Sunday, September 6, 2020

Ridiculous Forgiveness and Reasonable Evil

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary notes regarding Matthew 18:21-35, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost. Your comments are always welcomed to this long post.

21 Τότε προσελθὼν  Πέτρος εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Κύριε, ποσάκις ἁμαρτήσει εἰς ἐμὲ ἀδελφός μου καὶ ἀφήσω αὐτῷ; ἕως ἑπτάκις; 
Then having come near Peter said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother be indebted to me and I will forgive him? Till seven times?”
προσελθὼν: AAPart nsm, προσέρχομαι, 1) to come to, approach 2) draw near to  3) to assent to
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἁμαρτήσει: FAI 3s, ἁμαρτάνω, 1) to be without a share in 2) to miss the mark  3) to err, be mistaken  4) to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and  honor, to do or go wrong
ἀφήσω: FAI 1s, ἀφίημι, 1) to send away, to bid going away or depart, of a husband divorcing his wife, to send forth, yield up, to expire, to let go, let alone, let be
1. Both here and in v.15 from last week, the NRSV has decided to interpret ἀδελφός as “member of the church.” Very few other translations join the NRSV in this one, with the NIV, ESV, and KJV all preferring “brother.” The same term gets translated either “brother” or the more inclusive “neighbor” in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:22-24 and 7:3-5, even by the NRSV. And, in 18:35, the final verse of this week’s reading’s chapter, the NRSV translates ἀδελφός as “brother or sister.”
While “member of the church” is quite an interpretive leap, it is not hard to see the reason why the NRSV folks have chosen to make it. Verse 17 speaks of “the church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ) – the second of only two places in the gospels where the word appears (the other being Matthew 16:18). The reason “the church” does not appear more often in the gospels is because “the church,” as we typically understand the term, is a post-resurrection entity. Matthew’s use of the term in 16:18 and in 18:17 gives us a glimpse of a dynamic that is at work in all of the gospel stories, but a lot more visible here than usual: The gospel stories are about Jesus and his real time interaction with others during his public ministry up to and shortly after his death and resurrection. By the time the gospels are written, these stories have been handed down orally throughout different communities for decades. During those same decades, “the church” has become a reality, with an idealized universal form and many localized specific forms. (Certainly, Paul’s letters would make it clear that the term has taken on specific meaning by the time Matthew is writing his gospel.) For the story to depict Jesus speaking of “the church” would be for Matthew to mingle the layers of “real time Jesus” and “Jesus of the gospel as written.” Or, to use some of the popular dating, Matthew is taking a word that might have specific meaning in the late 80’s and placing it in a teaching from the early 30’s.
If we insist on translating ἐκκλησίᾳ as “the church” and if we are to follow the NRSV in translating ἀδελφός as “a member of the church,” then we ought to be very clear that Matthew is using late century concepts in an early century story.
2. It would be possible to hear “ἐκκλησίᾳ” as something other than “church.” If you happened to miss these comments from last week, I’ll repeat them:
The word ἐκκλησίᾳ had a wide use before it became a way of referring to the church. Literally meaning “called out,” it could refer to any time the community or the community’s representatives were called to order. A community town hall or a presbytery meeting would have fit that description. In later use, it became shorthand for the “called out Christian community” or the church. In like manner, the words “synagogue” and “congregation” literally refer to groups gathering together and became shorthand for specifically religious gatherings. In certain contexts, the ‘religious community’ and the ‘community in general’ can be virtually the same. If we insist that this is an authentic saying of Jesus, then the word ἐκκλησίᾳ would refer to any gathering that has some authoritative standing in the community.
3. I have translated ἁμαρτάνω and ἀφίημι as “debt and forgive.” Each of those words has a variety of legitimate meanings and, when taken together, they are typically translated as “sin and forgive.” Virtually every other translation does that here, so if you know what’s good for you, you will listen to them and not to me.
I want to keep the wider scope of meanings for these terms in play, because I think we assume a forensic meaning of these terms – legally judging guilty or not guilty – and from the parable that follows Jesus is using the terms more economically. Debt forgiveness is one kind of thing; sin forgiveness seems to be something that really belongs to God. Forgiveness for a transgression that someone has committed against me or my family is yet another matter. We don’t usually characterize that kind of transgression as “sin,” because we typically define sin as a violation of God’s law.

