This is an invitation to journey through the parables. This will be a series that runs over the course of many issues. Please click here for all the articles in the Power In Parable series. Paul writes, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Roman 11:32, NIV). Don’t you get hungry for exploring that depth of wisdom, knowledge and beauty? Don’t you want to pray, “Lord, open my eyes and my heart to apprehend such love!” If you are at all inclined to stretch yourself spiritually and intellectually, I recommend reading Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, God in Search of Man, A Philosophy of Judaism. I have underlined so many of its pages that it is well worn and much loved. Here is one of my favorite quotes: “The ultimate insight is the outcome of moments when we are stirred beyond words, of instants of wonder, awe, praise, fear, trembling and radical amazement; of awareness of grandeur, of perceptions we can grasp but are unable to convey, of discoveries of the unknown, of moments in which we abandon the pretense of being acquainted with the world, of knowledge by acquaintance. It is at the climax of such moments that we attain the certainty that life has meaning, that time is more than evanescence, that beyond all being there is Someone who cares.” The ancients’ quest for knowing God (and the primary spiritual quest for those who are not born again) is typically condensed into a trinity of (1) prayer, (2) righteousness (tzedikah, the roots of which are generosity), and (3) repentance. It means I pray that God will reveal Himself to me; I want to be close to Him; I determine to change my ways so that will happen. It is mostly a “do-better talk” to self. Jesus never undermined this approach to knowing God; He lovingly redefined it according to heaven’s standards. Do not suppose that I have any intention of undermining Scripture by misinterpreting it. My purpose is to establish and maintain the knowledge and observance of God’s Word, not undermine it. (My paraphrase of Matthew 5:17.) In fact, the whole of Matthew 6 is Jesus’ detailed interpretation of the ancient trilogy of pleasing and knowing God through prayer, righteousness, and repentance. The ancient, traditional way doesn’t change, but it is made more personal and exciting by personal experience and loving interaction with the Father. This is the beauty of exploring the parables. They show us the Father’s love so that prayer, righteousness, and repentance are not dutiful spiritual chores; they are exciting, awesome adventures! One time while Jesus was teaching the crowds, some people asked, “Rabbi, what must we do to do the works God requires?” They were wanting to know how to perform the ancient trilogy of knowing God. "Jesus answered, 'The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent'" (John 6:28-29, NIV). To illustrate this further, He gave them a parable. It is one thing to hear and understand intellectually that one should be generous and forgiving (the point of the parable). It is even more impressive to relate to a story that is told in a personal way, forming images and feelings to go along with the undeniable facts. Read the parable of The Merciful King and the Unmerciful Servant which is found in Matthew 18:23-35. Remember to read it aloud, the way a parable is meant to be conveyed. In this parable Jesus illustrates the precept of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self or, more precisely, He shows how one does not love one’s neighbor as one’s self. This concept is a common theme in rabbinic thought. There is humor in the parable that may bypass our attention. To a first century audience, the amount of money that is mentioned is ridiculously outrageous. It is the exaggeration of the amounts of money that set up the punch line, “He was not able to pay.” Of course he would not be able to pay! No one would be able to pay such an amount even if he were very, very wealthy. Ten thousand talents is equivalent to 60 million denarii. According to Josephus, the amount of taxes paid by all the citizens of Judea, Idumaea, and Samaria, in one year totaled only 600 talents, while Galilee and Peraea paid a total of 200. If a day worker, who received a denarius a day (a common wage), could work every day of the week and save all of his wages, it would have taken him thousands of years to obtain around 10,000 talents. In addition to the ridiculous amount of money mentioned, there is an even more ridiculous response from the servant who is in debt: “Be patient with me and I will pay back everything.” There is no way a person could come up with that amount of money even with the best intentions. The whole story is a set-up to get their attention and I can just imagine Jesus telling it with a big smile on His face, knowing that it was an immense exaggeration. And yet, it paints a vivid picture of the immense debt we owe to God that we can never repay, although we say we will try. Someone is going to have to pay it for us or it will never be cancelled. Because parables were told to demonstrate the character of God, it becomes evident that the king in the story illustrates God Himself. As soon as we realize the absurdity of the vast amount owed, we get that pang in the heart when we realize what we owe to Him, if measured in currency, is