Matthew 18.24 ... one of them was
brought in who owed him millions ... he forgave him the debt and let him
One of the great themes of the Old
Testament is God's merciful nature. In a sense it's not really surprising
that this should be. Yahweh is often portrayed as vengeful - so mercy
balances the required punishment of evildoers.
The story of the Unforgiving Servant turns on its head the Old
Testament idea of how God does things.
Jesus (or it could be the author of Matthew's Gospel)
refers in today's Gospel to Genesis 4.15. Cain has just been condemned by
God to be a rootless nomad for murdering Abel. He complains to Yahweh that
"as a homeless person wandering the earth, anyone who finds me will kill
If anyone kills you, seven lives will be taken in
The consequences of messing around with Cain will be far
more severe than the original murder of Abel.
A few verses later, Lamech, a great-grandson of Cain
explains to his wives,
I have killed a young man because he struck me. If
seven lives were to be taken for killing Cain, seventy-seven will be
taken if anyone kills me.
The penalty for wicked behaviour has just been
ratcheted up a notch or two.
The author of Matthew maintains that the way God does
things is radically different. He reports that Jesus advises forgiveness
to the same degree as revenge was previously proposed in the old order.
It's right to forgive offences against one not only seven times (Cain
could take seven lives in revenge) but seventy-seven times (Lamech could
take seventy-seven lives).
But the main point tends to be obscured by Matthew's add-ons (verses
21-22 and 35). Is the story really about our loving duty to forgive
relatively petty wrongs done to us?
Let me put it this way. What if the central story is not about
forgiving wrongs but about forgiving what can't be forgiven?
If anyone is remarkable in this story, it isn't the servant but the
king - what we would call today the chief executive or president of a
multinational company, someone accountable in law for millions or even
billions of shareholder investments.
Ask yourself what would you do if, like the king, you were owed a huge
sum of money by someone who would not or could not pay? What would be your
reaction if you had to give up a right and just claim to millions you were
This degree of demand forgiveness isn't in the same class as being
fired unjustly, or having your car stolen, or being insulted - all of
which you might by some stretch of the imagination be expected to pass
over in the normal course of events.
Jesus wasn't talking theoretically. In his day, the gap between rich
and poor in Palestine was astronomical. Jesus lived in a society in which
ruthless exploitation of the weak was normal. The poor quite literally
laboured for the rich. Under Roman rule most peasants worked land owned by
absentee landlords. Taxes were heavy.
Even top Jewish priests lived lives of great wealth and opulence in
collaboration with the Roman oppressors. The Jewish-Roman historian,
Josephus, tells us in his Jewish Antiquities that ...
Ananias [the High Priest] had servants who were utter rascals and
who, combining operations with extremely reckless men, would go to the
threshing floors and take by force the tithes of the [ordinary] priests.
Nor did they refrain from beating up those who refused to hand over. The
other High Priests were guilty of the same practices as his servants,
and no one could stop them ... those of the priests who in the olden
days had been maintained by the tithes now starved to death.
Being gentle with others about money matters wasn't a norm in
first-century Palestine! Those who heard this story would have thought it
impossible for anyone in power to behave as the king did.
So you see that Jesus in this parable isn't only talking about
forgiveness of ordinary offences - though he's talking about those too.
He's addressing the kind of situation you or I might face if owed a huge
sum. He's talking about forgiving a stupendous debt of real money - lots
of it. The only thing worth more than many millions is life itself.
Could we do what the king did?
Well, says Jesus, that's the way God does things. The attitude of mind
which pervades God's kingdom is shockingly open and generous. That's good
news for us all.