Tag Archives: judgment

Matthew 18: 21-35 A Forgiving King and Community

By Domenico Fetti – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=150920

Matthew 18: 21-35

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This parable is unique to Matthew’s gospel but is well known as the parable of the unforgiving servant (or slave). In the individualistic culture of modernity it is natural that we focus primarily on this one slave who has an incredible debt forgiven, but the placement of this parable within a chapter that is focused on forgiveness and reconciliation within a community setting should alert us that something beyond an individualistic interpretation which neglects the surrounding community is insufficient. In Matthew individual actions and communal responsibility go together just like forgiveness of sins/trespasses and the forgiveness of economic debts. We have already seen Jesus model for the disciples in Matthew 6: 12-15 where in the Lord’s prayer the disciple asks for God to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtor.” And follows this with, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.” In response to Peter’s question about forgiveness these statements are given narrative form in the parable.

Peter’s question, narratively prompted by the practices of reconciliation with a member of the community of Christ who sins against another member, about the limits of forgiveness and Jesus’ response about the expansiveness of forgiveness provide the foundation for the world of the parable. Peter’s question of limits is a practical one in discerning when a fellow member of the community is beyond redemption, when a lost sheep should remain lost of a fellow member be perpetually condemned as a Gentile and tax collector. Jesus’ answer invokes the figure of Lamech and stands in direct opposition to Lamech’s way of retaliation:

Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech listen to what I say: I have killed a young man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4: 23-24)

Lamech, the descendant of Cain, responds to violence with greater violence, Jesus responds to sin and violence with the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. As David Garland can state, “Under Lamech there was no limit to hatred and revenge; under Moses it was limited to an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life; under Jesus there is no limit to love, forgiveness, and mercy.” (Garland, 2001, p. 197)

Entering the parable, we have the kingdom of heaven placed alongside a king settling accounts with his slaves. Although the slavery imagined in this parable is different from slavery as it was practiced in the United States, the people ordered by the king are not merely servants who are bound by an economic arrangement that either party could terminate. The slave, their relationships and their property are ultimately the property of this king who has the power, as we will see in the parable, to dispose of as he sees fit. On the other hand, this king delegates incredible economic authority, and presumably power as well, to the first slave in particular. In settling accounts (literally settling words) with the slaves of the king only one debtor is significant enough to bear mention for the story. We can become fixated on how to communicate the value of 10,000 talents, but both the word for 10,000 is like seventy times seven, a number too high to account for and the unit of measure, a talent, is too large for most of Jesus’ hearers to ever possess. As M. Eugene Boring can state:

A talent is the largest monetary unit (20.4 kg of silver), equal to 6,000 drachmas, the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years. “Ten thousand” (mupia,j myrias, “myriad”) is the largest possible number. Thus the combination is the largest figure that can be given. The annual tax income of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria. The amount is fantastic, beyond all calculation. (NIB VIII: 382)

For Matthew debt and sin are closely related and so it is a short jump from a question of forgiveness of sin to a narrative where an unpayable debt is owed and forgiveness is granted on account of compassion and mercy. In the narrative the king is entitled to sell of the slave, his family, and his possessions to regain as much of the impossible amount that this slave is unable to pay back. The slave prostrates himself and asks for patience, the king responds with compassion and grants a release from the loan and from the impending punishment of himself and his family.

The first slave forgiven the impossible debt then encounters another slave who is indebted to him for a realistic and repayable amount (1/600,000 of the forgiven debt if one wants to be literal). The violence of the forgiven slave’s action towards the debtor where he grabs him and is choking him as he makes his demand for repayment stands in contrast to the king’s summoning. While in the world of court political intrigue where the forgiven slave is attempting to reassert power over his subordinates may make sense in a normal kingdom (Carter, 2005, p. 373) it is anathema to the kingdom of heaven. It is helpful to remember that a parable is a narrative world based upon but not dependent upon a concrete reality, a real king or an earthly kingdom. The forgiven slave claims a power the king did not use initially, the power of violence and threat, the power to imprison and demand. The still indebted and choked slave responds to the assaulting slave with the exact stance and words used before the king, asking not for forgiveness but time. Yet, this former debtor shows no patience or mercy to the current debtor. Instead he imprisons him, perhaps to demonstrate his own power or to sooth his own ego. Regardless of the reason it impacts the community of those who serve the king.

