The Story We Can't Believe...

Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35

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?’ 22Jesus 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. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him;25and, 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.26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But 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.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

The Story We Can't Believe

This is the most disbelieved of all Jesus' parables. It should delight us, or horrify us, but mostly, we simply do not believe him.

Someone, a slave of a king, under condemnation for an utterly unpayable debt, begs for mercy and is forgiven. In his forgiveness, the King does not even require repayment of the debt! Does this not sound like a parable of grace? And yet that same someone will not forgive something  utterly trifling by comparison. In the logic of Jesus' society, the behaviour of the slave

makes a mockery of the king's behavior. The slave acts in such a way as to proclaim to one and all that he is so "wise and clever" as to be able to take advantage of the king with impunity. The king has no choice but to take "satisfaction," by delivering that bureaucrat to the jailers. (Malina and  Rohrbau Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Section: A Picture of God's Reign: Like the Forgiveness of Debt 18:23-35  )

And eternal judgement follows: torture "until he should pay his entire [unpayable] debt."

Nothing, especially if we trust in God's healing of our selves, and if we trust in our resurrection from death— nothing is an unforgiveable debt or an unbearable sin. And yet we who have been forgiven the unpayable, expel people from the church for trifling things. The reading this week is directly connected to all of Chapter 18 which goes before it, and especially to the reading for last week, (18:15-20). In fact, verse 21-2 connect the teaching on forgiveness with the parable on forgiveness.

When Peter starts the conversation which is this week's lectionary text:

he asks Jesus for a number. He wants to know just how much will be expected of him, how much is reasonable, how much is required. And so he suggests what by all accounts is a more-than-sufficient amount of forgiveness. 

Jesus, however, turns Peter’s question on his head by replying with a ridiculous, even impossible, reply. “You want to play the numbers game?” Jesus more or less asks, “okay, how about this one?” It’s not that Jesus wants Peter to increase his forgiveness quota, you see, it’s that he wants him to stop counting altogether simply because forgiveness, like love, is inherently and intimately relational rather than legal and therefore cannot be counted. Had Peter asked Jesus how many times he should love his neighbor, we’d perceive his misunderstanding: love can’t be quantified or counted. But he asks about forgiveness and we miss his mistake….  (David Lose)

Davies and Alison (Matthew: A Shorter Commentary pp310) say that to forgive from the heart (18:35) "expresses sincerity and excludes all calculations."

The parable is another subversive text like the one we read last week. It is like the command to treat members of the church who do not repent as "a Gentile and a tax-collector." (Matthew 18:17) We find, when we dwell upon it, an apparent inconsistency with what the Bible has been teaching us about God.

as someone noted in our Bible Study this week, Jesus fed the Gentiles, healed the Gentiles, and welcomed the Gentiles into the Kingdom of Heaven. 
And...  Jesus called a tax collector to be one of his disciples…

This is one of the really sneaky bits of the gospel. It sets us up… to discover that we have missed the point. We get all angry and justified about getting rid of someone, and treating them like a tax collector and a Gentile, and then Jesus says in his still, small voice, "You are loving the Gentiles, and tax collectors, and the outsiders, with all your heart… so they may hear the Good News Jesus brings... aren't you? Well, how much more, then, will you love your brother and sister in the congregation! Surely you will treat them like a tax collector or a Gentile… won't you?" Andrew Prior

In the same subverting way, the text describes to us a king whose actions, to  the eyes of the world, are both incredibly generous and then entirely reasonable. One talent was worth more than fifteen years’ wages of a labourer! (NRSV text notes)  But what sort of king is it that can forgive such an unpayable and unforgiveable debt, but cannot forgive the small minded and the ridiculous— three months' pay for a labourer? What sort of king is so magnanimous as to forgive the huge debt, but is unable to haul the slave back in, and confront him with his pettiness, and then send him out to forgive in the way he should? Is it not that we are creating God in our own image, here? We would act with that sort of rage at a petty, unforgiving, totally unworthy slave. But is God like that? Is God's mercy stunted by outrage? Is God's forgiveness of all sins— that's what the forgiveness of the debt stands for— only available on a good day? Is God the sort of God of whom our Advocate says, when  we enter the Court, "He's in a good mood today?" Or not.

If we take it that all of the Bible is written by God, then we are lost. For God is a tyrant who orders the killing of whole cities. God is a contradictory, conflicted monster like us, angry yet merciful, jealous yet forgiving. Our salvation will be a matter of luck, and the God we worship is no more than another despot like Caesar.

If we take it that the Bible is written by us as we learn more of God's infinite love, and that it shows us an unfolding revelation of God's love for us, then we might hope that we have a future. Because if God is love, (1 John 4:7-8) then even the unpayable debt can be forgiven.

But what of this king who does not forgive, even in the Gospel? You see what I am saying— Matthew is not some "primitive" or early Old Testament text. He purports to bring us the words of Jesus.  Is it simply that Matthew didn't yet get the full import of what he was writing, when he says the kingdom is like this, which means that we with our rather superior spirituality now have learned (a bit more, anyway) that God is all love? Or is it that judgement is rather more complicated than we think? Could it be that judgement is something we do to ourselves when we face the infinite love of God who does not judge, because God, after all, forgives even unpayable debt and sin?

James Alison notes the parable of the wedding garment, where

when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless.13Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew  22:1-14)

Do you notice that he addresses the man as Friend, yet this honoured and invited guest is speechless with fear?


