UPDATE: I had my talents and denarii confused in the post below. The debt owed the king is not 40 years wages, but 150,000 years. Apologies for my currency conversion mistake.
Back in the heady days of mid-summer, I may have slightly overstated my love of Jesus’ favorite rhetorical device. For every beautiful Prodigal Son story there is wicked tenants parable to make one feel just a little bit uncomfortable. Or, as is the case with this week’s parabolic interlude, a lot uncomfortable. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is an awful story that comes right on the heels of some powerful words from Jesus.
Our passage opens with an indignant Peter thinking that Jesus has lost his mind with this grace thing. “Do you mean I’m supposed to forgive someone who sins against me as many as seven times?” He asks. Jesus responds, “If you’re keeping count, you’re doing it wrong. Forgive him seventy-seven times.” It is a delightful exchange between Jesus and Peter that invites the preacher to wax poetic on the virtues of forgiveness in the abstract: a softball pitch for a nice, airy sermon here in the dog days to Ordinary Time.
But then Jesus tells a parable that I wish he would have never told: a parable full of bad people doing bad things that ends with perhaps the most judgmental words that Jesus is recorded to have spoken. Click here to read the passage. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Do you feel icky about Jesus saying “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.” The Unforgiving Slave was tortured until his entire debt, ten thousand talents, forty years wages, was paid in full. Oh and the same thing will happen to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
While Jesus doesn’t mince words, he does open the door for a theological understanding that is largely foreign to the casual Protestant and Anglican (not mutually exclusive, mind you) readers: Purgatory. Like the prophets who came before him, Jesus’ proclamation judgment is not without some grace, namely “until your debt is paid.” Roman and Anglo Catholics will read this with an eye toward Purgatory, that place of waiting where the soul goes after death to wait until necessary penance has been paid. Some Anglicans will see in the story a place called “Paradise,” which is understood as something like pre-heaven while we wait for the Second Coming. More Reformed believers will argue that Jesus has paid our debt in full on the cross. I tend to fall in the middle camp, but in the case of this particular cautionary tale of a parable, I can see a fairly well reasoned argument for Purgatory.
A lack of forgiveness can lead to a lack in forgiveness. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God might “forgive us our trespasses/sins as we forgive those who trespass/sin against us. It assumes that we are in the business of forgiving, and when we aren’t, it seems to suggest that maybe that prison of torture isn’t so far fetched a theology. I’m not sold on Purgatory, mind you, but I think I’ll be working on my forgiveness this week, even if it requires 77 times before I stop keeping count.