Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost –Dr. Joel Marcus


Matthew 18:21-35

Our Gospel text for today, the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave, is one that I struggle with. When I saw that this was the Gospel reading for today, I briefly considered preaching on the Old Testament lesson instead. But I preached on an Old Testament text my last time in this pulpit, a few weeks ago, and besides the Old Testament lesson is a bit thorny too—were all of the Egyptians so wicked, did they all deserve to be drowned in the sea? I could have preached on the Psalm, but that is just a recapitulation, in hymnic form, of the drowning-the-Egyptians story. I even thought of preaching on the Epistle text from Romans, but that seemed like unpromising material too—I couldn’t imagine how I could make anyone interested in the dispute between the vegetarians and the omnivores in the church of Rome.

So I decided I’d better just suck it up and preach on the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave. It’s often the case that the biblical passages we struggle with end up bearing fruit for us, though it may be strange fruit. You’ll have to be the judge of whether or not that’s true in this case.

But first let me tell you about why I find this text so problematic. One reason is that, like several of Jesus’ parables, it seems to accept without protest the conditions of the ancient world, including the institution of slavery. Why does no one in the New Testament seem to object in principle to slavery? But that’s a topic for another sermon, or maybe a doctoral dissertation. Another problem, and one I want to spend more time on, is that the ending seems so vindictive—the slave who hasn’t forgiven his fellow-slave a small debt is punished harshly by the king, with life imprisonment and perpetual torture.

Not that that ending seems unwarranted, in the context of the parable. And one has to admit that the parable is extremely well told—in fact, it’s a masterpiece of irony.  The most ironic moment comes when the main character, having had an inconceivably huge debt forgiven to him, turns right around and wraps his fingers around the throat of a fellow-slave who owes him a trifling sum. The first slave owes the king ten thousand talents; the second slave owes his fellow-slave a hundred denarii.

Now, a hundred denarii is not nothing; in another of Jesus’ parables, that of the Laborers in the Vineyard, the day-laborers’ wage is a denarius a day. So a hundred denarii is a hundred days’ pay; to translate into modern terms, if we (just for the sake of argument) think about eight hours’ work at the North Carolina minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the denarius ends up being roughly equivalent to $58 in our money. Moving the decimal places over two places, we see that a hundred denarii would be equivalent to $5,800. Not a sum to be sniffed at.

But, on the other hand (I’m getting this, I have to say, off of Wikipedia, but I more or less trust it, because it comes from Arland Hultgren’s book on the parables, which I like a lot—besides, Arland’s son, Stephen, did a doctorate at Duke a few years ago, and now teaches in Australia, and he was a good student; so I trust the Hultgren family)—on the other hand, I say, a talent was a unit of weight approximately equal to 80 pounds or 36 kilograms. Applied to money, the talent was the value of eighty pounds (or 36 kilos) of silver, and was equivalent to 6,000 denarii. So each talent was equivalent to something like $348,000 in today’s money, and this guy owed 10,000 talents. So, again, applying our high school math (and it’s convenient that both of the amounts are multiples of ten), we move the decimal place over four places and find that the slave’s debt to the king was equivalent to $3,480,000,000. That’s a whole lot of moolah!

So the slave owes the king an inconceivably large sum. It’s hard to imagine how he could ever have amassed such a debt, though some slaves in the ancient world rose to positions of great prominence and dealt with big sums of money. But even if this slave were an unusually corrupt official, it’s difficult to see how he could have ended up ten thousand talents in the hole. The number is so large that it turns this story into something like a cartoon or a tall tale. But it’s a tall tale with a serious point. For you would have thought that, having been forgiven such an extraordinarily large amount, the king’s slave would have been filled with gratitude and joy, and would have gone off praising the king’s bounty and treating everyone with extraordinary kindness for the rest of his life. That’s the main point of the parable.

Now, debt can be a terrible thing. It weighs on your mind, it eats away at your soul. You lie awake at night, trying to think about something that you can do to escape from underneath this intolerable burden. But you can’t think of anything, and night after night it seems like you’re sinking deeper and deeper into a hole, or rather, into the hole. And then, how would it feel if this huge debt suddenly vanished from your life, as if by the wave of a magician’s wand? What joy! What relief! I like to think that, if such a miracle were to happen to me, I would be wonderful to everyone around me—at least for a while.

