The reading begins with Peter’s question about how frequently he should forgive his brother. Jesus’ answer is essentially that there is no limit to the times that we should forgive others. Then Jesus says, “that is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.” And he goes on to tell us the parable. Some scholars think that this parable does not belong here since it really does not deal with peter’s question about how many times we should forgive. Actually, it shows god not forgiving as many as two times. But whether it belongs here or not, jesus tells us that it reflects the kingdom of heaven and at the end he says, “so will my heavenly father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.” And for that reason it is important for us to understand what Jesus was telling us.
This parable appears only in Matthew, although there are a few other cases in the gospels where jesus uses the image of a king or rich person returning from a trip and settling accounts with people that he had trusted with some of his assets. In those days, without long distance communication facilities, and little in the way of an established banking system, a business person found himself in a difficult position of having to travel, himself or though a servant, to accomplish trade, while at the same time appointing agents at home to take care of his assets that he left behind. To the jews, this might well have been like a metaphor for the lord who was thought of as residing in the temple while his gifts were distributed to his servants for the benefit of his people.
So, when the king starts his accounting, he finds a servant who is in default for a “huge amount.” Literally, the text says ten thousand talents. Now a talent was “big money” but varied in value with the circumstances. Anyway, in this case, the debt exceeded the price that could be obtained for the servant, his wife and family and all their property. Jesus says that servant had “no way of paying the debt back.”
What kind of person was this servant? How did he get such a large amount of the king’s money? How did he lose it all? Was he an incompetent businessman? Was he just unlucky? Did he “squander [the money] on a life of dissipation,” like the prodigal son? Was he addicted to gambling always hoping to get the money back on the next big win? Didn’t he realize that sooner or later this accounting would come?
I guess that he was a lot like me. Like me, the way he got so much of god’s gifts was that god is so generous. And also like me, the way he lost all of the gifts of the king was in the usual ways, (including most of the above) which is why they call this story a parable. And, yes, he knew all along there would be an accounting, you could almost call it the last judgment.
The king saw that the servant had no way of paying the money back, and so he ordered the servant to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. [notice that even though only the man had done wrong, the punishment fell not on him alone but also on his wife and family. But that is probably a subject for another day.]
Helpless and hopeless before the king, the servant throws himself down before the king, weeping and moaning, then he tells the king something that they both know is impossible. He says, ‘be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.” Then he steals a glance at the king’s face to see how he is taking it. Actually, the gospel doesn’t say anything about weeping. I stuck it in there using poetic license for two reasons: 1) because that is what i would do (and have done); and 2) because i believe that the lord responds to tears, real tears of repentance not crocodile tears.
In the gospel story of the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, he is moved by her tears and tells her “your sins have been forgiven,” and “your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Jesus says to his host, “her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” I wonder if the host has been forgiven little because he had little to forgive or because he did not repent of all his sins. Just wondering.
Another reason that i believe that jesus responds to tears is psalm 56. That is the prayer of someone, maybe David, who is being hard-pressed by his enemies. Speaking of his pursuers, the psalmist cries out:
They are evil; watch them, God!
And then he says:
My wanderings you have noted;
Are my tears not stored in your flask,
Recorded in your book?
The inspired psalmist senses that the lord considers the tears of his beloved to be very precious, so they are kept in a special flask, and each one is recorded in a special book. So I think that the servant was in tears and that the king responded to the tears. The gospel goes on to say, “he was moved with compassion.” He freed the servant and forgave him the huge debt.
So going back to the beginning of the parable, Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a king who forgives a huge debt out of love and a few sincere tears. This is of course a very comforting teaching of christ. Oh, you say that there is more to this particular parable? Maybe there are really two parables. It doesn’t matter if there are two parables or one, they go together.
In the second part of the teaching, we find the tables turned. The now relieved servant bumps into a fellow-servant who owes him some money. Not like the huge sum he owed to the king, but some money. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, (and with tears — I am putting tears here also just to be fair) his fellow servant begged him, ‘be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.
At this point some on-lookers came on the scene. They saw what had happened, and were deeply disturbed. They went to the king and reported the whole affair. The king was angry and called the servant back and said to him, “should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’ And you know the rest.
So here is the summary: Rule 1) keep forgiving your neighbor no matter how many times. Rule 2) if someone is not worthy of forgiveness, go back to rule 1) and let God figure it out. Rule 3) keep asking for God’s forgiveness with real repentance and, if necessary, real tears. And finally, keep on praying “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”