Monday, December 26, 2016

The Unforgiving King of Matthew 18:21-35?

I am currently reading John Coutts’ A Shared Mercy: Karl Barth on Forgiveness and the Church, and I will probably write my review of it tomorrow.  Today, I want to share something in the book about Jesus’ parable on forgiveness in Matthew 18:21-35.

Some background information is in order.  First of all, on pages 89-91, Coutts is discussing the work of Ched Myers and Elaine Enns as it concerns the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35.  The bibliographical information is Ched Meyers and Elaine Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation, vol. 1, New Testament Reflections on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009) 56, 65-66.  I recognized Ched Myer’s name because, in 2014, I read and reviewed his book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.

Second, I should summarize the parable of Matthew 18:21-35.  In this parable, a king forgives the debt of a servant who owed him ten thousand talents.  That very same servant then turned around and refused to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller amount.  When the king heard this from other servants, he was outraged at the unmerciful servant and handed him over to torment in jail.  Jesus concludes by saying, “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (KJV).  Jesus tells this parable after Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother who sins against him, and Jesus says Peter should forgive, not just seven times (as Peter proposed), but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22).

Third, the story of Lamech in the Book of Genesis is relevant to this discussion, so I should summarize that.  Lamech appears in Genesis 4:18-24.  Lamech was a descendant of Cain, the son of Adam and Eve who killed his brother Abel.  Lamech tells his two wives, Adah and Zillah, that he killed a man who merely wounded him.  Lamech then says, “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy and seven fold” (KJV).  Lamech is alluding there to God’s interaction with Cain in Genesis 4:15: God expelled Cain, Cain expressed fear that someone would kill him, and God then tells Cain that “whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on his sevenfold” (KJV).  Lamech is taking this a step further: Lamech will take seventy and seven fold vengeance on anyone who hurts him!  Lamech is starting or perpetuating a cycle of vengeful retribution.

Back to the parable in Matthew 18:21-35.  Many people interpret the king in that parable to represent God, and they maintain that the lesson of the parable is that God will treat unforgiving people as the king in the parable treated the unforgiving servant: God will punish them.  Myers and Enns have a different interpretation, however, as they see the king, too, as a flawed character, chained to Lamech’s way of vengeance.  Coutts summarizes their view on pages 91-92:

“Referring to Amos Wilder’s depiction of Jesus’ parables as a ‘war of myths,’ they interpret it rather provocatively as a satirical judgment on the ‘retributive justice liturgy’ that prevails upon each of the parable’s characters.  Because the king shows himself ‘unwilling…to forgive more than once,’ Myers and Enns maintain that he is not intended by Jesus as an allegorical stand-in for God, but as an indication of the extent to which the king is himself deeply mired in Lamech’s ‘logic of retribution.’  Caught up in that logic, the parable’s king utilizes the common practice of ‘predatory lending’ in order to keep slaves in his debt.  The other servants operate under the same competitive logic when they turn the unmerciful servant in, such that all the characters are depicted as condemning themselves—-along with Lamech and everyone after him—-to the ‘collective death sentence of our own design.’  Particularly given Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer about how often to forgive, Myers and Enns conclude that the parable’s audience is meant to hear in the final verse of the chapter not an approval of any of the story’s characters but a warning that ‘God will not save us from the consequences’ of leaving Lamech’s ‘spiral of vengeance’ uninterrupted.”

For Myers and Enns, it is not only the unmerciful servant who is unmerciful in this story.  The king is unmerciful because he does not forgive after that one time (not to mention that the king is a predatory lender, who keeps servants in his debt by lending them lots of money).  The servants who turn the unmerciful servant in to the king are, likewise, unmerciful.  None of these characters demonstrates the lavish forgiveness that Jesus exhorted Peter to show—-the seventy times seven forgiveness!  As a result, all of the characters are trapped in Lamech’s cycle of vengeance.  And that will happen to us, if we do not forgive others from our hearts.

I like this interpretation because it presents forgiveness of others as something that is practical, rather than something that we do to appease a wrathful God.  In reading this interpretation, I thought of a comment that someone made on a theology board one time.  This person thought that the parable would have been a lot better had it presented the king doing more than forgiving the first servant’s debt.  Suppose that the king also paid the small debt of the servant who owed the unforgiving servant money?  What a way to model forgiveness to the unforgiving servant!  In reading that comment, I wished that the parable had said that, too, but I resigned myself to the fact that we have the Bible that we have, not the Bible that we wish!  It was refreshing, therefore, to read an alternative interpretation of the parable, that of Myers and Enns.

Am I convinced by their interpretation, though?  Not entirely.  For one, I can’t get past Jesus’ statement in Matthew 18:35 that “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (KJV).  That seems to be saying that God will treat unforgiving people the way that the king in the parable treated the unforgiving servant.  I wonder if, or how, Myers and Enns address that point.

Second, the idea that God will not forgive us if we don’t forgive others occurs elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew.  See Matthew 6:15.  The concept also appears in Mark 11:26.  It would not surprise me, therefore, if the parable in Matthew 18:21-35 reflects that teaching.  And yet, Myers and Enns still make a good point: does not that hyper-conditional conception of forgiveness contradict the lavish forgiveness that Jesus exhorts Peter to exercise right before Jesus tells the parable?  Does the parable as it is commonly interpreted mesh neatly with Jesus’ exhortation of lavish forgiveness earlier in Matthew 18?

On page 120 of A Shared Mercy, Coutts refers to a similar point made by Anthony Bash, in Forgiveness and Christian Ethics.  Coutts relays Bash’s view as follows: “Anthony Bash rightly asks how the ‘divine forgiveness is an unimaginably lavish gift to the undeserving’ if it is ‘made contingent on the degree to which one person forgives another,’ and thus proposes that the hints of contingency in Jesus’ statement apply not to the gift of divine forgiveness but to our experience of it.”

I’ll probably be repeating some of this, albeit in a more succinct form, in my review of Coutts’ book tomorrow or the next day.  Let me say that I do appreciate this book because it interacts with Christian thinkers who struggle to define forgiveness, and it itself wrestles with the issue.  I have encountered that often in Christian print, but, when it comes to Christians in a face-to-face context, they often tend to act as if their pat answers are obvious.  I myself question how well they walk the walk that they talk!  This is not to suggest that I walk it that well, either!

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