The Limit Does Not Exist
When Joel and I were deciding who would preach on which Sundays during this series on the parables, he told me that the parables chosen for the later half of the series each had their own trouble spots and might require a bit of speaking “against the text.” So, since the reading ends at a bit of a cringe-worthy point and that’s probably freshest in your minds, let me start off by saying that it’s important to keep in mind the difference between a parable and an allegory.
Parables are NOT meant to be a word-by-word, character-by-character parallel where each piece of the story directly reveals or represents something else. The King may indeed be meant to represent God, but we do not need to treat every action of the character as if it reveals an undeniable truth about the nature of God.
So while the King gets a little...torture-y at the end of the story, I do not believe we need to assume a direct parallel about Divine torture is meant when Jesus finishes by saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” I’ll fully admit that might be a pretty weak way to excuse a text that seems to speak about an almighty torturing God, but if nothing else, we also have to consider this last line in light of the rest of the parable and the wider context of Matthew’s gospel.
So where does this parable come from? And what does it reveal about the nature of God and the beloved community we are called to build?
We get a hint of why Jesus tells this parable with the question from Peter that sets up the passage for today, but we can also go a little further back to see what prompted Peter’s question. Earlier in Matthew 18 we find Jesus’ teaching about what to do when members of the community sin against one another. In an overly generalized sense, it’s a wise admonition to first try to work things out amongst yourselves, then involve a few others as witnesses, and then involving the whole community only if the first steps have failed to result in a move toward reconciliation.
I say this is wise in an overly generalized sense, because conflict is always messy, hardly ever fits into neat little boxes, and this description of a program for resolving conflict fails to take into account the possibilities of power imbalances and the retraumatization of those who have been harmed who are compelled toward a very specific type of reconciliation and forgiveness.
There is still some good, underlying wisdom to this, yet Peter’s question seems to be an attempt to get at this messiness and go wider. He asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” From the very specific, Peter wants to think more broadly, asking how exactly this will work. Maybe this question has been on the tip of his tongue since all the way back when Jesus taught that prayer and threw in the line about ‘forgiving as we have been forgiven’. And he is attempting to be generous when he suggests seven times. Seven, the number of completion, the days of Creation, and the full cycle of work and rest, surely this is more than enough, more than ought to be expected.
But Jesus replies, ““Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” There are a couple ways to interpret the original Greek, so it can also be read “seventy times seven.” Either way, the point is NOT to get Peter to an even higher-yet-still-quantifiable number. Neither 77 nor 490 get to the limits of the kind of forgiveness Jesus is talking about. He is not about putting a quota on forgiveness but is pushing Peter to think even larger. Where Peter started to go wide, Jesus goes even wider. And to get there, we finally get to the parable.
I’ve heard from a number of people that when I preached a few weeks ago and talked about looking for the surprise in the parable, that was a new and helpful way to think about these passages. Like I said before, sometimes the surprise can get lost in the 2000-year distance between the original hearers and those of us hearing it today. And this week is no different because, at least for me, the surprise didn’t jump out at me until I glanced at the footnotes in my Bible.
We are probably familiar with the word “talent” from other parables and know that it refers to an actual quantity not just a metaphor for gifts and skills. But when we find out that the servant in this parable owes ten thousand talents, we might not realize just how much that represents. Exact figures are impossible to calculate, but it’s somewhere around 100,000,000 days worth of labor. And to put that number in an even clearer perspective, that comes out to almost 274,000 years worth of labor if you work every single day of the year.
So when Jesus tells the listeners that the servant owed ten thousand talents, I have to imagine the crowd snickering a bit. In my Bible, this parable is called the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, but perhaps it could also be known as the Parable of the Insurmountable Debt.
And this surprise begs the question, “How does someone wrack up that much debt?”
Now, there’s a chance this is the wrong kind of question because rather than a cumulative amount granted to this single person--which is nearly unfathomable-- the debt of the servant may represent the amount the servant is responsible for producing as part of a wide-ranging system of patronage. The servant of the parable might be far enough up the economic hierarchy with enough people underneath him that this amount is large but still might come across to the original hearers as business as usual. In this system the servant finds himself wrapped up in, as long as he is passing enough up the pyramid, he gets to keep as much as he can get away with. In this reading, we see the servant as a person of influence and power trapped in a system that has completely gotten away from him.
Maybe it is akin to how it is nearly unfathomable for us today that billionaires exist, and yet we seem to simply accept the reality as a byproduct of the economic system we find ourselves in.
