Grace : Justice
The story begins with mathematics. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how often should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” Seven times? That sounds reasonable, even mathematically merciful.
Jesus responds with a geometrically progressive figure. Forgiveness is limitless. It cannot be tallied. Throw away calculator and slide rule. Stop counting. There are no mathematicians or accountants in the kingdom. In my kingdom there is no forgiving seven times but forgiving seventy times seven times. Seven times here, seven times there, before long we are talking big money.
Compare God’s kingdom with a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants, balance the books, set things right. Do justice. A servant owed him ten thousand talents. Don’t get out your calculators, I’ll tell you how much that is. One talent is the equivalent of fifteen years of labor. The servant owed his master something like $150,000,000. We’re talking big money.
When the little wretch couldn’t pay, the king ordered him, his wife and children to be sold. Does that seem harsh? But $150 million is a lot of money. Imagine a king giving a servant even $1 million. That would be a very generous king, very generous indeed. But this king has lavished $150 million on just this one servant. What became of all that money? What kind of life would you have to live to blow $150 million?
Don’t waste your sympathy on this guy. He blew $150 million. He has nothing to pay back? Nothing? A wife, a couple of kids, a stint in jail, it really isn’t so much when compared to $150 million.
You can’t blame the king for being angry. If we were talking only, say, $10 million, then perhaps the king could have written it off. But $150 million! It’s time for decisive action. He has wasted his master’s hard-earned money. Put him and his family in the slammer and let them think it over.
There then follows such a scene. The servant falls down and (literally) “worships” the king. “Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.” Who is he kidding? Repay $150 million when he’s blown every cent?
In a burst of outlandish pity, the master sets him free and cancels the whole debt, all $150 million of it. Here the story begins to sound improbable. What kind of king is this? A soft-hearted, maybe even soft-headed king, for sure. Write off so great a financial injustice? Perhaps he’s a liberal. A member of Amnesty International.
“$150,000,000? Well, it’s only money. The poor little servant didn’t have all the advantages I have had in life. No one ever taught him how to manage his portfolio. I’ll write the whole thing off.”
Well, all you bleeding-heart liberals, don’t get too excited. The king’s generosity is short-lived. On his way out of jail, this servant who has been forgiven a $150 million debt runs into a fellow servant who owes him $1,000. He grabs him by the neck and nearly chokes him, saying, “Pay back what you owe.”
“Have patience with me and I will repay you,” he pleads. Heard this before? Repay $1,000 when he’s only a servant? It’s bad to waste $150 million but then it’s also bad to waste $1,000, particularly when you’ve borrowed it from a fellow servant who is no king. Put him in the slammer and let him think it over.
Well, his fellow servants go and tell all to the king. And Mr. King, Mr. Unbelievably Generous comes back down to earth. “You evil servant! I forgave you that gigantic debt and you jailed your fellow servant for a mere one thousand bucks! I’m sick that I was ever so merciful to you when I see how little mercy you show to someone else.” (Statistics show that most of the people who go to jail and then get out of jail go back to jail.) And the angry master handed the servant over to the torturers until he should pay back every cent that he owed. Here the story gets real.
We would not understand someone who would write off a massive debt after a tear-jerking scene. But we would understand someone who would sock it to an ungrateful little wretch. At the beginning of the story, we didn’t want to see the servant go to jail, even if he did owe $150 million. But by the end of the story, when this once forgiven servant now socks it to his fellow servant we are delighted to see him led off by the torturers.
Great! He’s getting what he deserves! We, who were not particularly into vengeance at the beginning of the story, stand with all the fellow servants applauding as this ungrateful wretch is led away by the hangman. Great! He’s getting what he deserves! He ought to hang for being so ungrateful.
The story begins by the king giving a wasteful servant what he deserves. And you and I feel genuinely sorry for the servant. Sure, he has blown a lot of money but, after all, he’s a little servant and he owes to a big king, and why not a second chance? We experience a brief burst of generosity. Then the king has a brief burst of generosity. But after being forgiven, the servant gives his fellow servant what he deserves. Finally, the king gives the vengeful servant what he deserves.
