Sunday’s Gospel from the Revised Common Lectionary (Matthew 18:21-35) continues the same scene as last week, and leaves us with a remarkable, simple, working definition of forgiveness.
If you are a regular reader of these weekly meditations, you know that I often point out places where historically we Christians have misconstrued the teachings of the four Gospels. This time I’m making a different argument: We just haven’t mined this text for all its rich goodies.
The text breaks down into two parts
- Peter’s question: How many times must I forgive?
- Jesus’ answer in a parable, with a working definition of forgiveness.
Forgive Early and Often
Most people get stuck on the first part of the text. Peter asks Jesus how often he has to forgive his brother.
…how often should I forgive?
As many as seven times?
Matthew 18:21 NRSV
Of course the NRSV broadens the possibilities for the alleged offender in a modern way, converting the “brother” of the Greek to “another member of the church.”
I, however, like to think Peter said “brother” because he was grumpy over Andrew’s constant shenanigans.
Peter shows he wanted a pretty low limit — especially if he was thinking about Andrew. Can you imagine two brothers reaching adulthood only having to forgive seven times?
That’s a good afternoon’s work at my house.
Anyway, Jesus ups the ante. He takes Peter’s seven and says he must actually forgive eleven times that often — or seventy times as often, depending on which translation you read.
That seems to be where many readers get stuck. But debating between forgiving 77 times and 490 times is absurd. It is as if we think Jesus actually was trying to set a hard limit on forgiveness.
My personal paraphrase?
Seven is just getting started Pete. You need to keep forgiving till you lose count.
So I guess forgiveness is like voting in a corrupt democracy: do it early, and often. (Like by mail, and then in person?)
This makes me think of issues just a step further down the road:
- Are there differences between “forgiveness,” and “reconciliation,” and “healing,” and a “restored relationship”?
- Is there a good working definition of forgiveness?
On these, the parable helps us out, implicitly and explicitly.
The parable is actually a comic story. It’s hard to see the humor without doing a bit of math — plus we typically read Jesus’ words in pious somber tones. This one calls for broader, exaggerated drama.
First the math:
The king’s servant owed, Jesus said, 10,000 Talents. That sounds like maybe a big number. But how big? Are we talking $10,000? That’s a big debt.
No my friend. Think bigger.
Let’s do the math and see what the debt would look like today in the US.
I’m not doing major research here. The footnotes to my NRSV tell me that a “Denarius” was a day’s wage for a laborer, and a “Talent” was more than fifteen year’s wages.
Okay, let’s figure it out.
U.S. Minimum wage
The U.S. minimum wage is currently $7.25/hour
1 Day’s wage (aka, a “Denarius”)
A day’s work at minimum wage: $7.25 X 8 hours = $58
1 Year’s wages
If a laborer in Jesus’ culture worked 6 days a week, there would be about 313 working days per year (365 days – 52 sabbaths).
One year’s wage: $58 (1 Denarius) X 313 (working days) = $18,154.
(I’ll skip the fact that this is grim commentary on life working for the American minimum wage.)
So a Talent, is 15 years’ wages: 15 X $18,154 = $272,310
That already puts my little guess of $10,000 to shame, but we aren’t there yet.
To get the size of the first slave’s debt, we multiply 10,000 by a Talent: 10,000 X $272,310 = $2,723,100,000
That’s nearly $3 Billion.
What about the other slave’s debt?
He owed 100 Denarii or 100 day’s wages: 100 X $58 = $5,800
A whole lot of people carry more on one credit card.
Revisiting the Story
So let’s slip those numbers into the text and see if the broad comedy emerges
…the kingdom of heaven may be compared to
a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.
When he began the reckoning,
one who owed him $2,723,100,000 was brought to him;
and, as he could not pay, …
Well of course he couldn’t pay! This guy’s slave owed more than the whole net worth of anyone but the 743 richest people on earth.
…his lord ordered him to be sold,
together with his wife
and all his possessions,
and payment to be made.
Matthew 18:23-25 adapted from NRSV
Now that sounds really awful. Draconian. But it’s kind of like “Chapter 11” bankruptcy. Freeze the assets, and sell stuff off to cover what debts can be covered. The bummer is that this is a case of chattel slavery. The king is going to sell the man and his family. (And anyone who knows American history, knows that we have had far too many stories of enslaved people sold and separated from their families.)
And what happens? The guy figures he needs to cover what he can of those debts.
His quickest source of capital? Call in the debts he’s made to other people. “
But that same slave,
as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves
who owed him $5,800; …
Matthew 18:28 NRSV adapted from NRSV
You, O reader, think “What’s six grand in comparison to three billion dollars? I have more than that on my Amex!”
A Case of Melodrama
Well, to the second slave it was a lot. But to the first slave, this was his chance for double satisfaction:
- First, he could winnow down his big debt. Not much, but some.
- Second, he could take out his aggression on someone weaker. You know: like a bully.
…and seizing him by the throat, he said,
‘Pay what you owe.’
Matthew 18:28 NRSV
So okay, it’s not comedy. It’s melodrama. But the math makes all the difference.
The one guy owes more than the GDP of any one of 28 whole countries.
The other guy owes less than a set of living room furniture (one couch that came up on my Google search was $7,700).
A Working Definition of Forgiveness
All that melodrama is there to frame what I believe is the most important point in the passage: Jesus’ working definition of forgiveness.;
When the king confronted the guy who owed him slightly less than the GDP of Belize,
…the slave fell on his knees before him, saying,
‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’
And out of pity for him,
the lord of that slave released him
and forgave him the debt.
Matthew 18:26-26 NRSV
So what is the definition of forgiveness in this passage?
- Forgiveness is not collecting what is owed.
- Forgiveness is not punishing someone, even though they deserve it.
I have long found this to be incredibly helpful on a practical level.
We often assume that “forgiving” someone means that everything is healed and we have a clean fresh start.
In this story, not everything was healed. The king took a loss more than twice the GDP of Grenada. That’s gotta hurt.
And in this story, there wasn’t quite a clean start for the guy who was forgiven. He was watched. When he didn’t forgive the relatively tiny debt of his fellow slave, his own forgiveness was basically reversed.
Forgiveness was, in a clear sense, conditional. Jesus expected him to learn from the experience.
It wasn’t enough to stop taking on excessive debt.
Jesus expected the guy to learn to be like his king.
The king forgave the slave. The slave was supposed to forgive others.
A Sober Threat
But the slave refused to forgive his fellow slave. That led to dire consequences.
…in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured
until he would pay his entire debt.
Jesus has a clear expectation. He forgives us, and must learn to forgive — or else. It is actually pretty threatening:
So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you,
if you do not forgive your brother or sister
from your heart.
It sounds harsh. But then it is precisely the deal each of us makes with God when we pray the prayer Christ taught his disciples. You know: the Lord’s Prayer.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Matthew 6:12 NRSV
And he accompanies it with a sober threat there as well:
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 your trespasses.
Matthew 6:14-15 NRSV
Wow. This discipleship thing sounds really serious.
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