[This summer, I’ve been reading John Ortberg’s tribute to the late Dallas Willard, Soul Keeping, along with some of Willard’s own works, and this is reflected in my observations on Matthew 18:21-35, the Gospel reading set for Holy Communion today.]
On one occasion when Jesus was teaching on the need to deal with the reality that we sin against one another, Peter asked him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ [ESV]
In other words, How often should I expect to be wronged by, hurt by, disappointed by, let down by (specifically) another member of the church – that is, the ekklesia, the called-out community representatives who make decisions on behalf of and for the good of the wider community – and still forgive them? How long does this process take? How many times will I forgive that person before they change, before forgiveness does its work?
Jesus’ initial reply, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times’ reveals, figuratively, that forgiveness is a lifelong ongoing process. Moreover, Jesus goes on to tell a parable revealing that forgiving may have no effect on the person who is forgiven; but that forgiving, or withholding forgiveness, certainly has an effect on the un/forgiver. And as Willard would put it, who you become is far more important than what you achieve.
So to the story. God’s rule on earth, to be exercised through men and women – and so most certainly through the ekklesia, or representatives – may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. According to the Law, after serving for seven years servants had to be offered their freedom, along with the financial means to take it. The king summons those servants who have served seven years, and who wished to be set free, in order to settle accounts – to give them the financial package of their freedom, minus any debts incurred to their master. As he go through this process, it comes to a servant who owes him an unimaginably large sum. Since the servant is unable to pay, the king orders that the servant, along with his wife and children, be sold in order to pay off the debt.
This is not a change of condition – from freeman to servant – but of circumstance, a (proposed) transfer of ownership – the man, and his family, already belong to another, the king. We are not masters of our own destiny. We all belong to God. Moreover, it implies that the king considers the servant to be worth the unimaginably large sum he has first lent the servant and is now prepared to demand for the servant.
The servant fears this circumstance, perhaps recognising that the king is a good master and certainly recognising that another master may not be so good towards him. In the midst of anxiety, he makes a choice, an act of the will: he falls on his knees and implores patience, asking for more time to pay off the debt. Though he desires freedom, he offers a further seven years’ service. The response of the king is not to agree to the servants requested terms, but rather, ‘out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.’ Not only does he write-off the debt, he sets the slave free, which included giving the slave the necessary capital to start over as a freedman.
The king’s heart (the seat of the will) and mind (the seat of both thoughts and emotions) and strength (the body, with which we act) are aligned: he makes a choice, consistent with the emotion of pity and the thought-through response to address the underlying circumstances, and acts on it accordingly.
As it happens, the servant chooses to remain in the king’s service: in the light of what has taken place, now believing it to be a better situation not only to another master but also to being his own master. His anxiety has been replaced with security.
However, the servant goes out from the king’s presence and almost immediately runs into a fellow servant who owed him a small amount of money. He makes a choice, to demand what he is owed; and he acts on that choice with his body, choking the other man. His heart and his strength are no longer aligned with the revealed – the now known – values of the king. The servant is at odds with God, at odds with his neighbour – and at odds with himself: his mind contorting itself to justify himself as being better than his fellow servant, or neighbour; and perhaps better than the king, or God. He has the other servant thrown into jail until the debt be paid off. This is a change of condition – imprisonment - and a far harsher decision than that made by the king towards him.
His actions also cause great distress to the other servants, who report all that had taken place to their master. The consequence is that the master has the wicked servant ‘delivered to the jailers’ – judged according to his own measure – ‘until he should pay all his debt.’
Here is the thing: his debt has already been paid off. He has no debt. He is free – as far as the king is concerned – to leave his prison cell at any moment. He is held there only by ‘the jailers’ – by his own heart (choices) and mind (thoughts and emotions) and strength (body). As long as he chooses to remain bound, believes himself to be punished by God, or capable of earning his way out, as long as his actions reflect a belief that he is not free, or is capable of achieving freedom by effort, the jailers have power over him. He is imprisoned until he is able to return in heart and mind and strength, until he is able to love with all his heart and mind and strength – and with his soul, our true life which, when healthy, when made whole, integrates our constituent parts. A neglected soul cannot hold those parts together so that all the doors are opened.
Jesus concludes, God our heavenly Father will turn us over to the jailers if we do not choose to forgive one another from the heart. If we are not aligned with God and neighbour, we will experience inner imprisonment until we become so.
The servant inherently understood this when he first fell on his knees. And so there is hope that he will find himself in that place again. And hope for me, too.
To return to Peter’s question, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?’ Again and again, and again and again. This reality will always be with us. I am not better than my brother, or sister, but, like them, in constant need of the forgiveness that is already ours.
However, the more we grow to love and trust the king, the more we grow to see our fellow servants as he does, the less time we might need to spend in the hands of the jailers before they unlock the doors.
Where am I trying to justify my choices, habitual thoughts or responses to emotions, or actions?
Whom do I need to forgive?