Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Moral Debt

"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, "Pay what you owe.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
Why did the unforgiving servant demand payment from his fellow slave? Did he intend to make good on his promise to repay his own debt to the king? Was he the kind of person who strongly believes in the repayment of debts? He saw this slave who owed him money "as he went out" from his reckoning. Certainly the matter of his own debt couldn't yet have slipped his mind.

I don't think this is a picture of just personal forgiveness. I think it's about public morality. We live not under law but under grace. And yet we can't help acting as though we live under law. We have had our debt to the law wiped out, but we continue to plead with God, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything." Then when we see someone else who isn't meeting our standards, we are scandalized. We seize them and say, "Pay what you owe."

All too often this is the public face of religion. Churches are full of forgiven sinners. Not former sinners whose past sins have been forgiven, but current sinners whose current sins are constantly forgiven. And yet we forget this, and so we pick out behaviors that we think are unacceptable, and we chase people out of the church if they don't fit our mold. Maybe they have long hair. Maybe they've been divorced. Maybe they don't share our sexual orientation. Maybe, on the other hand, they're more conservative than we are!

Whatever it is, we forget the terms on which we have peace with God, and we refuse to overlook the debt we believe our fellow human beings owe to us. (We might invoke the name of God, but let's be honest about whose interests we are really looking after.)

And here's where the parable really gets scary. "When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed." This is always how people get into trouble with God. In Genesis, God goes down to Sodom and Gommorah because of the outcry against them. In Exodus, God rises up against Pharoh because he hears the cries of his people. Generally, we don't need to fear God's wrath because of our impiety, but woe unto us when the cry of those we oppress reaches God.

This is certainly a challenge to our churches. The position of this parable in Matthew 18 puts it squarely on our collective eccliastical shoulders. But surely the movements of the churches are driven by individual actions.

May we all remember the terms of our peace with God and may we strive to live in such grace with one another.

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