So while the amount of the servant’s debt may or may not be surprising, what is truly baffling either way is the King’s choice to forgive that debt. While there may have been snickering at the amount of the debt, when Jesus tells the crowd that the King completely forgives this astronomical amount there may have been more than one skeptical look.
Forgiveness. Can you imagine?
There is no way the servant would have been able to pay off that debt. And the wisdom of the King recognizes not just this reality but the reality that the system of indebtedness causes a breakdown of the community. The bondage created by this kind of debt is antithetical to the values that hold us together because they force us into a system of ever greater indebtedness. We begin to treat one another not from relationships of love and grace but through relationships of mere quid pro quo. Forgiving the debt may not enrich the King or make much financial sense, but in the Kin-dom of Heaven--as Jesus draws this comparison--creating, sustaining, and maintaining right relationships in community is foundational.
The beloved community is held together not by strict tallies of calculated reciprocity but by the bonds of grace we both give and receive.
In theory, the forgiveness the servant received ought to have bonded him even more closely to the King than allowing him to remain in a state of debt bondage because the bonds of grace run far deeper.
Yet, in addition to looking for the surprise, it is perhaps helpful to also pay attention to what comes across as unsurprising and taken for granted. Are we surprised, then, that the servant turns around and immediately continues to operate from the system of bondage he had been used to? Or are we all too familiar with how hard it is to shake ourselves free from systems of bondage and live as people who have truly been set free?
Not only does the servant remain stuck inside the old system, not only does he seem unchanged by the forgiveness of his insurmountable debt, he seems to be advancing the system of bondage straight to its inevitable, logical ends, enacting violence on the other, seizing them by the throat, and continuing to break down the integrity of the community.
Some people find discomfort with this parable and Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness because they rightly point out that forgiveness can quickly become cheap and be used as a weapon against those who have been harmed and oppressed. Especially when we start to talk about the kind of limitless forgiveness that Jesus seems to be pointing us to with this parable, we ought to get uncomfortable with any of the ways that forgiveness is used as a tool to resolve conflict while avoiding consequences, to achieve peace without justice.
We see in this parable, however, that even limitless forgiveness cannot condone the continuation of harm within the community. Let us be clear that forgiveness does not mean allowing harm to continue. It does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean automatically returning the relationship back to its original state.
Forgiveness from the heart, as Jesus names it at the conclusion of the parable, is about being transformed in such a way that everyone involved is liberated from the power of the debt, freed to be restored in their own ways within the community. Forgiveness opens the way for new possibilities to emerge, yet make no mistake, the movement toward reconciliation takes a commitment to the hard work that forgiveness makes possible.
It is this commitment that we find lacking in the unforgiving servant. Rather than allowing the forgiveness he received to transform him, he remained bound and committed to the old way of life. Perhaps it is no wonder then, that the King ultimately deals with him from within the confines of this system. One author I read this week, David Lose, makes an interesting point about this part of the parable. He writes, “What if we imagine that rather than inflicting some new (or old) punishment on the unforgiving servant, the king is actually only describing the condition his servant already lives in. That is, he is already a slave to the world of counting and calculating and reckoning everything according to the law and will therefore remain a slave to that way of being until the end of time…or when he can forgive others, whichever comes first.”
Sin is a prison we build around ourselves, a debt that convinces us to spend all our energy proving our worth and making others do the same. Forgiveness shows us the way out, but until we allow that forgiveness to transform us we will remain trapped. Like Peter, we are perhaps more comfortable with a cost that we can clearly calculate, but we must learn to lean into the limitless forgiveness available in God and trust that we can be transformed anew by the freedom we receive each and every new day.
I want to close with a poem by Jan Richardson, which she wrote in response to this parable. It is called, “The Hardest Blessing.”
If we cannot
lay aside the wound
then let us say
it will not always
Let us say
will not eternally
determine our path.
Let us say
the line of our life
will not forever follow
the tearing, the rending
we have borne.
Let us say
can take some practice,
can take some patience,
can take a long
and struggling time.
Let us say
that to offer
the hardest blessing
we will need
the deepest grace,
that to forgive
the sharpest pain
we will need
the fiercest love,
that to release
the ancient ache
we will need
for every day.
Let us say
will not be
our final home;
that through it
runs a road,
a way we would not
but on which
we will finally see
so long practiced,
coming toward us
shining with the joy
so well deserved.