20 September 2021

The Unforgiving Debtor Story.

Matthew 18.23-35.

Mammonists are fond of saying Jesus teaches about money more often than a surprising number of subjects. More often than heaven and hell combined!

And that part’s true, ’cause Jesus teaches very little about heaven and hell. (Unless you think “the kingdom of heaven” actually means heaven. You’d be wrong.) His lessons are primarily about following God now, not the afterlife, nor after the world ends. Jesus teaches most subjects more than heaven and hell combined.

Though Jesus brings up money a lot, not all his lessons are actually about money. Money’s in them. Much like wheat and vineyards are in a number of his parables: They’re not about wheat and winegrapes, but about his kingdom. He uses them to make a point. They’re MacGuffins—a movie term for the valuable object which motivates the characters and drives the story. What the MacGuffin is, doesn’t matter; you can often swap it out for something else. In fact Jesus does just that when he speaks of a treasure in a field or a valuable pearl: Heaven’s kingdom is like any valuable thing which makes a betting person go all-in.

And in this parable, money’s the MacGuffin, but it could be anything people might owe. Like “You promised me a car; where’s the car?” or “You promised to take us to Disneyland; when’re we going?” or “You said you’d spend Saturday with the family instead of at work; are you gonna break your promise?” Or we’re in their karmic debt because we wronged them, or at their mercy because they can have us prosecuted. Money’s a simple concept though—although the amount of money Jesus refers to is kinda huge.

Two slaves. (I remind you slavery in ancient Israel usually had to do with indebtedness.) One owes 10,000 talents; the other 100 denarii. I also remind you ancient money’s value fluctuated wildly, but figuring silver at 75 cents a gram, the 10,000 talents (330,000 kilos or 750,000 pounds silver) is worth $247,500,000; and the 100 denarii only comes out to $342.75. So one’s an impossible debt, and the other really isn’t.

Now that you have these values in your head, check out Jesus’s parable.

Matthew 18.23-35 KWL
23 “This is why heaven’s kingdom is like a person,
a king who wants to review his instructions to his slaves.
24 Beginning his first review, he’s brought a debtor owing 10,000 talents.
25 The debtor doesn’t have anything to pay him back.
The master orders him to be sold—
and his wife, and his children, and all he has—to pay him back.
26 So the slave, falling down to worship the king, says,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back everything!’
27 Moved by this slave, the master frees him and forgives his debt.
28 On the way out, this slave finds one of his fellow slaves, who owes him 100 denarii.
Seizing him, he chokes him, saying, ‘Pay me back what you owe!’
29 So, falling down to worship, his fellow slave begs him, saying,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back!’
30 The slave doesn’t want to hear it,
but throws him away into debtors’ prison till he can pay back the debt.
31 Seeing this happen, the other fellow slaves are greatly upset.
and go to tell the master himself everything that happened.
32 Then summoning the slave, his master told him, ‘You evil slave!
I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.
33 Do you not also have to be merciful to your fellow slave, like I showed you mercy?’
34 His enraged master turned him over to the torturers,
till he could pay back all the debt.
35 This is also how your heavenly Father will do for you,
unless you forgive each of your family members with all your heart.”

The king’s grace, versus God’s.

Christians have the bad habit of assuming Jesus’s parables are precise analogies. Therefore we usually teach the king in this story is our heavenly Father. ’Cause why not? He forgave a debt of $247.5 million. That’s a buttload of money! You could make a superhero movie with that kind of money. Or buy 500 houses… but not in the San Francisco Bay Area; trust me. Not good houses, anyway.

Thing is, later in the story, the king takes his forgiveness back. Entirely back. He wants the slave to pay back all his debt; all 10,000 talents. Even though he’s turned his slave over to βασανισταῖς/vasanistés, which the KJV calls “tormentors,” the ESV “jailers,” and the NIV splits the difference: “the jailers to be tortured.”

The word vasanistís comes from βάσανος/vásanos, “touchstone,” a rock the ancients and medievals used to test gold by scraping the gold against it. And a vasanistís would test a suspect by scraping them, or otherwise inflicting great pain upon them, to get a confession out of them. Thing is, the heavily-indebted slave already confessed; why does he need to be tortured further? And how on earth is he gonna work off his debt when the torturers have him on the rack? Ancient Christians, like John Chrysostom and Apollinaris of Laodicea, figured this means to make it clear it was impossible to pay off the debt. This dude was now in hell. If the king is a precise, literal analogy to our heavenly Father, Jesus basically states if we ever piss him off by being unforgiving, he’s gonna send us to hell.

