Debt and Forgiveness: Proper 11, Year A

Matthew 18:15-35

While the Elves are playing catch-up, anyone reading straight through Matthew can see that the part of the story considered last week leads directly from the tricks and traps of civilized life to the need for forgiveness.  Matthew recommends to his community that if someone does you wrong, first sort it out between yourselves, then if that doesn’t work, bring in two or three witnesses.  If the perpetrator persists in denying wrongdoing, bring the whole case before the entire community.  If that doesn’t work, treat that person like a pagan or a tax collector – i.e., throw the bum out.

But Matthew modifies this practical recommendation for collective cooperation by reminding people that whatever they bind or release on earth is bound or released “in heaven.”  He also declares that “wherever two or three agree on anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  In fact, wherever two or three are gathered together, I will be there among them.”  All of these aphorisms were either made up by Matthew, or were part of the common piety of first century Judaism.  The Jesus Seminar scholars opine that “Nothing in this relatively long complex can be attributed to Jesus.  The Q community’s rules of order are being reported and modified by Matthew” (The Five Gospels, p. 217).

Unfortunately, because these sayings have been thought to be Jesus’ words, they have been removed from Matthew’s context and taken literally for two millennia.  As a result, well into the twenty-first century, in the face of post-enlightenment rationality, they reflect a kind of magical thinking that is comforting, and seems empowering.  Anyone can point a finger at someone and “bind” the demon that is causing the problem.  Any three people can band together and pray “in the name of Jesus,” and bibbity, bobbity, boo! the money to build the church is found; a parking space opens up; the cancer goes into remission; miracles happen.

But Matthew is not talking about overturning the laws of physics.  He is talking about forgiveness.  Peter asks how often one should forgive someone, and Matthew’s Jesus famously replies, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  Matthew follows this with the parable Jesus most likely told about the “unforgiving servant.”  The problem is, this parable does not go where Matthew wants to go.  The point is not that God will punish people “unless you find it in your heart to forgive each one of your brothers and sisters.”  The parable is about the forgiveness of debt. (For a full discussion of the Revised Common Lectionary readings associated with this parable, click here.)

        When the parable of the unforgiving slave is reduced to the bare bones of the story itself, when Matthew’s opinion about God’s avenging judgment is removed, we find that the slave for whom a vast debt was forgiven is held accountable not to his master, but to his own integrity.
Because Matthew is the only one who tells this particular parable, it is perhaps unfair to have it stand alone without Matthew’s commentary.  But the Jesus Seminar scholars thought that the story alone was the kind of story that Jesus liked to tell.  So here we are, around the camp fire.  We come in a bit late, so don’t hear what prompted Jesus to start the story the way he did. . . .
“Now I’ll tell you why God’s realm is like a land owner who decided to settle accounts with his slaves,” Jesus says.  He finishes off his last bite of fish, and licks his fingers.  Mary Magdalene tucks a loaf of bread into the coals to warm, uncorks the wineskin, and starts it on its rounds.  Andrew throws another log on the fire.  Somebody hushes a child and points at Jesus.
“So the first account he looks at, the slave owes him $10 million.”
“10 million!”  “No way!”  “No wonder the guy needed to close his accounts.”  “This crook ripped off his entire estate!”
Jesus goes on: “Obviously, he couldn’t pay it back, so the land owner ordered him to be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had.”  Jesus looks around at the company.  “Sort of like you and Zach, Hannah.”  Hannah hugs the child, and Zach shivers and wraps his arms around his knees.
“Anyway, the slave begs forgiveness, reminds the land owner what an excellent steward he has been in other ways, and promises he will pay it all back.”  Jesus pauses for a moment.  We are all expecting the worst for the slave for his impertinence:  jail, torture, exile – but then Jesus says, “This land owner was compassionate.  This master let that slave go and canceled the debt.”
It’s a joke.  Several people start laughing.  But Jesus isn’t finished with the story.
“Wait,” he says, “There’s more.  As soon as the slave got out of there, he jumped one of his fellow slaves who owed him $100 and demanded payment immediately.  Well of course the guy begged for mercy, but the slave wasn’t interested.  Instead, he threw the guy in prison until he paid the debt.  When the rest of the slaves realized what had happened, they complained to the land owner.”
“Why?  The slave was within his rights,” says Judas.
“The land owner called the slave back and rescinded the agreement, and threw the slave into jail to be tortured until he could repay it all.”
Silence.  A twig snaps in the fire.  Jesus pulls the warm loaf of bread out of the coals.  He breaks the bread into two pieces, and lifts it up in his hands.  Then he closes his eyes and says, “Abba, may your name be praised.  You provide us with the bread we need for the day.”  Jesus passes the bread to the people on either side of him.  “Forgive us our debts to the extent that we have forgiven those in debt to us.”
In the stripped down parable, the subject matter is clearly economic debt – a life or death fact in the 1st Century.  The followers of Jesus presumably were the debtors, not the ones to whom debt was owed, hence the conundrum and the open meaning.  What debt do we forgive, if no debt is owed to us?  Debt is concerned with either the past or the future, never the present moment, which is all that matters in God’s realm.  In God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion, where bread for the day is provided, where rain falls on the just and the unjust, debt has no power.

As the French like to say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  Today we are debating whether to raise the debt ceiling so that the U.S. government will not default on its payments to all the social and commercial programs the U.S. government supports.  These range from Social Security and Medicare payouts to farm subsidies, oil company subsidies, research grants, and repayment of loans from the Chinese.  And that’s just the economic debt.  What about interpersonal, social debt?
•    3,249 prisoners on death row in the United States
•    U.S. women earned only 77 cents on the male dollar in 2008, according to the latest census statistics. (That number drops to 68% for African-American women and 58% for Latinas.)
•    The Supreme Court overturned class certification in what has been called the largest employment discrimination class action in history. Wal-mart v. Dukes, slip. op. No. 10-277 (S. Ct. June 20, 2011).
•    A decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a second wave of anti-Muslim hatred is being propelled by a small cadre of activists who are exploiting Americans’ fears of Islamic extremism.
•    Massey Energy, now part of Alpha Natural Resources, and Arch Coal have indicated they hope to develop strip-mining operations on Blair Mountain.  The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has denied a petition asking that Blair Mountain be declared unsuitable for mining.  A DEP lawyer called the June 2 petition, which was filed by several groups, “frivolous” under state law.

The level of forgiveness required is staggeringly higher than seventy-seven times seven.

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