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.