For the past two Sundays I have been preaching on parables that were most likely told by Jesus.
On July 19th I spoke about the parables of the mustard weed and the unclean bread pointing to the Jesus vision of normative barriers like religious holiness, class, gender, and race no longer functioning or necessary. The myth then, and now, is that we need barriers keeping the other, the unclean, out in order to be safe, and clean. But Jesus subverted that myth, preaching and practicing an inclusive fellowship as a microcosm of how he envisaged all the empire could be.
Last Sunday I told the treasure parables about a field and a pearl and how they subverted the myth of seeking monetary or spiritual wealth. Contrary to the myth, then and now, there is no value, no individual gain, in following Jesus, in God’s empire. By identifying with the losers, in the loser empire of god, you become in the eyes of the world a loser too.
Most of these parables, like today’s, which Mark Davis calls ‘Ridiculous Forgiveness and Reasonable Evil’, were refashioned by a later editor who either didn’t understand the original or, more probably, wanted to interpret its message differently. So, in the service sheet today I bolded what was probably the original and left the Matthew interpretation in plain type.
The first thing to understand is the myth behind this parable. This is a little complex because generally kings and emperors were not seen in a good light by Palestinian peasants. Kings/emperors were at the pinnacle of the oppressive political and economic structure, and their lackeys made life miserable, usually through excessive taxation and violent enforcement, for common folk. Forget the benign, open-public-buildings, affirm-altruism monarchy we are used to.
But in the Hebrew Scriptures there are references to God being a hierarchical king over all the earth (Psalm 47: 7); and there are references to God being the ultimate judge (Isaiah 33:22). And in the first half of the parable, where a man owing a great deal of money and unable to pay is sentenced to have his family sold into slavery but when pleading is miraculously forgiven… this would fit into the myth of a divine kingly judge exercising mercy. We, I hope, have a niggling problem about God selling people into slavery.
Yet my point is that behind this parable is a myth of a just, merciful, king-God, ruling over the earth that not just pervades this story but Christian theology and history. It is this myth that has God atop a pyramid of power. It is this myth which shapes forgiveness as something the powerful do for the powerless. And when the powerless do not behave properly it is this myth that promotes the idea that God would send those people to a torturing hell. It is this myth about God and forgiveness that I think the historical Jesus was subverting.
The theme of our parable, as set by Matthew’s introduction of seventy times seven, is forgiveness, or more precisely, economic forgiveness. As a strict translation of the Lord’s Prayer would say, ‘forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are in debt to 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 (with say 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.
As an aside, this debt spiral is what the work of ADC (Aotearoa Development Cooperative), which originated here at St Luke’s, tries to address in Myanmar through micro-finance support.[i]
The tell-tale sign that Jesus is subverting the theology of a kingly judge-God is v.34. When the man who was originally forgiven by his Lord, this man goes, demands, and does not forgive a much smaller debt owed to him. When his Lord hears about it he says 32”I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his Lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”
We might imagine, in the wake of the times in our Christian history when we have condoned and followed the example of a torturing deity, that this was normative in Judaism. Far from it! This torturing deity, to the mind of the 1st century Jewish audience, is like an oriental tyrant, not the true God of Israel at all. There were even mixed views about the keeping, let alone the treatment, of slaves in ancient Israel.
Another problem with our 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 not atypical of the kings and rulers of empire, it is not the Jesus vision. Earlier in chapter five of Matthew, there is a non-judgmental Jesus who says: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
So the audience of this parable can discern that Jesus vision of God’s empire is not the empire of this parable – 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. It is subverting the normative myths about God and forgiveness.
Let me tell you about that “pity” in v.27. Warren Carter[ii] 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. Thus, the king has pity [v.27] and changes his mind.
But the pity is vastly different from the mercy we’ve seen expressed in Jesus’ actions – actions which transform and benefit a desperate person. The king’s pity is calculated for the king’s benefit. The king is a predatory lender,[iii] 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 controlling puppeteer strings attached.
This parable, read uncritically, endorses a theological and economic system of top-down retributive justice – laying 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. It is, to use Mark Davis’ phrase, ‘reasonable evil’.
Conversely, the Jesus vision subverts hierarchy and paternalism by saying the greatest among you is a child.[iv] So the greatest is not a kingly judge atop a pyramid of power, but a powerless and vulnerable child. God is more like a child, than a king – a ‘weak force’ as Jacques Derrida and John Caputo would say. Like love. Like forgiveness. This is Jesus deconstructing our thinking about kings and gods and forgiveness.
Peter asks Jesus: “How often should I forgive? Seven times?” Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”[v] This is hyperbole, indicating an infinite number of times. Forgiveness, like love, like grace, is not something that kings or a God measure out when we meet certain conditions.
Forgiveness is not 490 boxes that an accountant God, or an accountant church, is keeping tally of – counting how many times we have 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 do not have to ask for it; it just is. It is free. It is, again using Mark Davis’ language, ‘ridiculous forgiveness’.
Note this is the only Jesus parable with a king (with an allusion to God) 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.
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 the well-being of the human community.
How do we 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?
This parable is a critique of those who equate both God and ‘anointed-ness’ [messiahship, Christship] with top-down power. It deconstructs the God of most of our upbringings. It is also a critique of the accounting mode of forgiveness – I’ll forgive you if you forgive others. Or if you are sorry enough. But the Jesus forgiveness is free. Can you believe it? Can you live it? And lastly the parable is a critique of trying to organize our society, our churches, on the top-down model of empire with the powerful dispensing favours to the powerless. The alternate empire of God is premised on a different model of power, debt, forgiveness, and grace. This empire has a vulnerable child at its centre. It is ridiculous!
[i] This is link to a 37 minute video about the work of ADC and how that work impacted on the lives of the 3 women featured.
[ii] Warren Carter Matthew and the Margins, New York: Orbis, 2000, p.372.
[iii] 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.
[iv] Luke 9:46-48.
[v] Matthew 18:21, 22.