22 λέγει αὐτῷ  Ἰησοῦς, Οὐ λέγω σοι ἕως ἑπτάκις ἀλλὰ ἕως ἑβδομηκοντάκις
Jesus says to him, “I do not say to you till seven but till seventy seven times.”
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
1. The word ἑπτάκις is translated “seven times” here and in the previous verse, because it is different in form than the simple “seven” (ἑπτά). Likewise, the number seventy-seven has the same form for “seventy times” (ἑβδομηκοντάκις), then adds the addition of the simple “seven” (ἑπτά). The question facing the interpreter is where exactly to locate the “times” in the English rendering. Older translations, KJV and YLT, make it “seventy time seven,” while later translations, NRSV, NIV, ESV, make it “seventy-seven times.” Either way, I think the meaning would be something like, “over and over.”

23 Διὰ τοῦτο ὡμοιώθη  βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ ὃς 
ἠθέλησεν συνᾶραι λόγον μετὰ τῶν δούλων αὐτοῦ. 
By this the kingdom of heaven was likened to a man a king who determined to settle accounts with his slaves.
ὡμοιώθη: API 3s, ὁμοιόω, 1) to be made like  2) to liken, compare  2a) illustrate by comparisons
ἠθέλησεν: AAI 3s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend  1a) to be resolved or determined, to purpose  1b) to desire, to wish
συνᾶραι: AAInf, συναίρω, 1) to take up together with another or others  2) to bring together with others  2a) to cast up or settle accounts  2b) to make a reckoning with
1. The conjunction Διὰ is quite flexible, as are many conjunctions. With the accusative, it seems to indicate a flow, often translated “on account of this.” The only reason I am keeping it simpler with “by this” is because the word “account” (λόγον, when paired with the verb συνᾶραι) comes up in this verse and I don’t want to confuse the matter.
2. The passive voice in the verb ὡμοιώθη is curious to me here. Jesus does not say, as many translations reflect, that the reign of God is like … The verb is both aorist (simple past) and passive, was likened. At least in the stage of rough translation I think it is important to recognize the passive voice especially and to hold off on assuming that Jesus is asserting his own perspective on what the reign of God is like. I want to keep open the possibility that what follows may be introduced with something like, “People have said that the reign of God is like …,” without any particular ascription to that view from Jesus himself.
Or, maybe it is simply a colloquial way of introducing a parable and I’m all wet.
3. “Slave” (δοῦλος) is another of those wide terms that might indicate anything from a house servant to a field servant to a serf or vassal within a fiefdom. These particular “slaves” seem very different than the United States’ “original sin” of slavery as owned chattel. Still, there is a power dynamic at work here that is important to keep in mind.

24 ἀρξαμένου δὲ αὐτοῦ συναίρειν προσηνέχθη αὐτῷ εἷς ὀφειλέτης μυρίων ταλάντων. 
Yet having begun to settle one debtor of a myriad of talents was brought to him.
ἀρξαμένου: AMPart gsm, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule, to begin
συναίρειν: PAInf, συναίρω, 1) to take up together with another or others  2) to bring together with others  2a) to cast up or settle accounts  2b) to make a reckoning with
προσηνέχθη: API 3s, προσφέρω, 1) to bring to, lead to  1a) one to a person who can heal him or is ready to show him some  kindness, one to a person who is to judge him 
1. The word “debtor” (ὀφειλέτης) is the same as in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (6:12) in the phrase “forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
2. Like the English derivative “myriad,” the Greek μυρίων means an innumerable amount, but took on the count of 10,000 in classical literature. Back when 10,000 might have been an overwhelming number, it was probably a fair representation of “innumerable.” I think the meaning is not supposed to be literal by any means, but more like “gazillions.”
3. Adding to the extraordinary number of ‘myriad,’ is the ‘talent,’ which the NIV and ESV annotate as being worth about 20 years of salary for a day laborer.
4. To someone hearing this parable anew, particularly in Jesus’ day, this is ridiculous (just as forgiving someone seventy-seven times is ridiculous.) What kind of person has that much money to lend? Why would anyone allow someone such a blank check of endless credit? And what kind of person would borrow such an amount? And, seriously, how would any wealthy person be solvent if he has this much credit out and only now is beginning to settle his accounts? Nothing about this parable is ordinary. That’s worth noticing.

