Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Absurd Parable – Matthew 18:23-38

The Unforgiving Slave (with notes on first century slavery)
Topic: Forgiveness/Mercy/Grace
Intended Audience: Applicable to relationships generally but is targeted to relationships between members of a believing community

The parable

Matthew 18:23-35   23 "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.  24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents(1 )was brought to him;  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.  26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.'  27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.  28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;(1 )and seizing him by the throat, he said, 'Pay what you owe.'  29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.'  30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.  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.  32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?'  34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.  35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister(1 )from your heart." 

What comes before the parable is important to note:

18:12-14 – Here is Matthew’s version of Luke’s parable of the lost sheep. A crazy shepherd leaves 99 sheep unguarded in the wilderness to seek a single missing sheep, and then he celebrates when he finds it. Jesus concluded the analogy saying, “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (Matthew 18:14) As we engage Matthew 18:23-38 below, it’s important to remember that this is the Shepherd-Father’s heart: that none should be lost. And he’s willing to risk everything to do it.

18:15-22 – Here the subject is forgiving “your brother” in “the church.” Jesus gives instructions on how to handle it if a fellow believer offends you: talk to him about it alone; if he won’t “heed,” take 1 or 2 witnesses with you and try again; if he won’t “heed them,” tell “the church;” and if he doesn’t heed them, “let him be as a Gentile or tax collector to you (plural).” Of course the punch line with a wink and a nod is that Jesus was guilty of being a friend of Gentiles, tax collectors, and manner of sinners! Confusing the matter with forgiveness, Peter asks how many times do you forgive someone for doing the same thing to you, as many as seven times? No, Jesus says. Forgive him 490 times (70 x 7). Here is another punch line with a wink and a nod. There is no reasonable cut-off point for forgiveness. The number 490 is a humorous and absurd extreme meaning that Jesus’ disciples forgive in their hearts no matter what, no exceptions. Forgiveness is unconditional and unlimited.

How much is 10,000 talents in US Dollars?

Average household annual income in the US in 2010 was almost $50,000, which will serve as a nice round figure. To get the equivalent of 15 years’ wages then, we just multiply $50,000 x 15 years.

$50,000 x 15 years = $750,000 (one talent)

To get the dollar equivalent of the slave’s 10,000 talent debt then, we simply multiply $750,000 x 10,000.

$750,000 (one talent) x 10,000 = 7.5 billion US Dollars

Key theological points in the parable:

An absurd extremeIt is an un-loan-able amount, an unforgivable amount, and an un-repayable amount. 10,000 talents is an incredible debt, meaning not credible. No slave could ever borrow this much and no king could ever loan it to another nation, much less a slave. We sometimes miss Jesus’ creativity and sense of humor because we fail to note his willingness to shock and delight his contemporary listeners. 7.5 billion dollars! Josephus recorded that the taxes paid in a year by Judea, Idumea, Samaria, and Galilee combined was only 800 talents. No king of that day could lend 10,000 talents, no king could forgive such a debt, and no slave could repay such a debt no matter how much time he was granted to do it.

Other absurdities

  1. To say that the slave “had no means of repaying” is the understatement of the millennium. The amount is so extreme that saying he couldn’t repay it is to state the obvious with two nudges, two winks, and two nods.

  1. Only the most inept of kings could be unaware of this much missing money. It’s not until he shuffles over to the books, slips on his bi-focals, and starts punching on the calculator that he figures out that a vast fortune is missing.

  1. Selling the slave, his wife, and his children is ridiculous. It recoups only a tiny fraction of the cost and is therefore pointless. And if it’s the king’s intention to merely punish the slave, how is it punishment to sell the slave to another master? Doesn’t that just let him off the hook and give him a fresh start with a clean slate?

  1. This bungling king who demands repayment from a slave of an impossible debt, this king whose useless plan to recoup it is to pocket some change by selling the slave and his family, graduates to a new level of senility by forgiving the debt in total just because the slave fell to his knees and promised to pay it all back if he could just have a little more time. No more time was granted, however. (No amount of time would have helped anyway.) Unexpectedly and beyond all reason, the king cancels a note the size of Russia. He lets him off Scott free. This is absurd—on purpose.

