Last Sunday’s (Aug 24th) Gospel reading continues to haunt me. It’s a beautiful parable, one that is typical of how Jesus taught the unconditional love of God. Unfortunately, the parable raises troubling questions in addition to answering the universal human need for forgiveness.
In the parable, a king forgives a huge debt (in today’s money, literally millions of dollars!) to one of his servants. But that servant then refuses to forgive the debt of another man – a debt that is miniscule (a few hundred dollars) in comparison – and throws that poor man into jail. The king in the parable represents God. God’s unconditional forgiveness is contrasted to the human inability to forgive.
So far so good. I have no doubt that this is precisely the image of God that Jesus preached. And it is this image that brought him into conflict with the religious establishment of his time – and of every place and time – because human beings, especially religious humans, prefer the “eye for an eye” image of God. The parable, as Matthew reports it, adds a coda which I find troubling. The king changes his mind and throws the unforgiving servant into jail, to be “tortured” until the debt is paid – which, of course, means for the rest of his life, since there will be no way for him to pay off the huge debt. This turnabout is shocking. And just to drive home the message lest we try to ignore it, Jesus adds the punchline to the parable: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” All of a sudden, God is turned into an oriental king. Instead of the king being an image of God, God becomes the image of a terrorizing king!
A literal reading of the parable leaves me with three options:
Jesus meant exactly what we read, in which case the jail into which the unforgiving servant is thrown is understood as eternal hell and God ends up being more ruthless than any “eye for an eye” deity of the ancient world. I reject this option.
The entire parable is hyperbole; after all, how would a servant of the king owe a hundred million dollars? In this case, the punishment of the unforgiving servant is also hyperbole and should not be interpreted as eternal (or even life-long) punishment. Instead, the punishment is intended to convey the need for accountability in our relations with each other and with God. This is a more palatable interpretation and sits comfortably for most Christians of all stripes and denominations. I can live with this.
There is a third possibility. The original parable that Jesus spoke simply showed the contrast between the actions of the king and the unforgiving servant and ended perhaps with the release of the second servant from the prison into which the unforgiving servant had thrown him. But since human beings, including the early followers of Christ who wrote the Gospels, have trouble accepting unconditional forgiveness to people who are clearly undeserving, something had to be done to make the parable more palatable. So Matthew, or someone else, added the king’s change of mind at the end. Since we Orthodox are not fundamentalists or evangelicals, we should have no fundamental problem in imagining such a possibility. After all, the New Testament is the Church’s book and the Church determined its contents from the beginning. I can live with this possibility. Only the first option above do I reject categorically, as it conflicts with most of Jesus’ teachings.
Regardless of which of these three options one chooses in reading this parable, the teaching of the parable is crystal clear and needs no interpretative gymnastics: “forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Forgive one another is just as central a command of Jesus as “Love one another.” And the two go hand in hand. You cannot love another person if you’re not always ready to forgive him or her. Not only forgive one another, but forgive one another unconditionally! If we are to reflect God’s way, we are to forgive one another unconditionally, without limits. As a matter of fact, it was a question by Peter about forgiveness that prompted the parable of the unforgiving servant: Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).
Unconditional forgiveness is the message of the parable. God’s unconditional forgiveness is central to the teachings of all Christian churches. Indeed, forgiveness of sins is the key requirement for salvation. Orthodox and Catholics take a sacramental view of forgiveness of sins: Baptism, Communion, Confession and Unction are all sacraments that convey forgiveness of sins. But in all these sacraments, the Christian stands before God and receives forgiveness through the sacrament and the mediation of the priest. The Protestant tradition takes a different approach, bypassing the sacramental way. Baptism is still required by them, but only as a visual expression of a person coming to Christ and requesting forgiveness of his or her sins. The sinner stands before God and God alone.
Jesus goes beyond the churches in teaching forgiveness. He brings us to God; but he also brings us to the other, the brother or sister. He invites us to see the other person through his own eyes. This is true and complete reconciliation and the full meaning of forgiveness.