The community knows what has happened in its midst, it grieves exceedingly the violence and injustice done to one of their own. In their grief they report it to their lord, hoping that their lord will intervene. The slaves of the king are heard and noticed, and this type of activity within the king’s reign, especially in light of the previous forgiveness, is unacceptable. The king’s will is to show mercy and to have mercy shown (perhaps a strange king but what normal king is like the kingdom of heaven). It is necessary to forgive others as one has been forgiven in this community. The forgiven slave may have a claim on the slave indebted to him, but the king of both has the final claim. The king finally responds to the previously forgiven slave in the same manner he responded to his debtor.

Some modern interpreters and many modern Christians are troubled by a God who judges. We may either believe in the distant god of modernity which is an unmoved mover, or we may imagine a god whose love excludes punishment of any kind. Neither of these gods are the God we encounter in scripture. God does take sides and God does judge and this is a corollary of God’s love for God’s people and the creation not in opposition to it. A community committed to reconciliation and doing the hard work of advocating and including lost sheep, Gentiles and tax collectors and debtors is an alternative to the ways of power in the world. The kingdom of heaven is not like a regular king, but a forgiving one. At the same time, it is still better for a millstone to be hung around the neck of those who place barriers for the little ones of the kingdom for God judges what the community cannot. The community of Christ may have the hard work of binding and loosing on earth, and God values that work, but it is always directed towards a community of forgiveness and mercy. Just as Christ is present where two or three are gathered, so the community’s cries when an individual or group does not practice forgiveness are heard by their heavenly Father. There is an edge to God’s dwelling with the community that does not practice the life God calls them to. This is the edge in the prophets’ voices as they spoke to Israel when they did not live in accordance with God’s covenant for them and this is the edge of the parable when a community or individual does not forgive as they have been forgiven.

 

Matthew 7: 1-6 Nonjudgmental Righteousness

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch (1877)

Matthew 7: 1-6

Parallels Mark 4: 24-25; Luke 6: 37-42

1 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

6 “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

There is a rhythm that underlies the Sermon on the Mount where the individual pieces, which are so often broken apart, attempt to flow together to form a linguistic and thematic resonance. There is a necessity to the practice of addressing things in smaller pieces but I do think it is important to hear the resonance of “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” with “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” or the imperatives of reconciliation and peacemaking outlined in the interpretation of the commandments and the imperative in the Lord’s Prayer to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” and its restatement on forgiving trespasses and finally doing to others as you would have them do to you. This has the rhythm of wisdom literature which tells us to make the wise, or perhaps the whole/complete/authentic choice, in contrast to the hypocritical/inauthentic/self-righteous or pious choice. The Sermon on the Mount, and Matthew’s Gospel in general, is a tightly composed unit that needs to be heard and practiced together.

Matthew uses the terms hypocrite, hypocrites and hypocrisy more than the rest of the Bible combined, we saw it used three times in chapter six and again here. This is an important term for Matthew since it differentiates the practice Jesus is calling his disciples to in contrast with the practices of other groups. In the Sermon on the Mount the focus is on righteousness as it is practiced in the community, but within the individualistic way of hearing scripture most modern people use it is easy to transform communal practices of righteousness into individual acts of piety and instead of being those who hunger and thirst for righteousness who will be filled (see Matthew 5: 6) we attempt to become those whose practices of piety fill ourselves with our own self-righteousness. When righteousness is reduced to piety we find ourselves among those who Jesus has previously called hypocrites (see chapter 6) and here when we judge others by the standards we set we may be unaware (willfully or unwilfully) of out own failure to seek justice and righteousness.

