The lectionary gospel reading for Trinity 14 in Year A is Matt 18.21–35. It continues Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ teaching about life in the ekklesia—not the ‘church’ as we would understand it now, but within the community of God, gathered around obedience to Jesus himself.
We might, when reading this in the context of the whole chapter, assume that there is a strong link between this pericope and the one before it, since the shared subject is responding to the question of sin. But the focus here is quite different; as we saw last week, we should read Matt 18.15 as ‘if a brother or sister sins…’ without the additional ‘…against you’, and we noted that the focus is very much more on the concern for and restitution of the one sinner, rather than either the protection of the one sinned against or the holiness of the community. This concern reflects God’s compassion for each of ‘these little ones’ that they might not go astray and be lost.
But at the start of our reading today, in Matt 18.21, the concern shifts away from salvation of the sinner and more towards the protection of the sinned against. It is, perhaps, striking that, over against Jesus’ focus on the other, Peter brings the question sharply back to the concerns of the self—though I wonder if I am reading too much into this. Where the initial questions about communal relationships have been brought by the disciples as a group in Matt 18.1, this question has been brought by Peter as an individual. When we have been wronged, and have a grievance, there is a legitimate question to be asked. Yet the shift from the other to the self is also one that is characteristic of our human nature—and in response Jesus (in a parable unique to Matthew) once more seeks to make God’s forgiveness, rather than our obligation, the heart of the matter.
There is some evidence in the rabbinical literature (b. Yoma 86b–87a) that forgiving someone three times was a reasonable limit to generosity and grace. If so, then Peter extends that to a nice ‘whole’ number of completeness, seven. There is some debate about whether Jesus’ response means ‘seventy times seven’, that is, 490, or ‘seventy-seven times’, since the Greek appears to be an odd construction, reflecting translation from a Hebrew figure of speech. This, then, points to an important antecedent—the boast of Lamech in Gen 4.24: ‘If Cain is avenged sevenfold [compare Gen 4.13] surely Lamech is avenged seventy-seven fold’.
Jesus’ saying therefore contrasts strikingly (‘I tell you…’) with three things. First, it contrasts with practical wisdom—after all, surely we should not continue forgiving someone without limit, else what would the world be like? Yet the previous passage has shown that sin does have consequences, and cannot be ignored—that is not the issue here though. But Jesus’s teaching also contrasts with Peter’s, human, generous extension of practical wisdom. The forgiveness that flows to others from our experience of forgiveness by God is indeed to be as gracious and generous as his.
And, thirdly, this stands in stark contrast with the human desire for vengeance, which is such a destructive force in so many violent and tribal contexts around the world today, as well as destroying the hearts and lives of those who have been wronged.
The disciple must be as extravagant in forgiving as Lamech was in taking vengeance. This is the language of hyperbole, not of calculation. (R T France, NIGTC, p 705).
Some question whether the parable of the unforgiving slave that follows actually goes back to Jesus, or has arisen as a creative development of Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’ (Matt 6.12, expanded on in Matt 6.14–15). If so, then there is an anonymous creative genius, who was not able to think up a striking, vivid and memorable parable, but was able to do so in a way that was entirely typical of Jesus’ teaching in other parts of the gospels.
As with many of Jesus’ other parables in Matthew, this one starts with ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’ leading straight on to identifying the kingdom with a character at the centre of the parable. As with many other parables, it focuses on an economic context, the other main source of Jesus’ illustrations alongside the field and farming. And, as elsewhere, it includes unreal and hyperbolic amounts of money, so that the account is vivid in its absurdity. Once more, the theme of accountability and judgement forms the climax.
Some English translations soften the starkness of the different social context by calling those involved ‘servants’ rather than ‘slaves’, but the latter is probably the better translation of doulos. Slavery was known and practiced amongst Jews almost as much as in other parts of the Roman Empire.
It was not impossible for slaves to be responsible for significant parts of their master’s estate; we need to be aware that Roman slavery was a quite different institution from later practice, in that it was not based on racial identity, and slaves could rise to become senior managers and stewards with great authority, whilst still not enjoying the status and liberties of free men and women.
But the amount of the debt here is rather absurd. A denarius (Matt 18.28) was believed to be a reasonable amount to pay a labourer for a day’s work, and a ‘talent’, though technically a measure of weight, was usually assumed to be a quantity of silver (not ‘gold’ as in the TNIV), worth six thousand denarii, that is, at least 20 years’ worth of a labourer’s pay—and given the shorter life expectancy, represents a life-time’s earnings. The myria of talents here, ten thousand, is the largest number for which there is a Greek term, and is here put with the largest amount of money. The Living Translation in the 1970s translated it as ‘a million dollars!’ which tried to capture the rhetorical force—which now in our age of billionaires fails to express that this was a quantity beyond any individual’s grasp. The first slave’s offer to repay the debt (Matt 18.26) is completely unrealistic.
