Today’s gospel reading is a tad harsh. It’s one of those passages that serves as a litmus test to show who are real disciples of Jesus and who are Christians in name only. Our world is full of people who call out, “Lord! Lord!” [Matthew 7:21] but are unwilling to pay the price of discipleship. What we read here is a true parable without any attempt to turn it into an allegory. We experience it as a lesson, and it’s a lesson that’s simple, clear, and profound.
The passage begins with Peter’s question about forgiveness. This was, evidently, a major theme of Jesus’s preaching to the crowds and teaching to his disciples. Notice that forgiveness merits special treatment in the prayer Jesus teaches his followers. In this prayer, Jesus both acknowledges humankind’s debt to God and asks for forgiveness of that debt. However, he adds a stipulation that must be fulfilled before we can ever expect our prayer to be answered: that we, too, forgive others’ debts. Speaking of debts, where did we get the term “trespasses” in our English version of the Lord’s Prayer? The Greek word in the gospel is ὀφειλημαται (opheilēmatai), which means, unequivocally, “debts”—that which is owed to another. “Trespasses” wasn’t put into the New Testament until 1526 when William Tyndale published his translation. Even then, Tyndale was condemned by Henry VIII and executed in 1536 for his translation crimes. The King James version was only published later, in 1611, and it used the word “debts.” However, by that time, “trespasses” had gotten into the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. That’s the version we use today, even in our liturgy, despite the mistranslation. The real word should be “debts.”
Behind the concept of forgiveness lies the idea that human life is meant to exist in a stasis that consists of a careful balance of spiritual energies between and among people. If one causes harm, they incur a debt to the injured party. Both lives remain out of balance until that debt is settled. The guilty party can try to restore the balance by repaying the debt—that is, making up for the injury. Or the injured party can attempt to restore the balance by forcing the debtor to make good—voluntarily, by cajoling and convincing them, or involuntarily, by coercion or by taking revenge. Alternatively, the injured party can restore the equilibrium by forgiving the debt, especially when the debt is such that the guilty party is incapable of repaying it.
Let’s consider what happens when we take revenge. That’s the most primitive form of getting even, isn’t it? Even the Bible says, “An eye for an eye.” But, like most debts, vengeance often comes with penalties and interest. For example, in the Book of Genesis [4:23-24], Lamech, the great-great-great-grandson of Adam, apparently got into a fight and was wounded. He says this:
“I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for bruising me.
If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times.”
That would certainly teach that young man never to do that again. But vengeance is more than just payback. For Lamech, it’s more like winner-take-all. Why seven times? What do the numbers mean? In the Hebrew scriptures, seven is the perfect number. In this context, seven is the perfect number of times that the debt must be repaid before the balance can be restored. We don’t know what that number is, but we’ll know it when we see it. But when it’s seventy-seven times or seven times seven times, that means there is no perfect number of times the debt can be repaid to satisfy it. Vengeance goes on indefinitely—or, in Lamech’s case, permanently.
In his answer to Peter, once again, Jesus turns the old way of thinking and believing that vengeance can restore balance around. He shows his followers that, for the creditor, it is forgiveness, not vengeance, that should be unlimited.
Jesus uses the parable of the generous king to illustrate that teaching. “The kingdom of heaven is like a king,” Jesus says. As always, the kingdom of heaven is not the pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye place we’re used to imagining. The kingdom is the assembly of God’s people—those who belong to him by faith. The king, representing the assembly, has bequeathed the authority to manage the affairs of the entire kingdom to his servant. Yet, the servant has done a terrible job of it and winds up owing the king an enormous sum. The text says ten thousand talents. Think of it in terms of owing the national debt. It’s an unimaginable sum that would literally be impossible to repay. However, the king restores the lost balance by forgiving the entire debt.
Of course, the servant, representing you and me, finds those who are in debt to him, about a hundred sesterces, which comes down to a hundred days’ wages for an average worker. It’s still a significant sum. Instead of restoring the balance between them as his master did, he chooses the way of vengeance. Naturally, when word of this reaches the king, he seizes the servant and turns him over to the torturers “until he should pay back the whole debt.” But how? Remember that the debt is an impossibly huge amount, and torture does nothing to repay the debt. In this, Jesus teaches an invaluable lesson for all who would live a spiritual life: forgiveness is the only way to reestablish equilibrium between people and between people and God. This lesson flies in the face of the violence and nastiness that surround us today, often, tragically, under the banner of Christianity.
Here’s the reality behind this parable and the lesson it illustrates. We are not—never were, and never will be—in charge of any adult’s choices other than our own. We cannot change their minds, and we cannot teach them anything that they haven’t come to us to learn. The extent of our control of anything ends at our own skin. Intentionally or not, others will harm us, as we will harm others. Those who have harmed us will be in our debt. They’ll owe us recompense. Perhaps they may realize it, and make things right, but most times, for whatever reason, they won’t. We can’t make recompense happen. We’re left with only two options with regard to those indebted to us. We can exact vengeance until we feel the debt has been repaid, or we can forgive it. There are no other options, and keep in mind that neither one of them actually accomplishes the repayment of the debt.
Jesus shows us that our God, in his loving mercy, knows we are incapable of making adequate return for the gifts he has bestowed upon us, starting with life itself. We are forever indebted to God for that loving kindness—a love that is given to us regardless of our imperfections and failures. There is nothing we could ever do to win God’s love or to make ourselves worthy of it. Becoming truly perfect is an impossible goal. God doesn’t count our inability to return his favor against us. Instead, God forgives us our inability to love him as perfectly as he loves us. What Jesus is calling for in this parable is, once again, a metanoia, a change of heart. His call to forgive mustn’t be seen as a burden or imposition. Rather, it’s a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Realizing God’s love despite our inability to love him adequately in return, we offer our love to others regardless of their worthiness. We love out of gratitude because that’s what was given to us.
What about the other side of it? What happens when the offense seems too great and forgiving seems too hard? What then? The parable tells us what the consequences of withholding our love and forgiveness are. There is no earthly king to hand us over to the torturers until we’ve repaid God for all his love. The consequences of vengeance and unforgiveness are built-in. When we hold on to a grudge, when we nurse a resentment, when we get back at someone or “teach someone a lesson,” we hand ourselves over to the torturers. Instead of restoring some kind of imaginary equilibrium and making others pay, all we achieve is to make our own debt greater. In fact, forgiveness has very little to do with others. They are the ones responsible for taking care of their debts, just as we are. Forgiveness has everything to do not only with gratitude for the forgiveness we have received but also with setting ourselves free from the rancor that eats us inside. What is vengeance? What is unforgiveness? It’s like drinking poison in hopes that the other person will die. “Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant as I had pity on you?”