“The Unmerciful Servant” by Sir John Everett Millais, 1864. From a collection of twenty images inspired by the New Testament Parables of Jesus.Public Domain.
Matthew 18:21-35 New Revised Standard Version
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?’ 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.’
Matthew 18:21-35 Lamech is one of the Hebrew Bible's lesser-known characters, and maybe not a very nice one by what our Scriptures say. The great-great-great-grandson of Cain, Lamech, has a little song in Genesis chapter 4:
And Lamech sang this to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, here my voice: You wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, A young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
This is the Hebrew Bible’s first poem, and it describes an escalating spiral of revenge.
If I am honest, revenge is one of my favorite themes when I read and watch movies or television. I doubt I am alone on this. There is something deeply satisfying, and troubling, in watching a tragic protagonist carefully plan and implement payback on the bad guy. The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, and Kill Bill are all famous revenge movies. The Princess Bride is one too, and if you’ve seen it, you probably remember the oft-repeated line, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Sometimes, stories like No Country for Old Men and Gone Girl blur the lines between those that are good and those that are bad. Regardless, in revenge stories, it seems that no one escapes without being touched by some violence, corruption, or at least a guilty conscience.
It is interesting, then, that the first poem of our Scriptures is about revenge. We even get the sense from Genesis 4 that Cain’s family line has become more violent, warlike, and generally awful. And likely, this small poem from Genesis 4 serves as the context for Jesus’ remarks about forgiveness and subsequent parable.
After a few weeks off, we are back in the gospel of Matthew. We recognize Matthew’s gospel because we get another parable. We also recognize it because the gospel writer is threatening torturous hell again, a frightening ending added to many of Jesus’ parables in Matthew. Previously, Jesus is depicted advising about how to handle someone in the early church that’s caused an issue. He lines out a procedure that works diligently to restore the offending person to the community. But, if there is no confession of wrong and no forgiveness, the person is to be avoided.
In our story, Peter has been thinking about this advice from Jesus and what it might look like practically, specifically if the offensive person continues to offend.
“How often should I forgive an offensive person, like seven times?” It sounds pretty generous.
“Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus says. And he realizes that this conversation has gotten pretty abstract. So, he tells a story.
A king is settling accounts with his servants, and one of them owed him ten thousand talents. Again, we know this is a parable from Matthew because Jesus is describing a silly situation. One talent of gold equaled about fifteen years of work for a day laborer. In a very general estimate, the total debt in today’s money would have been around four and a half billion with a “B.” Simply put, the debt was so significant that is was a silly number. Perhaps during Jesus’ time, a debtor could be sold into servitude to help recover a portion of the debt. But the king doesn’t do this. Instead, the king waves the debt entirely and sends his servant on his way. As the servant leaves, he runs into a buddy that owes him 100 denarii – still a lot of money, maybe around $12,000 by today’s standards, but nowhere approaching the astronomical number he had previously owed. The buddy can’t pay now, and instead of making arrangements or even waving the debt as the king had done for him, the servant has his buddy thrown in jail. Once the king hears about this, the cancelation of the debt is rescinded, and the unforgiving servant is sent to the dungeon to be tortured for the rest of his life.
The apostle Paul, as he writes in Romans 14, has something to say about a form of forgiveness, something that looks like graciousness or inclusiveness. He is quick to remind the early Christ-followers in the Empire’s capital Rome that attributes like forgiveness, nonjudgment, unity with diversity, and tolerance for others are hallmarks of Christian community. This early community, he exhorts, should be a space that feels safe enough for a diverse group of people who have different dietary practices, political stances, and holiday observances. Much of those differences, Paul contends, is between the individual and their Lord, whether that be earthly lords or heavenly ones.
It makes sense too that Jesus talks about forgiveness right after a section on the early church. Conflict and transgressions seem inevitable as humans rub against each other in families, working groups, and wider communities. The sharp corners of our personalities irritate and scuff against those with whom we interact regularly. If you happen to be doing this whole COVID thing with others in your household, you might be able to relate to the idea that people, even the ones you love, have sharp corners. Likely though, you are also aware of your own shape edges, the ones that can make living together difficult. So, we forgive. We forgive a spouse for little offenses and sometimes major ones because we value our relationships and wish to see them continue. We forgive others because it is essential to keep community, and family, and friends. We forgive because being without community is really difficult. We forgive because we know what it’s like to be forgiven and the relief we’ve felt. And we forgive because we know what it’s like not to be forgiven by friends, family, or co-workers and how awful that feels.
As I read this passage, though, I think there might be one big asterisk to Jesus’ teaching, and perhaps one great hope, a kind of foundational hope of our faith. It seems that both asking for and offering forgiveness makes us vulnerable. Vulnerability is a virtue in our Christian faith and practice. It is modeled by God and especially Jesus, in our gospels. But our faith also carries a core practice of protecting the vulnerable. There are times when parts of forgiveness, like the restoration of an offender to the community, is not easy or might be impossible. Forgiveness, then, is a mechanism for personal healing and should never be a way that perpetrators can continue abusive actions and behaviors.
That said, I see a great hope of our faith in these words of Jesus. Remember Lamech, the great-great-great-grandson of Cain. His quest for vengeance escalated. He kills for a minor slight and considers himself more wrath-filled that his more famous ancestor. Unchecked, this level of aggression is not sustainable, coercive, and destructive. I would have loved to read in the following verses that his wives Adah and Zillah, responded by telling their husband Lamech to sit down and chill out. But we see the cost of retaliation, payback, and revenge in this world, and how escalating tensions can cause the end of relationships or jobs, and in the social sphere, violence, and death.
I think back to the parable. Think of the gift given the servant. An unpayable debt was canceled. What if the king's graciousness had so moved him that he offered the same graciousness to his buddy? Where might it go from there, in a pay-it-forward sort of chain reaction? It makes me wonder if God is looking to counteract the escalating tensions in this world by a set of escalating practices of forgiveness, reconciliation, and graciousness. What if we dared to be more forgiving in our families? Would we see a different wave of goodwill and love grow? What if we practiced being more gracious when we consider others, whose experiences are not our own? Would a little humility make our communities and country safer for all people, regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, age, and income? What if we tried to reconcile with an old friend or adult child? It would be hard work, and there would be no promises of a positive outcome. But wouldn’t it make all the difference in the world. May we be inspired to forgive often, be gracious to one another, and do the hard work of reconciliation. For the sake of God, and our communities, and ourselves.