More Debt Questions
And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. (Matthew 18:27)
My mind suddenly went to other scenarios that raise interesting questions.
It said here that this slave did not have the means to repay this debt. That is readily understandable given that this debt was equivalent to 150,000 years worth of wages. But what would have happened if the slave did have the resources in hand to repay the debt? What if he had stashed much of that money away rather than having it slip through his hands elsewhere? Would forgiveness have still been an option on the part of the king? How does this play out against the belief that God forgives unconditionally? Upon what basis is forgiveness anyway? There is a great deal about forgiveness that is not yet clear but discussion about it can elicit very strong emotions and opinions on the part of many.
Throughout this chapter sins and offenses are generally the same thing depending on which version you are reading. The original Greek word is the same for both so that is understandable. It also should be clear to us that sin produces an impossibly large debt and that we simply have no means to repay the damage we have caused to our relationship with God. I believe that is one reason why Jesus came up with this number for the size of the man's debt. But this too is often more of a religious declaration than an understandable concept of the heart and mind.
But that is not the only debt mentioned in this story. There is a second debtor that shows up next who owes a debt as well. His debt was worth about 3 months wages, which is no small debt unless placed alongside the first one. I don't think too many of us would feel that a debt this size was insignificant if someone owed us one third of a year's wages. We might get pretty defensive if asked to simply write off such a debt, particularly if we were in serious financial trouble ourselves. How would you feel if your boss suddenly said he couldn't pay you anything after working for three months without pay? I believe most of us would be strongly tempted to resort to rather strong measures toward someone who owed us that size of a debt, especially if we felt our own situation had become desperate and if we believed they had been negligent in doing anything about paying us up to that point.
But again, how does ability to repay factor into our willingness to forgive? What if the second debtor was doing reasonably well financially and simply was neglecting to pay his legitimate debt? Was it wrong to expect that some pressure should be put on him to change his stance toward repaying what he legitimately owed? These are not just hypothetical questions but are very real issues that many of us face from time to time. How are we to relate to those who are indebted to us, not just financially but emotionally, morally, socially? And are they different from each other?
If we are completely honest we will have to admit that there are people in our lives that we feel owe us favors for the many favors we have shown them. This is definitely a form of debt. And depending on our personality we will relate to such ones differently. But what is going on in our own heart, regardless of how we come across to them publicly? Are we secretly holding onto an offense while denying even to ourselves that we are doing so?
It goes even further than this. Who is capable of being able to assess 'ability to repay' anyway? And is such an assessment another way of what might be called judging? If we judge that someone is capable of paying off their debt to us but is failing to do so because of negligence, are we sinning in making such a determination by violating Jesus' warnings against judging others? Or is this outside the parameters of what He was speaking of when He talked about judging?
Even if we determine that it is our legitimate place to determine whether a person has the means or abilities to repay a debt owed to us, is it our place to act as an enforcer of their obligation? Both the king and the first debtor apparently made a determination about the ability of a debtor to repay them. That seems to be clear in the story. What was radically different was their choice of response to another's inability to repay. But what if the factor was added into the scenario that there indeed was ability to repay? Would that significantly change the direction of the story? Or are the underlying principles Jesus is trying to convey here not affected by that difference? I don't yet see that answers for these questions clearly. And I certainly am not ready to swallow clichés and sweep these questions under the carpet. These questions reflect real-life circumstances that some of us, if not all of us, have to face on a regular basis, whether financially or otherwise.
This chapter is all about the debts of offenses and sins and the resolution for these problems found in forgiveness. Maybe the question is whether forgiveness is the only option for a Christian or are there other ways of resolving debts that are legitimate. Are there times when debts can and should be repaid? Is it an abortion of honesty and integrity to simply forgive rather than hold someone accountable for their actions and words and debts that they have created and insist on some sort of repayment? And most importantly, what kind of reflection on God do our answers create?
I can see that I am getting myself into a very messy area here that I had no idea was coming when I started this. This is sweeping me into the real world seemingly outside the confines of the tidy interpretations we have chosen to stick with for this story. But are these questions insubordinate and irrelevant or are they legitimate issues that can be addressed as we grasp the true messages Jesus may have embedded in this story and this chapter that maybe we are still missing.
Who is qualified to make a determination of someone's ability to repay a debt?
Even if such a determination is made and is valid, what should be our direction from there? And if so, is that direction influenced or determined by their ability to repay or by some other principle?
