Forgiveness and Judgement

Forgiveness and Judgement

Glynn Cardy 17th September 2023, Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness and judgement.  Let’s begin with the forgiveness.  The first reading, the parable of the soup stone, is a reminder that together we can not only feed and care for each other but find the grace we need to flourish.  This is a parable about the power of community togetherness.

In the context of forgiveness, the soup stone parable invites the forgiven to participate again in the community, giving what they can.  Forgiveness requires resolution, restitution, and reconstitution of the relationship between the offender and the offended against.  And part of that process of restoration is community participation.  But carefully, thoughtfully.  You don’t for example put the recovering alcoholic in charge of serving the wine.  Or the recovering thief in charge of the cash box.  Or the child abuser with children.

So, like the authentic Jesus saying in the next reading ‘forgive seventy times seven,’ yes, we keep on forgiving and restoring, offering grace, but we do it wisely as a community, protecting the vulnerable and protecting the one who has offended.  If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to restore that child who has grown into an adult.

Unlike the soup stone parable with its warm affirmation of community, the second reading offers us a parable designed to make us feel uncomfortable and make us question what is justice. 

Often titled “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant,” it is usually told as a cautionary tale:  A king forgives a debtor a large amount, but the debtor in turn does not forgive a fellow debtor a small amount.  The debtor’s colleagues, upset by his actions, tell the king, and the king sends the unforgiving debtor off to be tortured.  The lesson: Forgive as you have been forgiven, or else… 

This is how the Matthew, the editor-in-chief of this gospel, seemed to understand this story.  He gives his own personal interpretation in v.35 “So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you if you do not forgive…”  Matthew equates the king with God, and tells us that God will torture us if we’re don’t forgive!  A torturing God?? 

Jesus, like his Jewish audience, is not into a God or king who tortures.  It was people like Pilate, Roman overlords, and their ilk who did the torture thing.  And, despite the furnace fantasies of the hell-fire brigade, the Christian Church does not believe in a God who tortures.  So, we have a riddle here: why include torture in the story?

Let’s start with the king.  There are Jewish stories/parables that equate a king with God, but not in the New Testament.  In this parable it is only Matthew’s editorial addition at the end (v.35) which has that equation.  Rather in this parable the king is equated with, or symbolizes, a way of doing justice.  And this parable is all about questioning that way of doing justice.

Our first clue is the parable’s mismatch with Peter’s question (v.21).  Peter asks, “…how often should I forgive?”   “Seventy times seven,” says Jesus, hyperbolically meaning forever and ever.  Yet in the parable the king only forgives once.  Not forever and ever.  The king, unlike Jesus and unlike Jesus’ God, is not into repeated forgiveness or mercy. 

Our second clue is the grand scale revenue gathering.  Imagine a super-rich king, ten times richer than any king you know.  That’s what the 10,000 talents of silver (v.24) indicate.  King Herod’s total annual collection for Palestine was only 900 talents!  The king hands out the tax collecting job to the highest bidder who then, after adding on his percentage, subcontracts out the actual work to others.  Imagine the money this highest bidder deals in.  The parable’s Jewish audience knew all the money and tax collecting talk meant only one thing:  Empire; a Roman, gentile empire; ruled, of course, by a Roman gentile ‘king.’

Our third clue is found in the way the king acts.  When the highest bidder couldn’t deliver on his promise the king ordered him to be sold along with his wife, kids, and possessions.  From a Jewish perspective it highlights gentile cruelty, since Jewish law forbade the sale of wife and children to settle a husband’s debts.  From our perspective it is further evidence that the king is a gentile and is certainly not the Jewish God!

Up to now the audience is lapping this up.  Poking fun at the high and mighty, the overlords, and pagan gentiles, is great sport.  They snigger when the highest bidder, the bloke we will later call the unforgiving servant, fell on his knees before the king saying he will repay.  No Jew would grovel like that.  An audience loves to laugh at those who are different.  Loving stories that don’t put them on the spot. 

The king’s pitying of the servant, though, is unexpected.  The audience says, “Huh?”  A gentile king forgiving an underling?  Forgiveness for failure?  Whatever will come next??  The consistency of the audience’s superiority to the gentile characters is disturbed.

But that consistency is not disturbed for long.  The forgiven servant goes out and grabs one his colleagues by the throat demanding that he cough up the little he owes or else.  The audience is back on safe ground.  “Typical gentile bully,” they might have said to one another.  “See how these pagans treat one another!”

In the story, offstage, other tax collectors have seen all this.  They’ve seen the king forgiving.  They’ve seen the forgiven servant go and demand money from a fellow tax collector who couldn’t pay and then send that colleague to jail.  These offstage tax collectors are outraged.  The story’s audience joins in that feeling of outrage.  “Injustice has happened!” “He should have forgiven his mate, like the king did to him!”  So, the fellow tax collectors, and in spirit the audience, takes the unforgiving servant to the king.  The king, too, shares in this feeling of outrage and injustice.

Yet here at the finale of the story the sympathy of the audience shifts.  Instead of the usual gentile punishment for debts the servant is sent to suffer forever at the hands and sick minds of torturers.  The harshness of the punishment disturbs the audience’s sense of what is just.   

According to the parable scholar Brandon Scott, it wasn’t though the torture that the audience likely found most disturbing, it was a king who changed his mind.  Remember the king originally forgave the debtor.  His debt was cleared.  But it obviously wasn’t forgotten.  When the debtor transgressed against a colleague, the king heard of it and un-cleared the debt.

When a 1st century gentile king goes back on his word, when he takes back his forgiveness and reinstates the original debt, the ordered Hellenistic world threatens to fall apart.  If a king can take back his forgiveness who is safe?  Justice requires a system that is perceived as fair, where there is cause and effect, and where the rules are consistent.

So, the theological question is not just whether the God of Jesus is into excessive punishment and torture.  It is also whether the God of Jesus forgives but doesn’t forget.  A kind of ‘three strikes legislation’ God?

This is a story that challenges us.  It asks us whether we are prepared to take seriously the tasks of healing the wrongs in our community.  Like-for-like justice, retributive justice, might satisfy our desire for vengeance but it doesn’t restore community well-being, it doesn’t build participation, and it sure doesn’t build a safer world.  We need our leaders to model wise compassion, so that by offering hope to offenders, hope is offered to us all.

The story also challenges us regarding whose job justice is.  It is tempting to want to leave justice to a judge, a king, or a God – and then criticize them when they don’t do what we want.  The transformation needed to build a just community involves us all.  Tougher sentences and more and bigger prisons are signs of failure – failure to listen, initiate change, and help one another.  They are the failure of community. 

Forgiveness is not the 490 boxes (seventy times seven) 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.  Forgiveness is a given in a Jesus world.  The challenge though is how to heal each other’s wounds, the wounds of the most vulnerable, and the wounds of those who do the most wounding.  Or, in other words, the challenge is to foster, build, and restore community well-being.