25μὴ ἔχοντος δὲ αὐτοῦ ἀποδοῦναι ἐκέλευσεν αὐτὸν  κύριος πραθῆναι καὶ τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ τὰ τέκνα καὶ πάντα ὅσα ἔχει, καὶ ἀποδοθῆναι. 
Yet as he does not have (enough) to pay the Lord commanded him to be sold into slavery, also his wife and his children and all that he has, and to pay off the debt.
ἔχοντος: PAPart gms, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
ἀποδοῦναι: AAInf, ἀποδίδωμι, 1) to deliver, to give away for one's own profit what is one's  own, to sell  2) to pay off, discharge what is due
ἐκέλευσεν: AAI 3s, κελεύω, 1) to command, to order 
πραθῆναι: APInf πιπράσκω, 1) to sell  1a) of price, one into slavery
ἔχει: PAI  ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
ἀποδοθῆναι: APInf, ἀποδίδωμι, 1) to deliver, to give away for one's own profit what is one's own, to sell  2) to pay off, discharge what is due
1. One has to imagine that, with this ridiculous amount of debt, the debtor has a fine estate and plenty to sell.
2. The repetition of the words ἔχω (to have, as in possess) and ἀποδίδωμι (to pay) are worth trying to keep clear in the translation, but it is not easy. I did not want the first part to read, “as he did not have to pay” because that sounds like he was not obligated, when the meaning is that he did not have enough means to pay. So, I added “enough.”

26 πεσὼν οὖν  δοῦλος προσεκύνει αὐτῷ λέγων, Μακροθύμησον ἐπ' 
ἐμοί, καὶ πάντα ἀποδώσω σοι. 
Therefore the slave, having fallen, was kneeling to him saying, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you all.”
πεσὼν: AAPart nsm, πίπτω, 1) to descend from a higher place to a lower  1a) to fall (either from or upon)
προσεκύνει: IAI 3s, προσκυνέω, 1) to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence  2) among the Orientals, esp. the Persians, to fall upon the knees and  touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound  reverence  3) in the NT by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make  obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Μακροθύμησον: AAImpv 2s, μακροθυμέω, 1) to be of a long spirit, not to lose heart  1a) to persevere patiently and bravely in enduring misfortunes  and troubles  1b) to be patient in bearing the offenses and injuries of others  1b1) to be mild and slow in avenging  1b2) to be longsuffering, slow to anger, slow to punish 
ἀποδώσω: FAI 1s, ἀποδίδωμι, 1) to deliver, to give away for one's own profit what is one's  own, to sell  2) to pay off, discharge what is due 
1. The verb πίπτω (to fall) is delightfully ambiguous here. One can imagine that this debtor/slave has fallen both metaphorically and literally to the ground.
2. It is hard to believe that the debtor/slave could possibly pay off such a debt. This is less about economics and more about power and mercy.  
3. The verb μακροθυμέω (“patient”) has a long association with God’s forbearance. The LXX version of Exodus 34:6 reads, καὶ παρῆλθεν κύριος πρὸ προσώπου αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐκάλεσεν κύριος θεὸς οἰκτίρμων καὶ ἐλεήμων μακρόθυμος καὶ πολυέλεος καὶ ἀληθινὸς,  The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

27 σπλαγχνισθεὶς δὲ  κύριος τοῦ δούλου ἐκείνου ἀπέλυσεν αὐτόν, καὶ τὸ 
δάνειον ἀφῆκεν αὐτῷ. 
Then the Lord having been moved with pity toward this slave liberated him, and forgave the loan to him. 
σπλαγχνισθεὶς: APPart nsm, σπλαγχνίζομαι, 1) to be moved as to one's bowels, hence to be moved with compassion,  have compassion (for the bowels were thought to be the seat of  love and pity) 
ἀπέλυσεν: AAI 3s, ἀπολύω, 1) to set free  2) to let go, dismiss, (to detain no longer)  2a) a petitioner to whom liberty to depart is given by a  decisive answer 
ἀφῆκεν: AAI 3s, ἀφίημι, 1) to send away  1a) to bid going away or depart
1. σπλαγχνίζομαι (moved with pity) is a very corporeal term, as the definitions above indicate. I’ve often thought that the line between σπλαγχνίζομαι and ὀργισθεὶς (v.37 below) was pretty thin.

