Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mt 18 for Jan 28

The parable of the "Unmerciful Servant" could easily be called that of the "Wicked Slave" (Mt 18:32).

The "ethical" teaching of the parable is in 18:33 in summary form, refined to a sharp point in 18:35. The first question, however, should be how is this parable an implication of Peter's question about forgiveness and the Lord's answer in 18:21-22.

Surely part of the point of the parable is the vast disparity between two amounts of debt. The wicked slave's debt was upwards of 20 billion dollars by modern American reckoning, and the fellow slave's amount owing was about $8000. In the transactions among the world of fellow-slaves, the smaller amount of money, while it's not like just a few coins, is in the common financial-debt range, while 20 billion dollars is in the infinitely greater and impossible to conceive of, much less ever pay, range.

Was the slave wicked before 18:28?

The context of the parable is the interpersonal forgiveness of sin. The Lord says that the reason for the parable is what just was discussed with Peter about forgiveness of sin against us by our brothers (18:23). The debt of "one of his fellow slaves" (18:28) pictures this in the story.

Just as the $8000 debt can stand for interpersonal sin and its forgiveness or non-forgiveness, the 20 billion dollar debt that "the one who owed him ten thousand talents" (18:24) owed to the king -- that can stand for the debt of sin owed to God. If so, then yes, the slave was wicked before 18:28, hugely so, culpably so. The original readers of the story would hear the debt amount and see 18:25 as a righteous punishment.

If we cannot clearly see 18:25 as righteous, it is because of our modern tendency to look at debt as civil and almost not culpable in any way. Especially in the current debt climate! Not so the ancient world.

The Lord has been speaking in mostly non-parabolic ways about the seriousness of sin in this chapter, ever since, really 18:6. People who cause someone to sin (18:6), or internal things that cause someone to sin (18:8-9), or the sin of despising of "these little ones" (18:10), is about the seriousness of sin.

The parable of the lost sheep, because it is dealing with someone who has "gone astray," (18:12), is about the extent to which rescue of someone who sins should go, using another image, that of wandering. On the shepherd's part, seeking and finding those who wander, compared to just hanging around with the ones who aren't lost, is a dealing with sin.

However, the parable of the lost sheep has an uncertain, warning element to it that will prepare us for the direct-assault-on-sin lessons of the rest of the chapter. It says "if it turns out the he finds it," speaking of the shepherd searching (18:12-13). At risk of talking about yesterday's text, I'll just mention that we can't turn that parable on its ears, and say it is about Jesus the shepherd who always finds all the lost sheep. In this parable, if he finds ONE lost sheep, "he rejoices over it more than over the nine-nine" (18:13) -- in this case, because of the implied work and risk. Shepherds of souls know that their work is not inevitable success. They are happy for each individual one, because of the work and risk.

The relevance of 18:15-20 to the topic of sin is left as an exercise. ;) By the time we hear the discussion that Peter brings up we are prepared to deal with interpersonal sin in both stark and risk-taking ways.

So when the kingdom of heaven is brought in, it is precisely to show how God deals with sin in both stark (18:25) and risk-taking (18:27) ways, at the great cost to Himself signified by the size of the debt. Again, because of our cultural side-with-the-consumer presuppositions, we'll fail to see that the sympathy of the parable is naturally toward the gracious king. It is the wicked slave who is wicked, not the king. We should repeat that to ourselves until we remember it, I would think.

Do you have qualms about "his lord, moved with anger, handed him [the wicked slave] over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him" (18:34)? This lord does not bail out that corporation! It is impossible to see the point of the parable (18:35) if we do not see that the slave is wicked, not his lord.

In light of how the parable ends, 18:23 troubles many people because of the stark relationship of comparison: surely the king represents God here, and the slaves represent men and their debt of sin. The parable is to illustrate something about the kingdom of heaven's king, that we humans are liable for our debt of sin to God, and because of that, we must forgive the $8000 around us.

Don't read salvation ideas into this parable. This parable is about our interpersonal sins, answering Peter. This is about you as the big debtor way beyond all fathoming or paying back. What are you going to do with your fellow slaves' $8000 debts to you?

Where does Jesus put you or me, when He turns and looks you and me in the eye in 18:35? Does he put you or me among the torturers? No, He puts us right before 18:28, at the point of choice about that, having had our previous meeting with the king that went a certain way (18:25-27).

So we see the questions about "you mean I'll go to hell if I don't forgive that $8000?" and such things, are questions of impertinence. That's how the parable answers Peter's question! Why is it, Peter asks by implication, so many times, seventy-times seven? Do the math! what is 20 billion compared to 8000? Far more, a far greater ratio, than that small number of 490. Are you complaining, Peter? Would you tell the king settling his accounts with you that you're about to go choke your fellow slave for $8000? What would the king do when he found out?

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