The theme of our parable from Matthew is forgiveness, or more precisely, economic forgiveness. Or as a strict translation of the Lord’s Prayer would say, ‘forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who indebt us’. And forgiving the debt means writing off the debt.
The context is the crippling nature of debt in the lives of the peasant classes of 1st century Palestine. It was not unlike someone today who has borrowed money from a finance company in order to pay their weekly rent [the rent money having gone to an urgent medical need], and then gets into a debt spiral. There is a destructive confluence of low wages or benefits, high rents, poor health, poor education, and increasing indebtedness.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Slave though, as its come down to us, is complex. It might originate with the historical Jesus but Matthew frankly misunderstands its meaning; or, if you like, reinterprets it to match his theological agenda. He equates the king with God, and says God will torture you if don’t forgive [v.35]. Matthew has a punishing retributive God who wields a big stick.
The original parable however says the opposite. It is a critique of those who equate kingship or ‘anointed-ness’ [messiahship] with top-down power. It is a critique of the accounting mode of forgiveness – I’ll forgive you if you forgive others. It is a critique of trying to organize the world on the model of empire. The alternate empire of God is premised on a different model of power, debt, and forgiveness.
The problem with the parable, in addition to having a king/God who tortures, is that unlike Jesus’ words to Peter about forgiving seventy times seven, this king forgives just once and then takes back that forgiveness already offered when the slave fails to forgive the one indebted to him.
While this type of tyrannical king is typical of the kings and rulers of empire, it is not the Jesus vision of mercy and forgiveness. Earlier in chapter 5 of Matthew, there is a non-judgmental Jesus who says: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
So the audience of this parable can discern that God’s empire is not the parable’s – it is not oppressive, it does not deal in self-serving “pity” [v.27], and it does not forgive just once and then revoke it. Rather than reflect the Empire of God this parable is a contrast to it.
Warren Carter[i] in his commentary on Matthew points out that v.26, where the slave prostrates himself before the anointed king, indicts the slave’s willingness to submit to the king’s authority and therefore satisfy the king’s honour. So the king has pity [v.27] and changes his mind. But the pity is very different from the mercy we’ve seen expressed in Jesus’ actions – actions which transform and benefit a desperate person. The king’s pity though is calculated for the king’s benefit. The king is a predatory lender,[ii] who keeps slaves in his debt by lending them lots of money. The slave, after prostrating himself, is now even more indebted to him and more easily controlled. The slave’s skills and network are not lost to the king. ‘Forgiveness’ from the king is forgiveness with the puppeteer strings attached.
This parable, read uncritically, endorses a system of top-down retributive justice – and lays the imprimatur of God on it. It is paternalistic, which means that mercy is shown at the whim of the highest authority. Mercy is given, and taken away, to maintain control. The king controls the slave who then finds another slave to control. It is a system which like ours, is a hierarchy with a reward and punishment foundation and prison as the ultimate method of social control. It is a story about a world, like ours, where more often than not there is no happy ending.
Conversely, the Jesus vision subverts hierarchy and paternalism by saying the greatest among you is a child.[iii] Peter asks Jesus: “How often should I forgive? Seven times?” Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”[iv] This is hyperbole, indicating an infinite number of times. Forgiveness, like love, like grace, is not something that kings measure out when we meet certain conditions.
Forgiveness then is not 490 boxes that an accountant God, or an accountant church, is keeping tally of – counting how many times we’ve screwed up and whether we’ve been truly remorseful. No, forgiveness is more like the air of unconditional acceptance that we breathe in a Jesus world. Forgiveness is a given in a Jesus world. You don’t have to ask for it; it just is. The challenge in the Jesus world is how to heal each other’s wounds, our own wounds, and the wounds of the most vulnerable. Or, in other language, the challenge is to build or restore community well-being.
How do you translate this Jesus vision though into economic forgiveness in order that it has relevance to those in poverty and indebtedness in our society today? While the text is critical of retributive top-down ‘justice’, and the creation of a God/king in that image, what would restorative justice and the healing of economic wounds look like in our poorest communities [and what would a god created in that image be like]? How are the indebted and despairing among us empowered?
It is noteworthy that this is the only Jesus parable with a king in it – whereas kings were quite common in other rabbis’ parables. So while the kingdom or empire of God is a principle theme for Jesus, he doesn’t prefer kings as models for his kingdom. A top-down dispensary of grace is contrary to the notion of grace as the air we breathe and are empowered by.
There is an old story that speaks about the king or messiah being not a ruler or saviour or dispenser of forgiveness but an empowering way of being with each other. It’s called the Rabbi’s gift.[v]
There was a famous monastery that had fallen on very hard times. Formerly, its buildings were filled with young monks and its big church resounded with the singing of the chant, but now it was deserted. People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer. A handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters and praised God with heavy hearts.
On the edge of the monastery woods an old rabbi had built a little hut. He would come there from time to time to fast and pray. No one ever spoke to him, but whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from monk to monk: ‘The Rabbi walks in the woods.’ And, for as long as he was there the monks would feel sustained by his prayerful presence.
One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and to open his heart to him. So, after the morning Mass, he set out through the woods. As he approached the hut the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway his arms outstretched in welcome. It was as though he had been waiting there for some time. The two men embraced like long-lost brothers. Then they stepped back and just stood there, smiling at one another.
After a while the rabbi motioned the abbot to enter. In the middle of the room was a wooden table with the Scriptures open on it. They sat there for a moment in the presence of the Book. Then the rabbi began to cry. The abbot could not contain himself. He covered his face with his hands and he too began to weep. For the first time in years he cried his heart out. The two men sat there filling the hut with their sobs.
After the tears had ceased and all was quiet again, the rabbi lifted his head: “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said. “You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you a teaching, but you can only repeat it once. After that no one must ever say it aloud again.”
The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said: “The Messiah is among you.”
For a while, all was silent. Then the rabbi said: “Now you must go.”
The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back.
The next morning the abbot called his monks together. He told them that he had received a teaching from the rabbi who walked in the woods, and that this teaching was never again to be spoken aloud. Then he looked at each of his brothers and said: “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.”
They were deeply puzzled by the rabbi’s teaching. But no one ever uttered it again.
As time went by the monks began to treat each other with a very special reverence. There was a gentle, whole-hearted human quality about them now, which was hard to describe but easy to notice. They lived with one another as men who had finally found something, but they prayed together as men who were always looking for something. Occasional visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks. Before long, people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks, and young men were asking, once again, to become part of the community.
In those days the rabbi no longer walked in the woods. His hut had fallen into ruins. But somehow or other the old monks who had taken his teaching to heart still felt sustained by his prayerful presence.
[i] Warren Carter Matthew and the Margins, New York: Orbis, 2000, p.372.
[ii] Ched Meyers and Elaine Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation, vol. 1, New Testament Reflections on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009) 56, 65-66.
[iii] Luke 9:46-48.
[iv] Matthew 18:21, 22.
[v] Author unknown. A version can be found in The Different Drum, by Dr. M. Scott Peck, M.D.