Print Version September 15th, 1996
Is God good, merciful and forgiving or is God angry, vindictive and merciless? That’s the problem that the parable seems to be dropping us into. A God who has two faces. On the one hand a gentle ruler who is moved in the depths of his guts by the plea of the slave who somehow has ended up owing him 10 million dollars, so moved that he writes off the debt and lets go a fortune, just like that. On the other hand an angry tyrant who is able to change his mind and hand someone over to the torturers until they’ve paid up.
Now which is it? Because the parable seems to paint the portrait both ways: infinitely forgiving and dangerously punishing.
Nasty things, parables! But we’d better get used to them: we have a string of them coming up in the next weeks, each one, like today’s, claiming to tell us something about the kingdom of heaven, about the reign of God. Parables are nasty because they first hook us with a story we think we understand and can identify with. Then just as we begin to expect we know what happens next we get a surprise. There’s a twist in the tale, or a contradiction or something that doesn’t make sense. Today it’s this two-faced God who is at first so ridiculously forgiving and then suddenly so stubbornly violent. And it’s in the nature of parables to just leave us hanging. Parables don’t have a moral or an explanation — they’re supposed to leave us confused and grasping after order. The proper response to a parable is not to understand but to change our minds and see the world in a different way. And that takes a risk.
So how do we get out of the dilemma today’s parable poses? At first as I listened I thought, well, you see the face of God deserve — if you are violent and unforgiving so is God — if you’re gentle and forgiving so is God to you. Tit for tat. But if that’s the case we really are in a mess because we know we need a God better than we are — if we were to be treated fairly we wouldn’t have a chance. We need a God who will forgive us and be gentle not because of who we are but despite who we are.
I think — and this is a guess — I think the whole problem lies in the set up. In the idea that God is like a king and that we are like slaves, like property to be bought and sold. And in trying to talk about forgiveness in the language of debt, of money, of economics. The parable talks this way and leads us into confusion because, I think, the change of mind, the conversion, called for, is away from relating to God as someone who owns us and relating to each other in terms of who owns who and who owes who what. Writing off a debt is a misleading model of forgiveness. If we insist on it we will never be able to trust God. Instead forgiveness is a matter of the heart not the pocket. Each of us stand before a God who sees us, not as property, but as friends of his son, so close as to be almost part of the family. The reign of God isn’t the IRS but an extended family. Families don’t hold debts against each other, don’t call in the torturers, don’t keep a ledger. The heart is deeper than that, forgiveness runs deeper than that. In fact, it’s harder to forgive from the heart someone you love than it is to simply write off the debt of a stranger. But in God’s eyes there are no strangers: there is only family and that is the way it has to be among us too.