28 ἐξελθὼν δὲ  δοῦλος ἐκεῖνος εὗρεν ἕνα τῶν συνδούλων αὐτοῦ ὃς ὤφειλεν 
αὐτῷ ἑκατὸν δηνάρια, καὶ κρατήσας αὐτὸν ἔπνιγεν λέγων, Ἀπόδος εἴ 
τι ὀφείλεις. 
Yet that slave having gone away came upon one of his fellow slaves who was indebted to him a hundred denarii, and having grabbed him he was choking him saying, “Give what you owe!”
ἐξελθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of  1a) with mention of the place out of which one goes, or the  point from which he departs
εὗρεν: AAI 3s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with  1a) after searching, to find a thing sought  1b) without previous search, to find (by chance)
ὤφειλεν: IAI 3s, ὀφείλω, 1) to owe  1a) to owe money, be in debt for  1a1) that which is due, the debt  2) metaph. the goodwill due
κρατήσας: AAPart nsm, κρατέω, 1) to have power, be powerful  1a) to be chief, be master of, to rule  2) to get possession of
ἔπνιγεν: IAI 3s, πνίγω, 1) to choke, strangle
Ἀπόδος: AAImpv 2s, ἀποδίδωμι, 1) to deliver, to give away for one's own profit what is one's  own, to sell  2) to pay off, discharge what is due
ὀφείλεις: PAI 2s, ὀφείλω, 1) to owe 
1. In a parable full of ridiculous proportions, this is the most ridiculous movement yet. This would never happen. It would almost be like a bank that has been bailed out of billions of dollars worth of loans built on a failed scheme of sub-zero interest rates, turning around and foreclosing on a house that someone bought while taking advantage of those rates.
It would be like Christians, presuming forgiveness for an imperial history that includes all manner of violence and heinous coercion, calling Muslims “violent” because of the actions of a small portion of Islamic extremists.
It would be like a church member, having been forgiven of all manner of sinfulness, turning toward a gay or lesbian person and saying, “You don’t belong here.”
C’mon, Jesus. This kind of stuff never happens!

29 πεσὼν οὖν  σύνδουλος αὐτοῦ παρεκάλει αὐτὸν λέγων, Μακροθύμησον ἐπ' ἐμοί, καὶ ἀποδώσω σοι. 
Therefore the fellow slave, having fallen to the ground, was begging him saying, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you.”
πεσὼν: AAPart nsm, πίπτω, 1) to descend from a higher place to a lower  1a) to fall (either from or upon)
παρεκάλει: IAI 3s, παρακαλέω, 1) to call to one's side, call for, summon  2) to address, speak to, (call to, call upon), which may be done in  the way of exhortation, entreaty, comfort, instruction, etc.  2a) to admonish, exhort  2b) to beg, entreat, beseech  2b1) to strive to appease by entreaty
Μακροθύμησον: AAImpv 2s, μακροθυμέω, 1) to be of a long spirit, not to lose heart  1a) to persevere patiently and bravely in enduring misfortunes  and troubles  1b) to be patient in bearing the offenses and injuries of others  1b1) to be mild and slow in avenging  1b2) to be longsuffering, slow to anger, slow to punish 
1. The parallel between this slave’s plea and the original slave’s plea in v.26 is evident: πεσὼν οὖν  δοῦλος προσεκύνει αὐτῷ λέγων, Μακροθύμησον ἐπ' ἐμοί, καὶ πάντα ἀποδώσω σοι.

30 δὲ οὐκ ἤθελεν, ἀλλὰ ἀπελθὼν ἔβαλεν αὐτὸν εἰς φυλακὴν ἕως ἀποδῷ τὸ ὀφειλόμενον. 
Yet he was not willing, but going he threw him into prison until he could pay that which he owed.
ἤθελεν: IAI 3s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
ἀπελθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart
ἔβαλεν: AAI 3s, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls
ἀποδῷ: AASubj 3s, ἀποδίδωμι, 1) to deliver, to give away for one's own profit what is one's  own, to sell
ὀφειλόμενον: PPPart asn, ὀφείλω, 1) to owe  1a) to owe money, be in debt for  1a1) that which is due, the debt  2) metaph. the goodwill due
1. While the plea of v.29 was parallel to the plea of v.26, the response in this verse could not be more different than the response of v.27.

