Ancient Answers


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Did Jesus Really Say…?

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading in the Orthodox Church presented some serious conundrums – serious at least to me, but perhaps not to anyone else. Here is the Gospel passage as it was read at Liturgy:

The Lord said this parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the torturers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)

Did Jesus really say what Matthew wrote at the end of this passage? Did Jesus really speak that very heavy, very final threat? And is that threat consistent with the message of the parable? And is the message of the parable clear the way it was read at the Liturgy in Orthodox churches? These are my conundrums – at least for starters.

The first problem that arises from the way it was read at the Liturgy is that the context is missing! And that’s a recurring problem in the Gospel readings of our Lectionary. According to the 18th chapter of Matthew, Jesus did not utter this parable out of the blue. It was prompted by a question from his disciple Peter:

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)

Note that I didn’t close the quotation, because Jesus did not stop at that point, and Matthew did not write The Lord said this parable, as our Gospel reading began yesterday. As a matter of fact, this is what Matthew wrote:

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. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants….”

Do you see how the parable came about? It was directly prompted by Peter’s question. Jesus immediately answered Peter’s question and immediately went on to further illustrate an answer to Peter with the parable: Therefore… Διὰ τοῦτο ὡμοιώθη….= For this reason/in this manner the kingdom of heaven may be compared….

To separate the parable from its context in Peter’s question is to do huge damage – and is a further step in making it a parable of insurmountable threat. But the first step in making it a parable of threat was taken by Matthew himself in the way he drafted this passage. The church merely took it further by removing the context and making it an absolute threat!

The only way I can make sense of this parable as written by Matthew, with its context (and not as it was read without the context!), is to assume that the threat was added by Matthew and was not spoken by Jesus. In other words, I’m saying that Matthew put the threat in Jesus’ mouth. Only a fundamentalist would be shocked by such a statement. Scholars have demonstrated beyond any doubt that the writers of the Gospels injected their own understanding in how they represented the words and actions of Jesus. That is why the four Gospels often differ and even contradict each other in many specifics. That is why John stands almost completely alone in how he represents Jesus – and is the reason why the Orthodox Church gave him, alone among the New Testament writers, the epithet “Theologian”. And even though the other three Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – share more similarities than differences – which is the reason they are called Synoptic Gospels – nevertheless, each of them chose to emphasise different aspects of the multi-dimensional impression that Jesus made to first-century Judeans and continues to make to 21st-century global citizens.

Close-up of writing in the Codex Sinaiticus (click on the image to enlarge)

Am I being anti-fundamentalist, liberal, politically correct in attributing the threat to Matthew rather than Jesus? It might not even have been Matthew; it could have been an early redactor somewhere in the Mediterranean when the Gospel began to be copied and distributed among the early churches. After all, the earliest manuscript that contains the full text of Matthew is the so-called Codex Sinaiticus, which is kept secure in the British Library in London. This manuscript dates from the fourth century, about 300 years after Matthew wrote his Gospel. A lot can happen to a written text in 300 years, as the various papyrus fragments and manuscripts clearly show. (The page of Codex Sinaiticus that contains the parable can be viewed by clicking here.)

The Codex Sinaiticus on protected display at the British Library in London, England

Jesus often spoke about forgiveness – both God’s forgiveness of our sins and our need to forgive each other. But it seems that only Matthew included a statement of threat: here, in verse 35 of chapter 18; and in verse 15 of chapter 6…“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) The fact that only Matthew includes such threats is one reason to believe that he put the words of the threat in Jesus’ mouth in our Gospel reading.

Furthermore, the threat is inconsistent with the message and context of the parable. Peter’s question came from a mindset of placing limits to forgiveness. “How often should I forgive, seven times?” Jesus’ answer – seventy times seven – was not meant to place a higher limit, 490 times, to forgiveness, but to eliminate the thought of limits altogether! He was telling Peter to not count the times he would forgive.

Therefore… Διὰ τοῦτο, Jesus goes on to give a parable, an illustration of what God is like and what man is like. The lord in the parable is an image of God. His forgiveness is limitless. The servant receives limitless forgiveness, but cannot reciprocate even minimal forgiveness on his fellow servant. Here lies the answer to Peter’s question. With this parable Jesus is telling Peter that the minute he starts counting how often he should forgive his brother, he comes close to resembling the servant who cannot forgive. The parable is addressed to Peter!

The parable is addressed to Peter and in response to Peter’s question. But it is also addressed to every one of us, because we all have a hard time forgiving. We find it difficult to forgive once – never mind seven times or seventy times seven! But because the parable is addressed to every one of us, removing the context of Peter’s question removes also from the discourse our own human preference for limits. And then when Matthew throws in the threat at the end we end up with a parable that is overbearingly threatening.

And here is the crux of the matter and why it is so wrong to ignore the context. Peter’s question is meant to put limits to forgiveness. The parable shows the contrast between God’s limitless forgiveness and man’s/Peter’s limited forgiveness or even complete inability to forgive. If the lord in the parable is meant to illustrate God’s limitless forgiveness, how is it logical for this lord to consign the wicked servant to total and final punishment? Why doesn’t he at least decide to forgive the wicked servant the rhetorical “seventy times seven” that Jesus spoke to Peter? How is God’s limitless forgiveness consistent with the treatment of the wicked servant and with the threat that concludes the parable?

Perhaps Jesus concluded the parable with some statement contrasting the limitless forgiveness of God and the limited forgiveness that human beings can barely manage. And perhaps Jesus rounded out his answer to Peter by encouraging Peter to act like the lord in the parable instead of the wicked servant. Because the minute you start counting, Peter, you run the risk of not forgiving at all. Perhaps Jesus concluded the parable with something like that – and something got lost in translation from Aramaic to Greek when Matthew put his Gospel together. Or, perhaps Jesus concluded the parable without any moral message to Peter. Perhaps he threw out the parable like a Zen koan; just to show two extremes and let Peter draw his own conclusion – and for us to do likewise. 

In Dostoyevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, there is another parable about forgiveness, with a similar message about limits. This is the story of the old woman and the onion.

“Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: take now that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all of the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.”

The message of Dostoyevsky’s parable is different from Jesus’ parable, but the contrast is the same, between God’s limitless forgiveness and mercy and man’s selfish, limited ability to be merciful. That one onion represented the only good deed the woman had ever done in her life, and it could have been the means of saving not only her, but countless, maybe a million, others. God was allowing it. But the woman’s selfishness overcame even God’s limitless mercy. The only obstacle to God’s limitless forgiveness and mercy is man’s selfish small mindedness. The woman was so absorbed in her selfishness, she could not trust in God who held out the onion to her!

Perhaps, in the final analysis, forgiveness is about trusting God.