The king is ‘moved with compassion’ is Jesus is frequently when confronted by those needing his help (Matt 9.36, 14.14, 20.34). This leads to a response which goes far beyond what the slave has asked, and forgives the debt entirely.
The second half of the story mirrors the first half, but with more vivid directness. The first slave is owed a debt, as was the king, but he seeks to exact this with violence. Even though the debt is comparatively small (a hundred denarii) he was acting within his legal rights by having him imprisoned.
His fellow slave does just what he has done—falling on his knees and begging for forgiveness. (It is worth noting that this is a parable, not a mere allegory, so that we should not press the details of the action too far in seeking parallels in our lives. In other words, this is not merely a story about how we respond when people beg us for forgiveness.)
But what is shocking to the other slaves, who report back to the king, is that the first slave has failed to see the parallel, not just in the action of the other, but in the situation of being in debt and in need of forgiveness. The king’s action has changed his financial situation but it has not yet changed his heart.
The king, however, does not fail to see the parallel, as we can tell from his emphatic ‘all that debt of yours’. If you plan to re-enact this as part of reflection of and teaching on it, make sure you do it with a kind of pantomime exaggeration! The receipt of forgiveness must lead to the offer of forgiveness if it is to complete its real work.
The parable as s depiction of the dynamics of the kingdom of heaven does leave us with some questions.
Are we really slaves to our heavenly master? Well, yes indeed we are in many respects—‘slave’ was Paul’s favourite term of self-description with which he begins all his letters. We have been ‘bought with a price’ (1 Cor 6.20), which is language directly from the slave market, and we are therefore not our own, but belong to our new master. And we were indeed in debt, since we owe everything we have to God; none of us has anything that we have not been given. But we have been bought to be set free, free from sinful self-centredness and self-protection, free to live in forgiveness and generosity rather than living in bitterness, chained to the desire for revenge.
Is God really an all-powerful king, who will punish those who do not live in his grace? Well, in many ways, yes. Despite our anxieties about power dynamics, the metaphor of kingship is hard to avoid in Jesus’ teaching, and the metaphor matters. The question is, what kind of a king is God? Jesus’ answer here is that he is one who, though owed a great debt, is moved with compassion as we turn to him, and forgives our debts at great personal cost. We might complain that there is no mention of the cross here, as there is not in that other great parable of gracious forgiveness, the story of the prodigal son and the forgiving father in Luke 15. Yet it is clear who pays the price in order to make the forgiveness real.
There is an idea floating around that God accepts us as we are, so that we can get on with our lives as they are. But this suggests that acceptance is nothing more or less than we would expect from a reasonable human being, and comes at little or no cost. In this scenario, God is only doing what we might expect. But if God does accept us, then in fact it involves forgiveness at great cost, and that must surely change everything.
And God is also a king who rages at injustice, and will see that justice is done. This, too, is liberating, since it means we are free not to seek personal revenge as an exacting of justice, because we can leave that to God.
I have experienced wrong done to me by others, even to the extent that it has changed my ministry, the course of my life, and meant having to up and leave employment and home and situation. But I have not experienced wrong done to me to the extent of losing a loved one to murderous violence, as others have. We all, therefore, need to be careful in applying this to others; we need first (and even last?) to apply it to ourselves, whatever our situation and experience.
Yet those who have experienced greater wrong can help us understand this parable. We might not be in their situation, but they can offer us an insight into our. I was very moved a few years ago to read of the response of Maureen Greaves, widow Alan Greaves, who was brutally and senselessly murder on Christmas Eve as he was on his way to play the organ for Midnight Communion at St Saviour’s in Sheffield.
“It seems so easy to say I’ve forgiven them, but it’s probably one of the hardest things in my life that I’ve had to do and yet having done it and repeatedly seeking to do it, I’ve found I’ve benefited.
“I’ve not gone to bed with them on my mind, I’ve not gone around with shocking feelings over them, I’ve not gone over and over in my mind the replay of what happened to Alan.”
Mrs Greaves said she hoped both men would find “some sense of true sorrow” for what they had done.
“Perhaps they’ll find while they’re in prison a journey they can go on where they will be able to think of what they’ve done and turn away from such things and start leading better lives.”
It might be that we need to forgive not just 77 times for 77 different sins, but 77 times for the same sin until we truly live in the forgiveness of the king, who is also our compassionate heavenly father.