The story of the Unforgiving Slave is one of the most challenging of Jesus’ parables in Matthew’s Gospel (18:21-35). In the preceding verses, Jesus had been talking emphatically to his disciples about God’s love and the comprehensive, abundant quality of mercy, forgiveness and hope. Jesus said:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (18:18).
It’s a powerful reminder of the strength of God’s grace-filled forgiveness and the expectation of Jesus’ disciples to share and practice the same commitment with the whole world. Peter asked:
‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ (18:21)
While the language is anachronistic; the word ‘church’ was not used by Jesus, we are invited to think about Jesus’ profound emphasis on forgiveness in his teaching. Luke also offers the same message (Luke 17:4). We remember with awe Jesus forgave his torturers and killers. And, Jesus forgave those whom he healed of physical illnesses, as we know such healing was accompanied by Jesus restoring people to life, to their communities, to their families through this forgiveness.
Each of us knows the relief of forgiveness, the overwhelming gratitude arising from knowing our wrongdoing is understood, acknowledged, no longer remembered with anger or hurt, of being able to restore and be restored into loving relationships once more. The healing for all involved is profound.
In both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, the ludicrous nature of the examples given about forgiveness in these discussions by Jesus are deliberate and are intended to make us pay attention. Luke uses the analogy of a millstone being hung around our neck and of being thrown into the sea if we cause someone to stumble. ‘If there is repentance, you must forgive’, he says (Luke 17:3). Matthew instead tells a story about the size of a debt owed by a slave to the king in his parable. Ten thousand talents were roughly 100 million days’ wages for the average worker. Josephus, the Jewish historian writing in Jesus’ times, reported the total tax for all Judeans combined, was only 600 talents a year. The amount of 10,000 talents was meant to make us scoff at its ridiculous claim.
However, the story Jesus tells stops us in our tracks. The slave owed this huge amount to the king who was going to throw him into prison until he paid. The slave begs for time to repay – as if that was ever going to happen – and the king mercifully and graciously forgives the debt, forgives the slave and releases him back to life. An extraordinarily generous act, given the size of the debt, restoring the slave’s life, community and freedom. We’re reminded this is the nature and experience of the kingdom of heaven.
Then we find the slave is confronted with the same choice, with a fellow slave. This time it’s a debt of only a hundred denarii but the redeemed slave throws his fellow slave into prison until he pays him back. Those around him are understandably outraged, and report the redeemed slave to the king, who reverses his decision, and this time angrily hands him over to be tortured until he pays his entire debt.
We are confronted with a number of reflections. Firstly, no-one can repay a debt when in prison. How can a person work or sell their possessions to redeem themselves. Its punishment upon punishment. We still do the same today, when we put people in prison for non-payment of debts and fines and then punish or torture them while in prison.
Secondly, can you take a moment to think about someone whom you have not forgiven for a hurt, a wrongdoing, a deliberate act against you? To whom have you done such things and refused to acknowledge your actions or repent? God is quite clear. Forgiveness and repentance are essential, distinctive characteristics, actions and behaviours in Christ’s disciples. Such actions and belief must be part of our DNA. Personally, we must pay attention to what we are thinking, saying and doing to others whom we still despise, want to hurt and punish, and about ourselves.
At a national level, with Governments, in our business practices, our community life and in our relationship with all of God’s creation, what do we expect of others and ourselves in the treatment of those who don’t practice or believe in such commitments with us. Do you take the risk of loving and forgiving when they don’t believe in such practices? We see all of these institutions handing over defaulters and wrongdoers to be tortured until they pay their entire debts, whatever form that takes, whether its theft, violence, greed, envy, covetousness, malice, fear and hatred.
We remember Jesus forgave his torturers and murderers, those who abused, misused and killed him. His forgiveness and God’s love were present irrespective of their capacity, willingness or recognition of what he was doing or believing. Where are we able to do likewise? I think about the invasion of Ukraine, the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran, the appalling treatment of our neighbours with our refusal to change our behaviours as we abuse and steal God’s creation, entrenching climate change which is killing people everywhere, including our own citizens. I think about our treatment of First Nations peoples, which is so fearful, ungracious and cruel; I think about the treatment of the LGBTQI+ community when people think God is not watching; I think about the Qantas employees paying the cost of corporate greed like many facing into national and international corporations’ abuse of power; and I wonder about myself where I have been less than God desires for me and my neighbours. Whether the issue is public, or personal, have I truly heard Jesus speak and am I practicing what he preached?
Where is our repentance, forgiveness, love, mercy, and hope in action? Have we practiced what Jesus expects and if not, why not? What do you need to do in order to forgive others and yourself, as God lovingly forgives you? We cannot accept God’s abundance without passing it on, that is what Jesus is asking of us. Jesus requires us to forgive others and to forgive ourselves as God does. Such forgiveness demands not only for Jesus’ disciples to be ‘forgiving people’, but we must also be a ‘community of forgiveness’. This text demands at a deeper level, we forgive others ‘as evidence of our acceptance’ of God’s forgiveness. It’s not about God’s forgiveness being dependent upon our forgiving others, but our forgiveness of others ‘demonstrates our acceptance’ of God’s forgiveness. Without this demonstration, how can we enjoy God’s gift of loving forgiveness which we have been given? Enjoying God’s gracious gift truly as a gift, means sharing God’s gift of love and forgiveness with others, seventy times seven and more without limits, forgiving as we have been forgiven.
The Lord be with you.