  1. Robert Capon points out that “this king is a bookkeeper, pure and simple.” “He will have no care at all except to get his money back as best he can.” “There is no forgiveness in the story so far.” But when the slave falls to his knees and begs for an extension, “the king’s attitude suddenly changes. He goes from having all the mercy of a loan shark to being a softy.” A shockingly absurd change of character, is it not? (Quotes are from p. 196 of Capon’s “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment.”)

  1. The slave rushed out to shake down a fellow slave who owed him a mere 100 denars. This is pointless and laughable. This amount is about 4 months’ wages. What difference is 4 months’ wages when you owe (or think you owe) 150,000 years’ wages? It’s an act of comic futility. He even grabbed the guy by the throat! And for what? For next to nothing!

  1. He’s clueless. This hapless slave is operating as one who was granted time to raise the vast sum he owed. He has failed to comprehend grace. He did not hear that he now owes nothing. He’s operating out of his proposed plan of self-salvation rather than resting in the king’s forgiveness. Forgiveness was incomprehensible to him. I’m reminded of the prodigal son who had a plan to be a slave to his father, perhaps to try to recoup the inheritance that he squandered, never once considering that his father still considered him a son and had already forgiven him. Grace never occurred to him. To him, grace was too absurd to consider.

  1. Though the slave who owed him 100 denars fell to his knees and begged using the exact same words he himself had used moments before with the king, the clueless slave was too deaf to make the connection. He did not have ears with which to hear. Because he failed to comprehend the mercy of the king, he failed to hear the plea in his own words, he failed to feel pity, and he failed to forgive. You can’t give what you don’t have. “He who has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47) This is not just absurd, it’s tragic, and it’s outrageous.

  1. When fellow slaves report what the fellow had done, the king was outraged. The king who is asleep at the wheel of his own treasury, the king whose plan to recoup the debt was to pocket a couple of buck by the sale of the unforgiving slave and his family, now says, You’ll be tortured until you pay it! How can he repay it under torture? Alas and alack, he can’t! Another shocking ineptitude on the part of the king. Another punch line. Another absurdity.

A word on slavery

Jesus’ parables sometimes include slaves as characters. It’s true that the Bibles doesn’t come right out and denounce slavery, but . . .

  • The slavery most Americans are familiar with is the brutal slave trade of Africans right here, a cruel practice that ended with The War Between the States in 1864, only some 150 years ago. But slavery in the Roman culture of Jesus’ day was different. It’s estimated at the time that there were two to three million slaves in Italy, for example, which is between 35 and 40 percent of the population. The Romans captured or conscripted them on three continents, people of numerous races and languages, and they were people with valuable skills who were put to work, paid, and trusted, including physicians and accountants. They were recognized as valuable human beings, they obtained freedom and citizenship after six years of work, and they became trusted friends, adopted son, and beloved spouses. Legal documents, tombs, and other inscriptions from the time attest to this. Slavery should not be condoned. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now. But this centuries-old, widespread socio-economic practice was obviously more humane—not to mention universally accepted in the ancient Roman Empire—than the tragic and inhumane slavery of our nation’s recent past.

  • Jews had slaves for centuries prior to the Roman occupation. Since Roman society used slavery successfully too, this practice continued in Palestine under Roman rule and influence. A high percentage of people that Jesus encountered, taught, and healed would have been slaves, perhaps a percentage similar to that in Italy (35-40%). So when Jesus included slaves in his stories, as he often did, he was including the slaves in his audiences, probably to their approval, appreciation, and delight. Slave is doulos in biblical Greek. It occurs in 119 verses in the New Testament. That’s a lot. And Matthew’s Gospel uses the word doulos more than any other New Testament book—in thirty verses—and most of those are in parables from the lips of Jesus. In his teaching he neither condones nor condemns the practice of slavery. Instead he tells parables about good slaves and bad slaves to demonstrate how the faithful and the unfaithful act. God’s slaves (all of us) are called to be good slaves, he teaches. Remember too that he healed enslaved and free people alike, showing no distinction, like the Centurion’s slave, for example. The Apostle Paul understood this. Powerfully he began most of his New Testament epistles (letters) with the words “Pau/loj dou/loj Cristou/ VIhsou/ . . . . ,” meaning, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus,” a title which defined him and of which he was unashamed. In one of those letters Paul advised a slave owner, Philemon, to welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, as a brother. And in his letter to the Galatian Christians he proclaimed boldly that in Christ there is no slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.