31 ἰδόντες οὖν οἱ σύνδουλοι αὐτοῦ τὰ γενόμενα ἐλυπήθησαν σφόδρα, καὶ 
ἐλθόντες διεσάφησαν τῷ κυρίῳ ἑαυτῶν πάντα τὰ γενόμενα. 
Therefore, having seen, his fellow slaves having become greatly aggrieved at these things, and having gone explained to the Lord himself all that had happened.
ἰδόντες: AAPart npm, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes
γενόμενα: AMPart apm, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being 
ἐλυπήθησαν : API 3p, λυπέω, 1) to make sorrowful  2) to affect with sadness, cause grief, to throw into sorrow  3) to grieve, offend  4) to make one uneasy, cause him a scruple
ἐλθόντες: AAPart npm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 1a) of persons  1a1) to come from one place to another, and used both of  persons arriving and of those returning
διεσάφησαν: AAI 3p, διασαφέω, 1) to make clear or plain, to explain, unfold, declare 2) of things done, to declare i.e. to tell, announce, narrate
γενόμενα: AMPart apm, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen
1. Wow, there are four aorist participles in this verse. I try to translate them consistently, as “having [insert participle]” even though it often comes out woodenly. A refined translation would smooth them out better. The words “aggrieved” and “explained” are the non-participial verbs in this verse.

32τότε προσκαλεσάμενος αὐτὸν  κύριος αὐτοῦ λέγει αὐτῷ, Δοῦλε 
πονηρέ, πᾶσαν τὴν ὀφειλὴν ἐκείνην ἀφῆκά σοι, ἐπεὶ παρεκάλεσάς με: 
Then having called him, his Lord says to him, “Evil slave, all of that debt I forgave you, when you cried out to me;
προσκαλεσάμενος: AMPart nsm, προσκαλέομαι, 1) to call to 2) to call to one's self
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀφῆκά: AAI 1s, ἀφίημι, 1) to send away 1a) to bid going away or depart
παρεκάλεσάς: AAI 2s, παρακαλέω, 1) to call to one's side, call for, summon 2) to address, speak to, (call to, call upon), which may be done in  the way of exhortation, entreaty, comfort, instruction, etc.

33 οὐκ ἔδει καὶ σὲ ἐλεῆσαι τὸν σύνδουλόν σου, ὡς κἀγὼ σὲ ἠλέησα; 
was it not also binding for you to show mercy on your fellow slave, as I also had mercy on you?
ἔδει: IAI 3s, δέω, 1) to bind, tie, fasten
 ἐλεῆσαι: AAInf, ἐλεέω 1) compassion of (have) to show mercy (more than have compassion), 2) to have the desire of relieving the miserable, to show kindness by beneficence or help.
ἠλέησα: AAI, 1s, ἐλεέω 1) compassion of (have) to show mercy (more than have compassion), 2) to have the desire of relieving the miserable, to show kindness by beneficence or help.
1. Over the last few weeks I’ve been arguing that the statement in 16:19 and 18:18 about “binding and loosing” things on earth and in heaven ought to be translated, “whatever you bind on the earth will be [what] has been bound in heaven and whatever you loose on the earth will be [what] has been loosed in heaven.” I made that argument based on the tense of the verbs in the sentences. In the same manner, I think the flow of this story is that, since the slave had been forgiven a huge debt, he was bound to forgive his fellow slaves relatively small debt. To me, that movement captures the meaning of 16:19 and 18:18, as well as the ‘forgive as we forgive’ movement of the Lord’s Prayer.

34καὶ ὀργισθεὶς  κύριος αὐτοῦ παρέδωκεν αὐτὸν τοῖς βασανισταῖς ἕως οὗ ἀποδῷ πᾶν τὸ ὀφειλόμενον. 
And having become angry his Lord handed him over to the tormentors until he might pay back all that is due.
ὀργισθεὶς: AAPart nsm,
παρέδωκεν: AAI 3s, παραδίδωμι, 1) to give into the hands (of another) 
ἀποδῷ: AASubj 3s, ἀποδίδωμι, 1) to deliver, to give away for one's own profit what is one's  own, to sell  2) to pay off, discharge what is due. 
ὀφειλόμενον: PPPart asn, ὀφείλω, 1) to owe  1a) to owe money, be in debt for  1a1) that which is due, the debt  2) metaph. the goodwill due
1. The word βασανισταῖς has this as part of its definition: “one who elicits the truth by the use of the rack, an inquisitor, torturer.” It’s hard to imagine how torturing or tormenting someone would enable them to pay back a debt, unless somehow they were lying about their means or where they might have put their wealth. Unlike the word φυλακὴν in v.30, which is a guarded place like a jail or prison, βασανισταῖς is a lot harsher.