Let us remember that this business of not "wearing a wedding garment" cannot be read as a reference to someone's moral behaviour, for Matthew has emphasized that all were called in, good and bad alike. Besides it is known that the custom of that age and place was to provide tunics to place over one's street clothes to participate in a wedding party, and these would have been at the disposal of all the guests on their way in, without the slightest consideration for how good or bad they were. (James Alison Raising Abel pp153)

Here is what is happening.

The problem with the silent guest is that he does not imagine himself to be at a wedding banquet, [he could not even bring himself to put on the wedding garment he had been given! But he imagines himself to be] in a place of judgement, and for this reason does not dare to speak when he is addressed, and so received treatment according to his imagination. (Ibid)

We see a similar understanding in C.S. Lewis'  book The Last Battle. Tirian and the children pass through the stable door that is the metaphor for death. Beyond death they find they are still in Narnia! And find, in the glorious sunshine, the most splendid feast laid out on the grass. It's a reference to, and a picture of, the great feeding stories about the Kingdom of God in the Gospels, and all their eschatological overtones. Some dwarves, who are not on the side of Aslan the King, are also killed, and enter in through the same door where they find the same feast on the same sundrenched day. But all they can see is that they are in a darkened and filthy stable, and that the food in the manger is contaminated filth. [A true insight, I think, but see here on parting company with Alison's interpretation.]

We judge ourselves by what we imagine ourselves to be. My condemnation of you is simply my projection of the way I fear myself to be; know myself to be. And the more I condemn you, the more I become, in my own eyes, even although not consciously seeing it, what I fear I already am: unforgivable. And then I live it; I become stunted and dwarfish in my love. And cannot see forgiveness given to me on a plate.

I wonder if at the root of people's discomfort, and sometimes, even rage, at the idea of universal salvation, there lies an inability to imagine that we can be forgiven just as we are. There has to be someone we can imagine as worse than ourselves, for surely we could not otherwise be good enough to be forgiven. If we cannot imagine the gift, can we accept it?

We put ourselves in prison…

We should fear judgement, because it means we, not God, will see to it that we are not able to face the one who loves us!

What was the difference between Judas who handed Jesus over, and Peter who would not deny himself, in case he was taken from the fire over to Jesus' side? When we discussed this in Bible study one day, folk were inclined to see that Judas had acted in a more heinous manner. Therefore Judas went and hanged himself while Peter merely went out and wept bitterly. (Matt 27:5, Matt 26:75) But I think the difference is that for some reason Peter was able to face the risen Christ, which meant he had to face himself, and what he had done. Not for nothing does Jesus question his love three times by a charcoal fire. (John 21:9, 15-19 cf John 18:18)  I wonder if Judas could not face himself, if he could not imagine that he could be forgiven, that God forgives the unforgivable?

At my most agnostic, I claim no knowledge of what happens at my death, or of what will happen on "the last day," assuming that such a time will come. I have a hope in God's mercy, based on what I have experienced already.

And what I have experienced already warns me how much I have imagined God's gift of life to be different to what it is— how much I have imagined criticism,  judgement, dislike, and condemnation, from people who had no such thing in mind, but who often, indeed, actively wanted my good.

This parable frightens me. It's not because I think that God will desert me. It's that I have already seen how I can torture myself because I do not recognise love when it is given to me. Yes, to calculate love and forgiveness in order that we will be saved, is to make love a work. Which is what Peter is doing in the opening verses of the reading: How much love and forgiveness must I have?

But not to forgive, and to limit our forgiving, is to risk locking ourselves out of the wedding feast, and to risk refusing the forgiveness of the unforgiveable by God; well, not so much even to refuse, but simply not see it, and to bind ourselves into eternal torture. This is the great misery and mystery held in verse 35:

35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

In the end, the slave experienced the king who forgives the unforgivable as absolutely unforgiving. Why? Because the slave himself would not forgive. If we will not forgive we risk being blind to our forgiveness. We will find life torturous and unforgiving, and blame the very one who forgives us all things.

But there is more to be said: I've heard the objection to Universalism, "If God forgives everyone, why then should we even worry about repentance? If we won't be punished, why bother?" Even Alison himself, in Raising Abel, says

there is no story at all of our participation in creation, according to the flexible paradigm of the heavenly story, which is not what is usually called a story of conversion. By a story of conversion I don’t mean one of those accounts of how I was bound by this or that vice, had an overpowering experience, and have now managed to leave it all behind me – though such changes are by no means to be belittled when they happen. However, they are incidents, and not stories. Someone can give up doing something held a vice only to turn into a persecutor of those who lack his same moral fibre. That is not a Christian conversion. The authentic convert always writes a story of his or her discovery of mercy, which means that they learn to create mercy, and not despite, for others. This rule of grammar we find set out in the parable of the servant who was let off all he owed by the King his creditor, but who didn’t forgive the tiny debt his colleague had with him (Matt. 18:23-34) (Raising Abel pp92 Thanks to Paul Nuechterlein for reminding me of this paragraph.)

And so we could think that, really, the king did judge the servant for not forgiving. It was not the slave who judged himself.

This is why I say this parable is the story we can't believe. The slave could not believe that he was forgiven. Already, his lack of forgiveness had done its work on him. And so he was not, as Alison says, converted. He was blind to the grammar of grace and forgiveness. In his forgiving this time, the time we see in the parable, he was already blind.

So in my struggling to understand the grammar of grace and forgiveness I remain confident that God will forgive us all. There will be a time when the last day can come because all has been completed, because even Satan has repented, and entered the kingdom of heaven. But I also see a lot of folks who appear bound in their own kind of hell, as I have been— I still sometimes veer off in that direction— because they cannot believe they are forgiven.

Andrew Prior (2017)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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