Heading for Torture
For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. (Matthew 18:23)
One of the features that is too often overlooked in this story of the debtor is the sharp contrast between the attitudes of the king and the slave. In fact, we so naturally feel like gravitating toward the spirit of the slave ourselves that we believe the king in the end adopts the same viewpoint and methods of the slave in preference over his previous compassion and forgiveness. But in believing and teaching this about God we only add to our own debt created by our words.
If we really followed fully the example of the king we might start out with some who owe us with a seemingly stern and legalistic approach. This could be parallel to the pointing out of error in verse 15. But just as in that sequence, the whole purpose and intent of the king was not to shame and blame and humiliate the slave but to reconcile their relationship and induce the slave away from his debt mentality so that they could move beyond that slave/master mentality and become more like a father and son.
But this slave staunchly resisted any such heretical theology that would paint God as being so soft and wimpy and wishy-washy. He was certain he knew the best way to deal with debtors himself and the initial approach of the king toward his own case only seemed to substantiate his preconceived beliefs. Yet he completely overlooked the glaring reality of his own forgiven debt and only chose to dwell on the artificial, legal method that had been intended only to awaken him to his real situation, not to effectively repair and resolve it.
The Old Testament is like the king's first approach to the problem. But when we get stuck in that law approach to our debt we will inevitably relate to others dysfunctionally. Only by dwelling on and truly appreciating the compassion of the king even in the glaring light of law that highlights the size of our word debt will we be transformed through a renewing of our mind and heart.
Notice that the king turned away from the methods of force and intimidation even when the debtor failed to ask for grace but only sought for more time. “With just more help from God...” we can develop perfection in our lives to “get ready for Jesus to come.” That is a subtle but deadly diversion from and perversion of the truth. Perfection is not a system of carefully controlled behaviors but is rather a transformation of the attitudes of the heart deep within that eventually works its way out into all of our external relationships and actions and words. Attempted perfection by mastering control over the outside will never result in a converted heart but only produces pride, hypocrisy, a critical spirit and a judgmental, condemning attitude towards those who have offended us.
The reason the king never followed through on his original threat was because he knew all along that would not produce any real change at the heart level. And it is vital to note the stark difference between the verbs in the beginning scenario and the ending one where the debtor went off to torture. The limited effect hopefully produced by 'commands' to prosecute to the full extent of the law in hopes that the man would see his desperate need of grace was never meant to convey the true feelings of the king. The king only took the risk of resorting to the use of this stern approach because it was the only method this slave would listen to. This approach says more about this slave's character and outlook than it does about the king's character. But too often we make the same mistake as this debtor and read into this story that God really is harsh and demanding.
But upon closer examination with an open mind we can discern something very different in this story that is vitally important if we are to avoid making the same mistake of misjudging the king. For the verb used to describe the kings last action that resulted in this slave ending up in prison is very different than the command at the beginning. Jesus says that he 'turned him over.' This is the exact Greek word that is used throughout Scripture as the accurate definition of God's wrath. When God gets angry enough He doesn't turn to retaliation like we do; He lets go!
In this story the king did not command the slave into torture but respected his stubborn choices to maintain the lies about the king in his heart even after seeing clearly his own debt and being given full pardon, release and forgiveness. The king then released this man to the inevitable torture that always results in the hearts of those who cling to such lies about God.
It is important that we be brought to the point of realizing the true enormity of our own debt, not just intellectually but with deep heart conviction. Too many times we stop short fo allowing ourselves to honestly face the pain and shame and hopelessness we are certain to feel if we sense our true condition. To snap us out of our numb, deluded condition and our denial, God may resort to using strong, legal measures to wake us up and force us to face reality. But this is not the same use of force that Satan uses to force our will. God uses force only to the extent where it is useful for bringing us into awareness of true reality – an intervention we call it today – where we can then be free to choose for ourselves what direction we will take in our relationship with Him. But that decision must be informed by the true facts of our condition and to make us aware of those truths God sometimes has to become very forceful in His dealings with us like He did with Saul of Tarsus. But if we mistake His forceful ways only in order to get our attention with Satan's accusations about Him, we can still make the same mistake this slave did and assume that force is the main method to get our way with others.
The king never forced this man to do anything against his will except to bring him into his presence and make him aware of the true condition of their relationship and the reality of what was keeping them distant from each other. After that the man was set free to choose how he would respond to the overwhelming kindness, graciousness and forgiveness of the one to whom he owed everything. After the greatest revelation of the true nature of the king had been given to this debtor and he failed to take any of it to heart, evidenced by in his subsequent treatment of his fellow slave, the king had to release him from the protection of his government and turn him over to the hostile forces of the enemies of them both until the man might someday repent of his false views of the king and choose to embrace with his heart the forgiveness that was still his all along.
The real problem in the end was not that the king withdrew the forgiveness he had extended – he made that explicitly clear when he reminded the debtor of his forgiveness in verse 32. The real problem was that the forgiveness had not accomplished any real change in this man's heart and attitudes because he had chosen to live in unbelief of the reality of that forgiveness for himself.
In our own lives the identity of the various players may look a little different but the principles are identical. It can be seen very often in the way we treat our spouses, our children or any of those who offend us and speak ill about us and ruin our reputation – the way we treat them always reflects our inner opinions about how God intends to treat us for our offenses against Him. When we speak harshly to or about our spouse; when we yell at our children and fail to nurture their hearts, we are living under the principles advocated by the great accuser rather than allowing the unconditional forgiveness of our own Father to transform our hearts and change our relationships. And in living this way without regard to the immensity of our own forgiven debt we are on the fast track toward an encounter with the torturers whether we want to or not. And some of us are already beginning to experience some of that torture even now.