35Οὕτως καὶ  πατήρ μου  οὐράνιος ποιήσει ὑμῖν ἐὰν μὴ ἀφῆτε ἕκαστος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν καρδιῶν ὑμῶν. 
So also my heavenly father will do to you if you each do not forgive your brother from your hearts.
ποιήσει: FAI 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc. 
ἀφῆτε:  AASubj 2p, ἀφίημι, 1) to send away  1a) to bid going away or depart
1. The viciousness of the Lord’s response in the parable is now attributed to how God reacts when we, who are forgiven much, do not forgive another. I expect that we are not ready to accept either, a) That our debt that God has forgiven was really all that hefty to begin with; or b) that the debt we refuse to forgive someone else is really all that light. Without accepting either of those premises, this parable becomes something that is more for other people than oneself.


  1. Thank-you for your thoughtful commentary. I have absolutely no idea what to do with this text for a sermon. I could do an hour of lecture and Q and A, but a sermon??? It seems to me that i can follow along until v. 35. It is the viciousness, to use your term, that is so disturbing. But easy to play off as someone other than God until v. 35 asserts "so also my Father will do to you." Is this playful? (said with a smile?) or is it Matthew taking a well known story of Jesus and then stamping a conclusion on it? My sense is that the best parables are not ones with statements that tell you what it's about...or, if they do, they are invitations to dig around and ask "really? is that really what this is about?" I do appreciate your commentary about the ridiculous proportions and think that in many ways, this was the intended focus of the parable. The torturing by the Lord strikes me as Matthew monkeying with the story and i also accept that this is both my bias and in some ways, my hope.

    1. The level of violence is shocking but I always read this as a way of showing just how seriously God takes our practice of grace to each other. I don't think this is about literal torment but is about how profoundly important it is that we lighten each other's burdens and how dire the consequences for us when we choose not to.

    2. In some respects, I think we have to take for granted - however difficult - that a punitive debtors prison is a thing. For those of us, in whose culture it is not a thing, it seems a madly inappropriate concoction that has no purpose other than to torture. For a culture where it is a thing, it may have a completely different meaning. I'm imagining that, unlike the jail (φυλακὴν) where the small claims debtor was incarcerated, this is the kind of place that is only reserved for the Bernie Madoffs of the world, whose excesses make us not very sympathetic toward them. I also imagine that such a fate might be held as both reasonable and necessary, in order to ensure that the system of lending and repaying would be regulated and not exploited.
      If we can wrap our minds around the possibility that the tormentor was not extreme, but acceptable and not unconscionable, perhaps the resolution to the story will not seem as over-the-top as it appears.
      I'm only saying this because:
      a) I struggle with the over-the-top idea of a tormentor exacting economic justice; and
      b) I want the real over-the-top point to be that someone who was forgiven an unforgivable amount could not see his obligation to forgive another.

    3. I suspect that you both are missing the point that Hell is a real place and that real people are going there. Our "gazillions" load of debt makes sense when one considers what Christ endured to pay that off. God on a cross! When we consider the debt owed us, when we consider that we are all in the same boat, so to speak, then the warning becomes very sensible and even reasonable. In fact, the illustration above about the banks is a perfect example of the ludicrous nature of withholding grace and mercy after once having received it. Further, when we consider where we were, prostrate ourselves, it becomes very difficult to imagine God being okay with the hardness of our hearts. It is a difficult thing to approach scripture without an agenda, but we must.

    4. Less an agenda and more 'scripture interpreting scripture.' Gehenna - the trash heap - is a part of our universe. Torture is also. Breaking through the cyclical patterns of revenge and retribution was - and is - costly. Staying in those patterns is torture as well. God is love, and love 'believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things'. Even those who stay in the cycle of retribution and revenge after being offered the way out. What does that mean for white privilege? For rioters who destroy the very communities in which they live and work? For those who cannot release their grip on other's lives, the environment and those seeking refuge? It means to me that the torture of living numb and disconnected may not be 'felt,' but the fear and anxiety that goes along with it is everlasting.

  2. Given the hyperbole in the story, maybe v35 should also be read as hyperbolic?

    It intrigues me that Peter asks the question. Given the 'who is the greatest'? issue, and the care for the 'little ones', does Peter represent the powerful/greatest? In a culture (like ours?) that measured greatness by the number of people 'in debt' to you (and the amount), this story and its conclusion seems aimed at the great ones, not the little ones. Against the perpetrators of power-violence and not the victims. Is Jesus then not asking a victim of violence to keep on forgiving, but asking the perpetrator to forgive whatever it is that is claimed to continually incite the violence? Thanks again for the useful and insightful (not inciteful) comments!