But that’s not what happens in the case of the guy in our story, who has been forgiven a debt equivalent to several billion dollars. Instead he wraps his fingers around the throat of the guy who owes him a few thousand, demanding that he pay him back everything, and then sending him to prison when he can’t. Perhaps the most terrible words in the story are what he says to his poor debtor: “Pay what you owe.” These sound like the words of a heavy in a gangster film. What terrible words to hear, when there’s no way you can pay. This demand for full payment of thousands, when the man making the demand has been forgiven billions,  would be ludicrous if it weren’t so heartbreaking. And in this political season, when various schemes of tax reform are being talked about, including some that decrease taxes on the wealthy while they reduce help for the poor, it seems sadly relevant.

How are we to understand the unforgiving slave’s action psychologically? He may be something of a cartoon character, but even cartoon characters can have psychological motivations. He can’t really be principally concerned about his hundred denarii, having just been forgiven his own debt of ten thousand talents. Even if he’s still a little bit in the hole to other creditors, he has a good job, he can earn more money and pay them off. No, there must be something else involved here. Perhaps it’s honor—he feels insulted. When someone borrows money from you and doesn’t pay you back, you feel taken advantage of, you feel like a chump. Maybe that’s what the unforgiving slave is concerned about. He doesn’t want to be a chump.

But there’s a more terrible possibility. Perhaps the very massiveness of the amount that he has been forgiven causes him to be vindictive to his fellow-slave. Maybe he begins to feel that, if the king has forgiven him such a vast sum, there must be something special about him. Maybe he begins to think that such a special person deserves special treatment. Maybe he begins to think that such a special person shouldn’t have to suffer ordinary, everyday indignities such as not getting your money back on time. Sadly, in our daily experience it often happens that those who are forgiven do not turn over a new leaf but take their forgiveness as a license to go out and do more bad stuff.

What is the way out of this blind alley? This story does not tell us. This story ends on a note of retribution. The unforgiving slave has not showed mercy to his fellow-slave, so he is punished in the same way he punished his fellow: he is thrown into prison until he can pay his four-billion dollar debt—that is, forever. There is a certain grim satisfaction in this sort of ending, like what we experience at the end of The Return of the Jedi, when Darth Vader picks up the evil Emperor Palpatine, who is about to kill  Luke Skywalker, and throws the him into the reactor shaft of the Death Star. We cheer as we see the evil Emperor suffering the same fate, the same terror, that he has inflicted on so many others. Such endings are satisfying. We have to admit it.

But such scenarios don’t really solve my basic problem with the parable: I identify with the Unforgiving Slave. I, too, can be alive to the faults of others, but blind to my own. I, too, can be unforgiving. It’s helpful to be shown your true condition. But does that really help you move out of it? Where’s the good news in showing us that we, too, can be unforgiving, and warning us that we’ll be judged for that? Psychology tells us that abused people often become abusers in their turn, and the threat of punishment does little to end this vicious cycle of abuse and counter-abuse. What is the way out of this cul-de-sac?

The only answer to this question, in the case of the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave, lies in who is telling the story, and what his story tells us. Because that is not a story in which someone just tells us to forgive. Such exhortations, if spoken in a harsh and judgmental way, can be positively paralyzing, and can add to the bitterness of the person who is finding it difficult to forgive. I think we should be very wary of people who are too quick to tell us to forgive, if their name isn’t Jesus of Nazareth.

But if it is Jesus of Nazareth—well, that’s a different matter. Because Jesus of Nazareth is not just a lecturer on the subject of forgiveness; he’s also a practitioner. In this context, it’s not accidental that Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Slave is occasioned by Peter’s question: “How many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me—seven times?” Peter seems to like round numbers, but later in the story Jesus will use a round number to prophesy Peter’s betrayal of him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” That points to the real answer to Peter’s question. Peter ends up betraying Jesus; but Jesus ends up forgiving Peter. Applying this narrative to our own lives: my brother or sister has betrayed me; but I have betrayed others, and my God, and yet he has forgiven me. That’s the dynamic that can start to make the world look like a different place.

So the message of this sermon is not, “You must forgive.” I feel like I don’t have the right to say that. I don’t know what you’ve suffered. I find it hard enough to forgive the things Ive suffered, which haven’t been really horrible, on the cosmic scale of things. And I know that, when people have pointed their fingers at me and told me I had to forgive, it only made me feel worse, more paralyzed, more trapped in rage and despair.

All I can say is, I know we have a God who forgives. So I encourage you, as I encourage myself, to turn to him, to experience his mercy and love, and then to see how things look to us. We can start momentarily, at this communion rail. You’ll know the moment has arrived when you hear the words: “This is my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Amen.