that's really kind of where Peter is coming from. How often should I forgive? Seven times? In other words, am I really satisfying the demands of justice and mercy by forgiving someone who keeps offending me? I mean, how burdened can he be by this? He keeps doing it! Is it even really forgiveness at this point?

Jesus' response is a hard one. He shifts the focus. Instead of thinking about how you've been offended, Peter, think about how you've offended God. That's essentially Jesus' response. Jesus begins the parable "...the kingdom of heaven is likened to a king..." Whenever Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, we should understand that whatever follows is about God, and our relationship to Him.

So God is like a king who found that one of his servants owed him ten thousand talents. A talent was basically a gold coin. To put it into numbers that might make sense to us today, this is actually in the billions of dollars. Understanding that the servant has no way to pay this vast sum, the king orders that he and his wife and his children be sold into slavery, and all of his possessions seized, so as to make at least some repayment. But, begging the king, the servant promised to pay it back. Pitying the servant, the king sent him away, forgiving his debts.

We are the servants. When we sin, we sin against an infinite God, and these offenses are therefore infinitely vast, and we have no capacity to make just restitution against them, being small, finite creatures. But notice, God doesn't just forgive the debts. His first inclination is to satisfy justice, even if justice cannot be fully satisfied by our punishment. God is moved to pity and mercy and forgiveness when? Is it when we beg for forgiveness? Actually no, that's not what the servant does. Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. It was the servant's willingness to repay the debt that moved the king to pity, for the king knew that it was a foolish promise, knowing that it was not within the means of the servant to repay all of the debt.

Jesus is revealing to us a requirement for God's forgiveness: namely, our desire and willingness to make amends for our sins. But this isn't where the story ends.

The servant goes away, having been forgiven. He comes upon one of his fellow servants who owes him one hundred pence. To put this amount into proper perspective, this would have been around thirty thousand dollars today. That's no small amount, and I think that's the point. The sins we commit against each other are not small, or meaningless. We can carry great weights of guilt for seriously harming each other.

Yet, despite that, Jesus wants us to remember that, by comparison, as great an offense as our brother or sister might have made against us, and it may indeed be great, but compared to our offenses against God, they are small. Jesus' point is not to downplay the significance of our sins against each other, but only to remind us of the great weight of guilt that God has released us from... to remember that when we are sinned against.

What does the forgiven servant do to the fellow servant who owes him one hundred pence? He attacked him, he demanded payment, and when the servant asked him for patience, just has he had asked the king, he refused and threw him in prison until the debt was paid. In other words, he was a hypocrite. He received forgiveness but refused it to another. And what happened to him in the end? His final state was worse than it would have been originally if the king hadn't forgiven him his debts. Remember, he was to be sold into slavery. But, maybe he would have had a kind master, who didn't treat him half bad. Maybe, but now, because he refused to forgive, he was not sold as a slave. Rather, he was delivered to be tortured until his debt was paid.

Don't forget... if God is infinite, and our offenses against Him are therefore infinite, then we will be delivered to be tortured until the debt is paid... and you can't pay an infinite debt, no matter how long you're tortured.

So Jesus shifts Peter's perspective from the offended one to the offender. Remember that you are also an offender who has received forgiveness, so forgive those who have offended you. This is why He says to forgive seventy times seven times. This is a manner of speaking, which, I'm sure you've guessed by now, implies an even more perfect perfection. It may be perfectly just (seven times) to forgive the servant who owed one hundred pence, but it's a greater justice (seventy times seven) to recognize that justice goes beyond the individual relationships and encompasses all, even the relationship to the infinite, and that you are actually obliged by justice to forgive as many offences as are committed against you (all of them, no matter what), because even all of them added together do not equal the magnitude of the forgiveness you've received from the infinite One.

That's right. Jesus is telling us we are obliged never to withhold forgiveness. We must always forgive. If we do not, then God will withhold His own from us. Remember, every time you pray the prayer that Jesus taught us, this is what you pray: "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." If you pray this prayer, understand that you are asking God, and rightly so, to forgive you in the manner that you forgive others. If you withhold your forgiveness, you are asking Him to withhold His also. If you offer forgiveness without reconciling the relationship, or at least making an effort on your part to do so, then you are asking God to forgive you, but to have no relationship with you. If you, when you forgive, demand a just restitution (i.e., I forgive you, as long as you make an effort to pay me back), then you are asking God to forgive you in the same manner... so you better be willing to pay God back.

So... if I were you... and in a parabolic sense I am... I'd be as forgiving as possible.

God bless, and thank you for reading!

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