    1. I find Peter to be an interesting character in the synoptics, particularly in Matthew's story. In the big picture of his time, he's nothing much: a Galilean fisherman, uneducated, ordinary working class guy in a Rome-dominated society. To Matthew's community, he's a pillar of the church, the rock on which the church is built. In the stories, he is brash, more wrong than right, but there from the beginning to the end.
      So, within that composite, Peter does seem to be somewhere between a relatively minor player in the world and a figure who embodies power. It's hard to imagine a fisherman who has debtors, much less great debtors.
      He's kind of like an "everyman," to use a gender-exclusive phrase that meant something once upon a time. Even within relatively poor, powerless, or marginalized groups there are those who exercise some degree of power - for good or for ill.

  3. I always appreciate your work. Today is no exception.

    I wanted to say a particular word of thanks for your comment on the banks, Christians, and the church. I had to read it twice because I took it at face value the first time. Well played, sir.

    1. Thanks, Trevor. I, um, got a little preachy there, in a sarcastic sort of way.

  4. Very helpful for this Gospel. Including the little preachy and the Madoff reference. Thanks for the lengthy unpacking. And thanks, commentators.

  5. If you think we don't have debtors' prisons today, you don't know any parents (most often men)who for whatever reasons have lost their jobs and can't pay their child support. See:

    1. Hi Leigh,
      You make a good point. I did not intend to say that there is nobody in prison because of debt, so I hope you didn't hear that. Your point is one for many of us to keep in the conversation for this Sunday.
      Thanks for your note.

  6. Splendid as always. But don't you mean 100 denarii in v. 28, rather than 7? Not that we don't all have sevens on the brain when reading this one.

    1. Forgive me, Father, for indeed I have sinned. And at your gracious word I have amended the mistake. Thank you for your correction and the good humor with which you made it.
      Seriously, thanks.

  7. Super late to this party - but wonderful stuff this week, as always. I am quoting part of your comments in my sermon, because why not stir the pot occasionally? Lots to think about here. Thank you, and Blessings...

    1. Hi Rita,
      Thanks. I'm going to quote parts of it too, for the same reason.

  8. I have generally read the one whose debt was forgiven, violently demanding repayment from the one who owed him being motivated by lack of trust in his creditor's forgiveness of his debt. He sees the debt forgiveness not so much as a clean slate, but as an extension of time, to garner his resources. It speaks to our lack of faith in, or understanding of, the nature of God's grace giving rise to a lack of grace on our part towards others. I realize that I am speaking to psychological motivations likely not alluded to in the text itself. However, do you see anything in the text itself to give credence to this thought?

    1. Hi Ian,
      This is thought-provoking. But, your question to me is whether I see anything in the text to support it and I am afraid I do not. It seems that the Lord really did release and forgive the debt. The shock of the fellow slaves seems to indicate that they did not see the harsh actions toward the smaller debt as warranted. The Lord's violent response seems to indicate that his original forgiveness was not just a temporary reprieve.
      But, I really appreciate the attempt to try to imagine this middle figure as three-dimensional instead of a flat-figure of such ridiculous proportions.

  9. I connect the 7x70 to Lamech in Genesis 4 who declares the vengenance by that amount. So Jesus is reversing human history, replacing vengenance with forgiveness. Note in Genesis how those named before him are credited with inventing basic utilities for civilization. But Lamech creates descending violence. In the parable Jesus contrasts the vengeant with the repentant. The former refuses the release which forgiveness provides while the latter finds forgiveness the hope to be desired. I'm always struck by how quickly outlandish fear gets materialized at the expense of embracing an imagination without vengeance or violence. Vengeance is intolerant of grace. It denies faith any possibility.

    By the way, a talent was bullion and not currency. Comparing it to a lifetime of wages may lead us wayward. The servant owes all that he has to his boss. He's got nothing of his own. And he can't stomach the thought so in his gracelessness he turns on his neighbor. Indeed do we not all own nothing permanently. Without grace we are nothing.


If you want to leave a comment using only your name, please click the name/url option. I don't believe you have to sign in or anything like that by using that option. You may also use the 'anonymous' option if you want. Just be nice.

Blog Archive