There is some real common ground between the issues Paul raises in his letter to the Romans and the challenge Jesus issues in his rather hard-nosed parable of the unforgiving servant. While Paul focuses on judgmentalism and Jesus on matters of forgiveness, in the end both speak to the matter of integrity; the integrity of the individual believer, as well as the integrity of the community called the church.
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Paul is concerned that this magnificent entity called the body of Christ too easily slips into fractured sniping, with various members looking down their noses at each other over matters so inconsequential as dietary practices and the observance of various holy days. “Some judge one day to be better than another,” he writes, “while others judge all days to be alike.” Some attend closely to the rhythms of the Jewish religious calendar, in other words, while others in the church have set that all aside. “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds,” he writes, which is an extraordinarily accommodating and generous approach. If you’re convinced that observing holy days is a right and good thing, do it. If you believe that such matters have ceased to be important, that’s fine too. “Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.” It is all fair game, so long as in the end it is done “in honor of the Lord.” “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own Lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” Stop sniping, gossiping, passing judgment, and feeling superior to those who are committed to following practices different from your own; that’s not your business. Your business is to seek to give glory to God in a manner that has integrity for you; in a way that will keep forming you as the whole person God has created you to be.
It is pretty evident in the long arc of the gospels that for Jesus it is forgiveness that keeps moving us forward on that path. Our reading from the Gospel according to Matthew opened with a bookkeeping sort of question from Peter. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” The subtext seems to be that Peter thinks he might be able to manage to forgive someone seven times, and if you stop and think about it, it is not an ungenerous question… or at least it isn’t for us score-keeping humans. We do have a tendency to keep score—“I owe you one”, we often say when somebody offers us a kindness—but Jesus will have none of it. “Jesus said to Peter, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’” No bookkeeping, Peter.
And then to press it home all the harder, he tells one of his parables. “For this reason,” Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.” That is an unimaginable debt that this slave has racked up—in our world more than two billion dollars—and so when Jesus adds that the slave “could not pay,” Peter and the others would have probably thought something like “no duh…” So the king orders the slave to be sold, “together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.” Not that this would generate anything even close to ten thousand talents, but at least it would be something. And he’d be rid of the sort of slave who could create such fiscal havoc, which was probably quite appealing in its own right.
“So the slave fell on his knees before the king, 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.” Master storyteller that he is, in that line “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything,” Jesus has given us a crucial little piece of foreshadowing. Even in his desperate state, the slave is still talking bookkeeping. As Robert Capon puts it, “The servant… no doubt thinks that his master is actually responding to his ridiculous offer of repayment. He has, in other words, not a shred of the notion of grace in his mind.” “The king, Capon continues, “responds to nothing that the servant has in mind. He ignores the manifest nonsense about repayment. He makes no calculations at all about profit and loss. Instead, he simply drops dead to the whole business of bookkeeping and forgives the servant. Wipes the debt out. Forgets it ever existed. Does, in short, what the servant couldn’t even conceive of doing.”
The king does what the servant couldn’t even conceive of doing, which is precisely where the parable makes its critical move. “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.’” A denarius was payment for a single day of labour, so if we thought in terms of eight hours of work at the Manitoba minimum wage of $10.75, you’re talking $86 a denarius or $8600 for a hundred denarii. It isn’t nothing, but it sure isn’t the impossibility that ten thousand talents would have been. With the right plan and a bit of time, a labourer could pay off a debt of $8600.
“Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you,’ which are pretty much the same words the first slave had said to the king. “But he refused; then he went and threw the second slave into prison until he would pay the debt.” The parable rolls forward from there in a rather predictable way. The king catches word of it all, hauls the first slave back into his court, and hits him with a powerful indictment: “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?” You can almost picture Peter and the others nodding their heads at this parabolic question… yes, he absolutely should have shown the same mercy he’d been shown. This is clearly not going to end well for that first slave.
And so, Jesus concludes, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Just as the king had put himself out of the bookkeeping business and simply forgiven the slave’s impossible debt, at the heart of the whole of Jesus’ life and teaching is a proclamation that says God too has gone out of the bookkeeping business. We’re not expected to merit life, forgiveness, or a place in kingdom of heaven, and frankly left to our own devices we’d have about as much a chance of doing that as the slave had of paying off a debt of ten thousand talents. But here’s the hilarious joke of it all… God doesn’t much want to open up the ledger book and tally up our score, because in Christ God has put that ledger book up on a very high shelf where it will gather dust. Unless, of course, we insist on continuing to act like bookkeepers ourselves, in which case we’re asking for God to blow the dust from that book… which just can’t end well.
As Capon puts it, “None of our debts—none of our sins, none of our trespasses, none of our errors—will ever be an obstacle to the grace that raises the dead… [But] if we insist on binding others’ debt upon them in the name of our own right to life—we will, by not letting grace have its way through us, cut ourselves off from ever knowing the joy of grace in us.” You’re forgiven, so forgive already. It seems one of the real non-negotiables in the proclamation of Jesus. It doesn’t mean that you always have to forget the hurts done to you, or that you need to keep walking back into hurtful situations over and over again. The person who is a victim of domestic violence shouldn’t keep walking back into that violence time and again in the name of forgiveness; there’s no mercy in that. The person who has been cheated by a business partner doesn’t need to keep taking that treatment again and again until his or her family is bankrupted. But finding a way to forgive—to release, and to move on—that’s still very much on the table, tough as it can be.
I like the image N.T. Wright offers here. “Forgiveness” he says, “is like the air in your lungs. There’s only room for you to inhale the next lungful when you’ve just breathed out the previous one. If you insist on withholding it, refusing to give someone else the kiss of life they may desperately need, you won’t be able to take any more in yourself, and will suffocate…”
Jesus knew that, which is why he was so insistent that we keep breathing the air of forgiveness. It is, after all, the air God has breathed into our lives; it is the only air we have to breath.