When we talk about not judging so that we are not judged, we are not negating everything that has been discussed previously. We know that unreconciled anger, uncontrolled sexuality, broken relationships, untrue speech, violence and love for a limited group of people and excludes enemies are contrary to the kingdom of heaven. Exchanging piety for righteousness or attempting to secure our own future instead of trusting in God’s providence are contrary to the wisdom which is offered in these words. On the one hand there is truth to scholars who make this passage about not placing ourselves in the place of God and condemning a person or group as outside of the kingdom of heaven, but my worry about this type of interpretation is that it limits the way refraining from judging is not only about salvation/damnation matters. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is about imagining a community where relations are key to righteousness.

The parable of the person with a log in their eye also points to the reality that we often judge others most harshly in the areas we are least secure. Judgment is often a tool people use to compare themselves to another and to prop us their own insecurity as the critique another. Like Luke’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector where the Pharisee compares himself to the other by saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18: 11)which is lifted up as an example of how the disciples are not to trust in their own practices, this humorous visual of a person with a log in their eye is used to highlight the lack of self-awareness of the situation of the judging one.  Instead of comparison we are invited throughout the Sermon on the Mount to practice forgiveness and reconciliation, to value even those who we may have called enemies previously, and to learn to value the other person as a worthy part of the community.

Yet, a certain type of judgment, or perhaps better discernment, is necessary in our relations with others. The kingdom of heaven that the Sermon on the Mount proclaims encounters the kingdom of the world, not completely eliminating it. The individuals in the community may have those who label them as enemies or dangers. The community may love, pray and forgive others but it also doesn’t place the holy and precious among those who will reject or destroy it. The righteousness the community is to practice is not only practiced in a perfect world free from those who practice different values. How to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world in among others who may not value that role calls for wisdom among the people of God.

Living Brave Semester Week 3- Speaking Back to The Gremlins

Stripe

The discussion this week on empathy and self-compassion takes me back to the tension between by competent, competitive and driven side and the gracious side of me that is willing to be self-compassionate and fair with myself. I have worked for several years on learning to be more gracious with myself and others and a part of this struggle is wrestling with those internal gremlins that point out all the places where I have fallen short, where I have not lived up to my own expectations (as unrealistic as they sometimes are) or I have perceived my own weakness. It wasn’t surprising that when I took the Self Compassion inventory designed by Kristen Neff that my two highest (negative) scores were on self-judgment and isolation. When I feel weak or like I have failed the internal gremlins interpret my own actions in the worst possible light. Even though I am normally a very confident person, in those moments I do tend to isolate myself until I can get past the messages in my head. Recently I’ve learned how to speak back and to lean into that gracious side of my values to get to a more honest place with myself.

I had an experience last week where I was dealing with several frustrations and my language towards myself was becoming accusing and settling into the patterns of self-judgment that I learned at some point in my past. I was getting ready to go into an event where I would have to do a lot of mingling and introducing myself to people I didn’t know, initiating conversations and all of these energy intensive things were coming at a place where I was already exhausted by the trials of the day. I had worked through the issues, I had a solution, but I was frustrated, I knew that the solution in a different situation could have been easier and cheaper and my internal gremlins were comparing the action with the best possible solution and, of course, I was being measured and found wanting. I sat down and began to write out the things I was saying to myself and the accusations I was making and then I responded to them. My responses were from a place that I would speak to another person, how I would respond to them telling me these things after working through the same situation. That helped to me to hear a more gracious voice and to acknowledge that in a situation with a lot of stress away from home I had worked out a solution. I had reached out and sought help, something difficult for me to do, and the process of working through those feelings in a kinder way helped me be in a better place to engage the day. It also helped make clearer the number of issues that I was wrestling with and how in many ways I was already in a place where a lot of healing was occurring.

I will probably always be hard on myself. I will probably always have those critical questions come up and attack me at the points when I feel weak, but part of my own practice of self-compassion is learning to speak back to the questions. To not allow my drive for competence to lose the value of being gracious to myself and others. To embody this in the practice of writing down and responding to these questions in a way that is more grace filled and realistic. I’ve learned how to be empathetic with others and I am learning better how to be more empathetic with myself.