What Jesus meant

Is God planning to torture us for being unmerciful? No. In the parable the king was saying to the merciless slave concerning the impossible debt, “So you want to pay it back rather than accept my forgiveness? Fine. I accept your decision. Have it your way. You’ll be tortured until you pay it!” Perhaps now he will realize, I can never repay it, and I totally missed it that the king really had forgiven it anyway. What a fool I am!

Forgiving our debtors is impossible unless we ourselves comprehend, accept, and live in the liberation of God’s forgiveness of our debts. That’s why Jesus put it so strangely in “The Lord’s Prayer.” He taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Yet not to take away from that truth, Jesus also turned it the other way around. The point of the parable is: Let us forgive our debtors as we have been forgiven by You. Our asking God’s forgiveness for our wrongdoings is intimately connected to our practice of forgiveness to others. Both statements are true. They are opposite sides of the same coin.

Forgiveness is really letting go, and it is so hard to do. But unless we let go of self-salvation schemes, religious self-justification, and merciless scorekeeping with ourselves and others, we can never enjoy the real liberty of a grace that is already ours and has been ours all along.

The two ways that God chose to break through our prideful defenses involve parables and a cross. In the parables, the “God character” surrenders impossible debts, forgives impossible sins, and runs to embrace impossible prodigals. On the cross, God does no less, canceling all debt, forgiving even those who kill him, and stretching out his arms to embrace the whole broken, sinful, evil world. Capon wrote, “If we cannot face the price he has paid to free us, we might as well never been freed at all.” (KGJ, p. 198)

So the slave, by not perceiving the freedom he already had, ends up losing the life he was trying to save. That’s the paradox of God’s kingdom of grace:

Luke 17:33  “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”

It’s the panicked impulse for self-preservation that kills us. That impulse is deaf, dumb, and blind to the gift of grace, is hell-bent on operating gracelessly, and is truly a living torture.

A return to what comes before our parable

Lost Sheep (18:12-14) – Matthew’s version of the parable of the lost sheep ends affirming the Shepherd-Father’s heart: that none should be lost. And he’s willing to risk everything to do it. To interpret “the parable of the unforgiving slave” as a threat by a hard-fisted God to torture you unless you straighten up your act flies in the face of the portrait of a God who is a shepherd who will risk everything to find you. His desire is that you not be lost. So what does he mean by lost? What if “lost” is precisely what the unforgiving slave was? Lost in a hopeless debt that he cannot repay? Lost in the lie that, given more time, he could bail himself out? Lost in the blindness that did not let him see that his debt had been forgiven? Lost in the delusion that he’d been given an extension to recoup it? Lost in the hard-fisted mercilessness he showed to a fellow slave who owed him a pittance? Lost in the deafness that failed to hear that fellow beg using the same words he had just used before the king? Lost in a graceless world of his own making? Lost in the torture of having cut himself off from the grace that was freely his already? Grace is there. It’s yours. But to enjoy it, to trust it, and to rest in it you have to perceive it. That’s called being found. Seeing that the debt has been covered is being found.

Seventy Times Seven (18:15-22) – Peter wanted to know what the cutoff number was for how many times we have to forgive someone in the church. The number Jesus gives, like the 10,000 talent debt, is irrationally huge—70 x 7 times, or 490 times to be precise. His meaning is that there is no cutoff number. Forgiven debtors forgive eternally. Forgiveness is dying eternally to the debt.