Our Pneuma Divina passage this Sunday is a curious one. When the Darkwood Brew Planning Team studied it, there was a bit of angst over some of the imagery of the passage, particularly that of a servant being handed over to jailers to be tortured until he could pay a debt – and the shocking note that God is like that!
Since I can’t predict whether I’ll have a chance to comment on the “torture thing” at Darkwood Brew this Sunday (my major reflection being determined by the phrase YOU find most compelling), I thought I’d comment on it here. This way I can at least refer viewers to this blog post.
Here’s the passage, which I’ll follow with some commentary:
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[i] He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
So what’s all this about torture? I think this is one of many examples of where Jesus describes something that’s a quite natural part of our lives but in a bombastic way that gets our attention. I’m not suggesting that Jesus is merely using rhetorical flourish. Rather, he’s trying to tell us something quite serious – something we don’t normally take seriously unless we “get” the spiritual ramifications. Let me explain:
I believe there is a rock solid life principle at work in this passage that could be stated this way: You can have ALL the grace and forgiveness you need from God. However, you can KEEP only that which you give away.
When God looks at us, God “sees” us through the eyes of God’s righteousness, not ours. God’s love, not ours. There is therefore no condemnation. There is NO condemnation – for anything we’ve done or left undone. However, there is a catch: We’ll never accept God’s forgiveness or mercy or love for ourselves until we learn to give away the very thing we’ve received.
If we condemn others, it is impossible to accept forgiveness for ourselves. It’s one of those hard facts of life. The only forgiveness we ever truly accept from God, or believe in, or live by, is in direct proportion to the forgiveness we extend to others. The proportion may be greater than 1-to-1. That is, God’s grace is such that we tend to receive into ourselves more grace than we give away. But our forgiveness of others acts like a valve on a pipe that restricts the flow of God’s forgiveness into us. So even though God’s actual forgiveness is total and unlimited, the only amount we ever experience is related to how fully we open the valve.
Do you remember the part in the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus has us pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt 6:12)? Or how about where Jesus commands, “do not judge or you will be judged” (Matt 7:1). Or where Jesus says, “Freely you have received; freely give (Matt 10:8). These are just a couple examples of the same principle in operation: You can have ALL the grace and forgiveness you need from God. However, you can KEEP only that which you give away.
So how does all this relate to the “torture thing” in our Pneuma Divina passage? When we fail to forgive others, we also fail to accept the forgiveness God offers us. When we fail to accept God’s forgiveness, we torture ourselves – in the form of continuing guilt, shame, self-condemnation, avoidance of relationship with God, avoidance of relationship with others, and so on. That’s torture. And because it feels so bad, we develop all kinds of ways of numbing ourselves to the pain of feeling unforgiven. Some of us are so successful at numbing and avoidance that we no longer are aware of our sense of guilt, which does not mean it goes away. It simply begins to work itself out in other directions. We may not feel guilty, but we may feel a sense of emptiness. We may not feel regret, but we feel a constant anxiety or restlessness. We may not feel like there’s a problem between ourselves and God, but we avoid any kind of meaningful relationship with God. Are you starting to get the point? A huge amount of baggage builds up inside us in unpredictable places if we fail to extend to others the very grace and compassion we have received.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to simply “forgive and forget” when there is no desire on the part of those who hurt us to be forgiven or to make amends. The servant who had been forgiven a great debt was not expected to automatically forgive any debt owed to him by anyone. What caused the problem was his failure to offer forgiveness to one who had asked him for it. If the servant would have forgiven his fellow servant’s debt, he would have come to know the true meaning of our fifth Beatitude: “blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”