In this story most people are aghast that one who had been forgiven such an enormous debt could so quickly turn around and display the very opposite attitude toward someone who owed him a much smaller debt by comparison and show no compassion whatsoever. But with our emotions so worked up over this obvious ingratitude and cluelessness on the part of the first debtor, have we often missed other vitally important lessons because we thought we had learned all there was for us in this story? I have already discovered that there are very many enormously important insights in this story that I had mistaken or missed most of my life; but I am beginning to suspect that maybe there are still many more that remain undiscovered simply because I thought there were no more to find and had quit looking.
I am learning that a great deal of ground can be turned over to see what lies underneath by simply asking questions and allowing myself to think outside the typical parameters that religion has placed around many passages of the Bible. Some view that as dangerous or even heretical, but I am learning that God longs for us to expand our narrow thinking to make room for Him to show us many things we have been unwilling to even consider previously. Our greatest handicap is often our own resistance to thinking anything different than what religious people have concluded already, or even laying aside our own previous conclusions and discoveries. I have been slowly learning that possibly there may be no passage anywhere in Scripture where the Holy Spirit cannot turn it into an endless resource of new truths for one who is willing to dig deeper and ask more questions.
Many times as I have chosen to ask such questions of God while meditating on a passage, I realize that I must give Him time to respond and not always expect immediate answers. Sometimes He does respond rather quickly with a new insight and other times it may be days or weeks later when suddenly an answer materializes to some troubling question I have put forward. But I am learning that God loves to answer our questions and is not put off like (so many religious teachers can be) by my questions. In fact, I am coming to believe that a willingness to ask lots of questions, even some that may sound impertinent to people around me who think I am just trying to be insolent, can be a way of deepening my relationship with God personally.
When Jesus pointed out that in the judgment the difference between those who are saved and those who thought they were saved but discovered they were not – that the core difference between these two groups was that He knew those who were saved – then I believe that this practice of opening up my heart to Him through asking lots of questions is a means of inviting Him to know me more intimately.
When we say we know someone and say that in a very meaningful, intentional way, we usually infer that we know them personally because we have spent considerable time interacting with them, listening to them open up their heart to us and sharing with us confidentially things they generally would not share with most anyone else. This kind of knowing requires permission and a willingness to be vulnerable on the part of the one we say we know. That is what is meant in the Bible as really knowing someone and what Jesus had in mind in Matthew 7:23.
We all believe that God already 'knows' everyone and everything. But that is evidently not what Jesus was talking about when the saved and lost become distinctly separate in the end. The kind of knowing He was referring to when He spoke of that time was the knowing that comes from someone's willingness to open up their lives, their secrets, their hearts and to allow Him to interact with them at every level of their existence. This kind of knowing only comes about through an intentional choice of a person who is willing to allow someone else into the most vulnerable places in their lives and their emotions. It is entering into an integration of life together much like a vibrant, healthy marriage relationship. This is how it makes sense to me that Jesus could say that He knows some while implying that He does not share a similar knowing with others. Sadly these others are those who have been meticulously religiously accurate in their lives but come up short in this area of real knowing.
So in the light of this sidetrack of explanation, I will continue to ask questions and seek answers from the Author of this book that is transforming my own life (albeit rather slowly too much of the time). As I have slowly worked my way through this chapter for the past three months I have been coming to know far more than I had seen from here before even though I thought I had learned much of what I assumed was in here. My level of conviction continues to deepen as I meditate on this chapter and observe the ever-emerging new connections in here along with the implications that they have for my own experience and my relationships with others around me.
My awareness of the real truth about forgiveness, offenses and my part in how I need to relate to these things seems to be just starting to emerge into my awareness. I sense that I still don't really 'get it', much like the disciples themselves didn't really 'get it' until after Jesus had died and rose again, and even then it was nearly a couple months later. It was not until around the time of Pentecost that these believers finally began to see with real clarity the big picture and the transforming implications of what Jesus was all about and what He had sought to teach them. I feel very much like the pre-Pentecost disciples, but my hope is anchored in the fact that Jesus accepted them just where they were and taught them all sorts of truths even while they often remained clueless about the applications of those things in their lives until much later.
I am looking forward to that 'later' in my own experience and I hope it happens sooner than later. I know I have immense transitions that need to take place in my own thinking, areas of perception that are still largely hampered by preconceptions and mistaken patterns of logic and habit of thought and feelings that prevent me from seeing truth more clearly. But I am learning to trust in God's heart in the process and seek to let go of my resistance that prevents me from moving more readily into this life He is seeking to bring me into. I am learning to be more childlike and not to be afraid to ask more questions now. I am starting to see my need for much greater humility, especially in what I am learning from this chapter. But I am also realizing that humility is really a joyful, peaceful place to live in, not a morbid, depressing state of mind. I want to live there as soon as possible and live free of all offenses.