Hence many a Christian has taught exactly this. God can be gracious to us, and forgive us a quarter billion dollars’ worth of sins… but commit this particular sin, and we’re going to hell. Apparently the unforgivable sin is unforgiveness itself. Ironic, innit?

Now yes, Jesus teaches us if we want our sins forgiven, we gotta forgive. That there’s a reason he has us pray “Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors” (or trespasses and trespassors; whatever): When God grants us his grace, he expects us to practice this grace. Or, y’know, hell.

But lemme drag you back to reality: God’s kingdom is like this parable. Jesus doesn’t state God’s kingdom is this parable. Bible commentators and interpreters warn us all the time to not stretch the meanings of Jesus’s parables too far, and read things into them which Jesus never meant. But just as many of ’em commit this very same interpretive fallacy. When this king, who initially shows grace like God, suddenly stops showing grace like God, that’s our reminder he’s not God. He’s only like God. But he’s fictional. Jesus made him up.

“But what about when Jesus says, ‘This is also how your heavenly Father will do for you’?” Yes; Jesus’s other teachings about forgiveness make it clear if we don’t forgive, we don’t get forgiven. Does it automatically mean God throws us to torturers? Nah. I will point out life is suffering, Jn 16.13 and without God in our lives, things are meaningless, miserable, and hopeless. Wealth doesn’t satisfy, drugs remove pain without adding joy, and our activities only distract us from despair. God doesn’t have to throw us to torturers. Life will torture us just fine without any outside help. So will death.

But the only limits on God’s grace, come from us. You want it? Stop resisting it. It’s free, and there’s plenty. The catch is we have to stop taking it for granted, and share it with everyone else. Forgive and you’ll be forgiven.

The slave’s ungraciousness, and ours.

Imagine you’re on the way out of church, and one of your fellow Christians goes up to another fellow Christian, punches him in the head, screams, “You scratched my car!” and curb-stomps him till he’s toothless. You gonna be upset? I would hope so. Would this behavior get this guy kicked out of church? It should; he’s not safe to be around.

And no, kicking him out of church does not mean he’s going to hell. Although his fruitless behavior suggests he’s not listening to the Holy Spirit—assuming he has the Spirit in him in the first place. If he’s going to hell, it’s not because the church is sending him there, and the Spirit is certainly pointing him in the right direction, towards Jesus. But it’s entirely on him.

Graceless Christians are exactly the same way. Not as violent as this hypothetical guy, nor as violent as the hypothetical slave in Jesus’s parable. But while the lack of grace in these fictional people drives ’em to violence, the rest of the graceless Christians express their poisonous attitudes in lots of other ways. Typically by punishing sinners for even their smallest sins. I’m not even talking about legalism; they can be totally gracious to fellow Christians. But their grace ends with the people of their own family and church. Towards outsiders and pagans, they’re just vile.

I’ve met many an anti-Catholic bigot, both inside and outside my church, who presumes Catholics are idolaters and going to hell, and are part of a vast devilish conspiracy to overthrow the world. I’ve met many a Christian partisan who believes the very same thing about the opposition party. People who look at me funny because I’m Pentecostal, because even though I like the King James Version I dare to say it’s not an infallible translation, or even because I have long hair and a beard. (You know, like Jesus. Except it’s not white like his. Yet.) People have their prejudices, and occasionally I’m on the wrong side of them.

But God’s attitude is just like the words Jesus put in the king’s mouth: “I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Do you not also have to be merciful to your fellow slave, like I showed you mercy?” Mt 18.32-33 If we’re gonna claim to be free by God’s grace, shouldn’t we demonstrate this by freeing others?

Yet we Christians are far more like that evil slave. We figure God forgave us of the most depraved sins we ever committed… but if anybody else commits such depravity (be it the same sins, or slightly different ones, or very different ones), they’ve gone too far. Especially when those sins inconvenience us in any way. If it affects us it’s a travesty. It’s persecution. It’s torment. And we even feel justified in taking our revenge.

God’s kingdom has no place for such people. We need to purge this ungraciousness from ourselves, before we find we’ve placed ourselves outside his kingdom.

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