The Unforgiving Debtor
Have you ever been in debt? I ask that question in jest, of course. If you’re like over 80 percent of North Americans, you have debt of some kind. If you’re like many North Americans, you have debt that is overwhelming. The last four years have seen unprecedented debt levels around the world. The economic downturn of 2008 and its aftereffects have battered households everywhere. Perhaps you know better than anyone what debt feels like. Debt can eat away at more than your wallet. It erodes marriages and self-esteem as well. Debt creates addictions and the need for escape. Debt invites trust in get-rich-quick schemes and risky choices. Debt causes gray hair, wrinkles, and high blood pressure.
Can you imagine if someone knocked on your door tomorrow morning with a blank check and said, “Fill it in with whatever amount you need”? If you’re like me, you might do a Snoopy dance. In all likelihood, the last thing you might do is find someone in debt to you and threaten to punch him out if he didn’t pay you back. You’d surely pay your good fortune forward and forgive everyone’s debt to you, right?
Are you sure?
It’s easy for us to be self-righteous and judgmental about the unforgiving debtor in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:21-35. How could anyone who has just been relieved of a debt of “millions” of dollars go after someone who owes him a “few thousand” bucks? Read the passage from Matthew 18:
Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!
“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.” (NLT)
Jesus knew how to capture his audience’s attention. He used money as his subject because people in Jesus’ day knew all about debt and money, just as you know all about it. A story about money would capture their interest immediately. Can’t you see Jesus’ listeners dreaming of a king who might forgive all of their debt the way you might fantasize about the bank calling you and telling you that your mortgage has been wiped clean? Imagine his audience’s outrage when they heard that that same servant bullied someone else for a few bucks. We can imagine being that helpless second servant just as much as we can imagine being the servant whose debt was forgiven. Good parables allow us to imagine both gratitude and outrage in just a few sentences.
But Jesus wasn’t talking about money. He was talking about a different kind of debt. He was talking about forgiveness. Peter asked him how often he should forgive someone. Jesus’ answer of seventy-seven is symbolic. He means we should forgive infinitely.
Who in your life owes you an apology? Can you think of someone right now whom you aren’t talking to because he or she hurt you? Can you make a list of people who need to apologize to you?
Is it possible for you to forgive the people on that list? If not, then you are no different from the unmerciful servant. Jesus relieved your debt and the debts of billions of others by dying on the cross, yet you can’t forgive that family member who betrayed you or that employer who passed you over for a promotion?
Now does the parable hit a little closer to home?
Instead of keeping a ledger of sins that people have committed against us, we should be making a list of people whom we should forgive. Make that your homework assignment this month. Play the role of the king in this parable. Bring your accounts up to date. Round up all the people who, in your mind anyway, are indebted to you. And forgive them.