Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Forgive Us Our Debts

Roughly one month ago, a reader known only as Anonymous posted on my Why I Am Reformed entry. Mr. Nymous posted, "quick question - Matt. 18:23-25". I immediately shifted into the mindset of the critical historian, puzzling over the scrawling like an archeologist over a piece of papyrus. I carefully noted the lack of capitalization on all but the Scripture. I cataloged the oddly-placed hyphen. But most obvious to the critical reader is this fact--this was not a question. Written questions in English usually begin with interrogative pronouns or helping verbs and end with a mark something like this: "?".

So because this wasn't actually a question, I will answer the question I think the commenter was asking, "What is your take on Matthew 18:23-25?" I read it. Since again no actual question was left, I must guess at what the controversial nature of the text was. I assume that it isn't that the Kingdom of Heaven is a monarchy as opposed to a democracy. I assume it isn't that the king lent money, though there was a time when usury was thought un-Christian. It could even be assumed that Mr. Nymous is objecting to the use of political similes for theological concepts. However, I think that the objection must be thus: the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a king who orders a debtor and his entire family sold into slavery.

(The reader may think I am being altogether dismissive of Mr. Nymous by introducing all the possible objections one may have to these three verses. Rather, I am trying to prove that any of these could be considered offensive to various observers. Slavery is uniquely offensive to a twenty-first century American; the fifteenth century Reformer or the fourth century Roman would not have regarded this.)

This might be a fair complaint had my charitable reader been as charitable to the Scripture as he has been to me. However, I think he has not been fair. In context, we see a much different story. Peter has asked Jesus how many times he must forgive those who transgress against him, offering the number seven. The Lord responds seventy times seven. Those fools who suppose themselves clever shall take this to mean the may keep a running ledger of offenses and cease to grant mercy at the 490th infraction. The humble reader will see Jesus' point for the hyperbole it is--forgiveness must be unlimited. After all, Peter thinks he is being generous because in ancient Hebrew culture three was the number of times a person was supposed to forgive. Jesus denies this, saying that forgiveness is as abundant as grace.

Then the Lord tells a story to emphasize His point. He tells of a king who has servant owing him a great sum. According to the ESV Study Bible, the sum in today's dollars would be somewhere around $6 billion (ten thousand talents was about twenty years' wages). The king prepares to sell the servant and his family into slavery. This was a common way to pay off debt in the ancient world. I can prove it without a textbook. Instead he forgives the servant his debt. The servant then goes to another servant who owes him about $12,000 in modern money (again according to the ESV Study Bible) and throws him into prison until he pays it. The king, upon hearing this, has that first servant also imprisoned for his wickedness.

We often read the Bible to find endorsements for our twenty-first century Western notions of equality and freedom and social justice. The truth is that the Bible stands outside of and above all cultures and human philosophy. This does not mean that the Bible contradicts everything about our society. It means that some of the things we find really offensive are not offensive unto the Lord. Much more humbling should be the fact that many things we don't find offensive--like being unmerciful to a debtor--inflame the wrath of the Lord. So how is the kingdom of Heaven like a king who threatens to sell a servant into slavery? Because we Christians have been forgiven of a far greater debt than $12,000 or even $6,000,000,000. We have been forgiven the penalty of Hell by the death of Jesus Christ--God Himself--on the Cross. Love keeps no record of wrongs, nor should the Christian.

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