beyond comprehension. We also identify with the servant because, we too, would be living in slavery were it not for God’s unfathomable mercy and generosity. Through Jesus, He has set us free. We are no longer bound by a heavy load that would rob our joy, destroy our family or keep us in bondage. We deserve to be punished and yet, we have been pardoned! This first part of the parable is breathtaking to imagine. God is merciful. God forgives. God cancels debt. God is loving. God is generous. God hears the cries of His people. God takes pity on us in our distress. But, as with most of Jesus’ parables, there is a twist. Now, the same servant who has been pardoned on such a huge scale is given the opportunity to release a man indebted to him for a much more reasonable sum of money. The forgiven servant is demanding a debt that is 1/600,000 the debt he has been forgiven. It was about three months wages for a day laborer. However, the pardoned servant turns violent, vindictive, and stingy. He cannot be more different from the king or God. Although the debtor begged to be spared and fell on his knees, his cries of distress were ignored and he was punished far beyond the measure of his debt. How could one who had received so much (the recipient of righteousness and generosity) be so unwilling to be righteous to others? Indignation must have arisen from the listeners. Who would ever do such a thing? This is a grave sin that would separate one from God! And sure enough, the master pronounces judgment on the unforgiving servant. “I canceled all your debt because you begged me to.” The inference is that God hears the pleas of His people and has mercy upon them in their desperation. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” Yes! Yes! He should have had mercy out of thanksgiving for what had been given to him! Ah, now the twist. Jesus makes His point that has been coming from the beginning. It is the same commentary that follows the Lord’s Prayer. “This is how My heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Forgiveness must be extended lavishly. Peter attempted to find the formula for this. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21, NIV). This must have seemed like an unusually generous suggestion to Peter. But Jesus goes beyond comprehension. "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven." This is like saying, “Unto infinity.” There is no limit. The thought of debts as sins was a common understanding in first century Jewish thought. A “debtor” had a connotation that went far beyond finances. There is no ambiguity in the closing line of the parable. Jesus is saying that unforgiveness towards other people will result in being separated from God’s presence. How could He say it more clearly? If a man was sent away to debtor’s prison, his family was separated from him; his home was ripped apart; the children left fatherless and the wife a widow. One does not have to strive too hard to see the obvious connection between being separated from God due to our unforgiveness and the devastating effects it has on the whole family. Unforgiveness can leave a legacy of bitterness, loneliness, and abandonment. No good comes from it at all. It is the fruit of pride, and it is our downfall. This was not a new teaching to the first century listeners, as it is not new to us. Forgiveness was a pervasive teaching in ancient Judaism. Here are two excerpts from rabbinic writings: “For transgressions that are between a person and God, the Day of Atonement effects atonement, but for the transgressions that are between a person and his or her neighbor, the Day of Atonement effects atonement only if one first has appeased one’s neighbor” (Mishnah, Yoma 9:9). “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be forgiven when you pray. Does a person harbor anger against another and yet seek for healing from the Lord? Does he have not mercy toward a man like himself and yet pray for his own sins? If he himself, being flesh, maintains wrath, who will make expiation for his sins? Remember the end of your life, and cease from enmity” (Ben Sira 28:2-6a). We, like the ancients, know intellectually the truth of this commandment to forgive. We, also, like them, need the living word from Jesus today to break our hearts to see where we still harbor unforgiveness, and then to respond because of His generous love. QUESTIONS AND TOPICS TO PONDER AND DISCUSS:
- Is there any legacy of unforgiveness in your family?
- Has unforgiveness become a part of your inheritance through a sense of bitterness, loneliness, or abandonment?
- Write out those “debts” that you are holding over others and ask Jesus for the strength to choose to forgive them.
- Understand that forgiving is an act of your will, not your emotions. You don’t have to “feel like forgiving” to obey God. It could be as simple as saying aloud, “I choose to forgive ______, in the Name of Jesus.”
- Also, understand that forgiving does not say that what a person did against you does not matter or that they will no longer be accountable to God for their actions.
- Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness sets you free to move on in your relationship with God. Reconciliation requires action on the part of both parties. It may or may not occur in this lifetime, but you will be set free!