Of course, by the end of the story, there is no difference between the vengeful little servant and the vengeful big king. Perhaps we thought the king was some kind of Mr. Nice Guy, an unbelievably generous chap who goes around writing off massive debts. But no, by the end of the story, the king is the sort of person who repays injustice with punishment. The servant he wanted to put in jail at the beginning of the story has been given over to torturers by the end. The king does to the ungrateful servant what the ungrateful servant tried to do to his fellow servant, only worse. There really is not much difference between the angry king who punished for debt and the angry servant who punished for debt.
This is the way the world goes round, high and low, up in the palace with the king or out in the alleyways with the little people. We love a story in which, as they say in the business ethics course, “what goes round comes back around.” You sow what you reap. You get what you deserve, even punishment. There is a kind of justice to life. Though it is sometimes tough, at least it is what is deserved, earned. The punishment of torture seems excessive, but so is the debt. At least we can say, by the end of the story, justice is done.
So there really is not much difference between the angry king who punished, the angry servant who wouldn’t forgive, and us. After our brief burst of generosity toward the servant at the beginning of the story, weren’t we delighted to see him hang at the end? The ungrateful little wretch!
The king, the servant, in their lack of forgiveness, their fundamental desire to see justice done and just desserts received, are just like us.
Junk bond king, Michael Millkin. I shed no tears when he was led away in chains, hustled out of his stretch limo and Palm Beach pad and did not pass go, did not collect $200, but went directly to jail. Oh, the delicious justice of doing to Mr. Millkin what he did to so many. And I was a bit chagrined to learn that Mr. Millkin was acquitted on many of the charges against him. Oh well, it’s not delivering him over to the torturers, but it will do. Accounts are being settled.
Arab terrorists beat, torture, and imprison a man who had given his whole life to helping the people of Lebanon. But before we shed tears for the victim, let us consider the debt. Generations of children in Palestinian refugee camps, the victims of the Shah, the countless, nameless others who have suffered because of our Western injustice. Accounts are being settled.
A baby is killed along with others in U.S. bombing raids against Libya. Save your tears for all the victims of Libyan terrorism, the innocent ones who have perished. Accounts are being settled.
Catholics are bombing Protestants in Northern Ireland. Innocent lives blown to bits by anonymous, faceless, cowardly terrorists. Before you begin talk of forgive and forget, read a bit of the history of what Protestants have done to Catholics there. Accounts are being settled.
The cycle begins, up at the White House or down in your and my house, with the desire to settle accounts. Just wait until your father gets home.
How often should I forgive, asks Peter, the church, us? Let’s be generous. Seven times? And Jesus says, seventy times seven times. And Jesus tells a little story. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to your kingdoms. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to, but not equated with, a king who wished to settle accounts.
We have our brief bursts of beneficence as we read that the child molester-murderer was himself the victim of abuse as a child and we don’t know just whom to blame. His abusing mother and cruel father are long since dead and we feel a brief, genuine sense of pity for the man who sits on death row. But then we look upon the grief-stricken faces of the dead child’s parents in the newspaper and we shed no tears upon learning, “John Jones was executed by lethal injection at 6:00 a.m. this morning.”
We live, in an often unjust world, for those delicious moments when “what goes round comes back around,” and accounts are settled.
This is our world, our kingdom, often bloody, exceedingly dangerous, wheels within wheels, eternal cycles of vengeance and repayment — Arab-Israel, rich-poor, Irish Catholic-Protestant, Korean-Japanese, Black-White — treadmills of retribution and no way to get off. So by the end of the story, when we smile in secret satisfaction as the servant is led to the torturers, Jesus’ little story has revealed to us the big truth: we are probably no worse, but certainly no better than they.
And on a Friday afternoon, after we had stripped Him of His dignity, after His friends had forsaken Him and fled, after the soldiers had spit upon Him and whipped Him, after the trial (everything was done according to the law!), we dragged Him up a hill, nailed His hands and feet, and crucified Him. And as He hung there bleeding unto death, He looked down at us and this king said, “Father, forgive them.”
And the wheels within wheels came to a grinding halt, the eternal cycle of retribution was derailed, our kingdoms crumbled, and accounts were settled so as to put our books eternally in the red.
By William H. Willimon