Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Parable of the Ungrateful Servant is NOT COOL

Image source.
[trigger warning: abuse]

In Matthew 18:21-35, we have the parable of the unmerciful servant. And I have some problems with it.

Here's what happens: Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive a brother or sister who sins against him. Maybe 7 times? Jesus says nope, 77 times. (Or 70 times 7, depending on which translation you have. Which is 490 for those of you bad at math.)

And Jesus tells this parable, to show the importance of forgiveness or whatever:

There was a man who owed the king millions of dollars (or whatever unit of currency they used in the ancient middle east). The man begged the king for mercy, so the king cancelled the debt.

Then this man went out and found another guy who owed him a few bucks [actually I'm unclear on whether this is supposed to be a big amount of money or not. Definitely much smaller than the first amount]. The second guy begged for mercy, but the first guy refused to give him any more time- he had him put in prison.

Then the king came back and uncancelled his debt.


Back when I was a Real True Christian, the meaning of this story was so obvious. The king was God. The first man was me, and every other Christian in the world. I had a huge debt owed to God, and I deserved to go to hell for it. (As does every human being that has ever lived. Except Jesus, ya know.)

I had accepted Jesus into my heart, so God had forgiven my debt. No real reason for God to do that- just because of mercy. Really, I should go to hell.

Huge debt. Massive debt. Every sin is really a sin against God, and since God is completely perfect, each sin is an infinite offense against God.

Now, the second guy. This is some other person who sins against me. But, you know, the debt is much smaller, because this is just a sin against an imperfect person. Every sin is mostly- infinitely- a sin against God, and some sins are also against people. But, you know, the "against people" part is less of a big deal. The debt is smaller. Because a person is imperfect (unlike God) the debt is finite. I mean, they're already full of sin, our good deeds are like filthy rags, a bit more sin is not a big deal, yes?

And wouldn't it be ridiculous for me to not forgive someone, after God has forgiven me a debt that's so much bigger?

This interpretation fits well with the following concepts, which I don't believe anymore:
  1. Everyone deserves to go to hell. 
  2. Every sin is, first and foremost, a sin against God. Sometimes it also harms other people, but that's beside the point.
  3. The amount that I've hurt God with my sin is greater than any hurt I can experience on earth.
  4. There's nothing that anyone can suffer on earth that compares with the torture we deserve to receive in hell.
The conclusion is, no matter what anyone does to you, you need to forgive them, or else you're as unreasonable as the ungrateful servant.

This kind of thinking leads to the idea that victims of abuse have to forgive their abuser, and their sin of "bitterness" is as great a sin as the abuse was.

Even in less extreme cases, the idea that we always have to forgive and we're not allowed to continue having negative feelings toward the other person, no matter what the crime was, is a huge problem. [But maybe that's not what forgiveness means?]

I now believe that all those ideas on that numbered list above lead to some nasty beliefs. But I don't know how to understand the parable of the ungrateful servant apart from them. When I read this passage, it just seems so obvious that that's what it means. Jesus is clearly saying that every person in the world has such a huge debt of sin against God, and deserves to go to hell, and that anything anyone else can do to you is NOTHING in comparison. So how dare you be upset about it.

I mean, right? How could the parable of the ungrateful servant possibly mean anything else?

Let's see what we can do.

First of all, nowhere in the parable does it say that the first man represents EVERYONE. Maybe some people don't have some kind of unbelievably huge debt that gets forgiven. Maybe some people's sins are less of a big deal. Everyone sins, but not everybody sins in a way that ruins other people's lives.

(You may notice I very much do not believe "all sins are equal" or any crap like that.)

Also, in the parable, the debt that the second man owed the first was tiny compared to the debt that the first man owed the king. But maybe that's not the way it always is. Maybe someone sins against you, and you've never done anything bad enough to compare with what they did. And God knows that.

If, however, you are in a situation where someone has done something bad to you, but you've done worse things to other people, then yeah, how could you not forgive them? (I'm saying "done worse things to other people" instead of "to God" because I believe a sin is defined as something that hurts people. God feels their pain too, but the reason a sin is a sin is because it hurts people. Trying to separate the part that's "a sin against God" just gets convoluted and leads to this nasty theology.)

For example, if I needed someone to do something for me, and they totally forgot, well, it's okay, I've forgotten important stuff before. I shouldn't get all angry at them about it.

Everybody makes mistakes. It's all right.

And even if it's not a mistake, if it's actually malicious, well maybe I've done similar things to other people before. And I shouldn't have. But I get it. And I should forgive them.

If it's a situation with a sin of that proportion, then yes, this parable totally makes sense. But I always assumed Jesus was talking about ALL sins.

Like what if someone murders your kid? I think if you forgive the murderer, that's, wow, that's amazing. If you don't forgive them, well that's pretty normal. It's not like "oh my goodness how could you not forgive, after God forgave all your sins?!!!"

How can forgiveness possibly be required, in a situation like that? But in the "obvious" interpretation of this parable, it is. If you don't forgive, any and all sins, any and all heinous crimes, you're spitting in God's face.

If someone hurts you very deeply, there's no way it could be healthy to require forgiveness. What does forgiveness look like in that case? And how does it relate to healing and justice?


All right you guys, I'm writing all this stuff, about some sins being worse than others, about forgiveness not being automatic and guaranteed, about certain actions being evil and abusive enough that we are well within our rights to never trust this person again. And I'm aware that the things I'm writing against are usually presented by evangelicals as the selling points of Christianity.

It doesn't matter what you've done! God can accept you! The past doesn't matter! Christ gives us the power to forgive everyone who sins against us!

God doesn't call the qualified, He qualifies the called! Jacob was a cheater, Peter had a tempter, David had an affair, Noah got drunk, Jonah ran from God, Paul was a murderer, Gideon was insecure, Miriam was a gossiper, Martha was a worrier, Thomas was a doubter, Sara was impatient, Elijah was moody, Moses stuttered, Zacheus was too short, Abraham was old and Lazarus was dead. Image source.
I mean, look at that text in the above image. Reassuring us that we can totally do great things for God, because look at how so many of the bible heroes were sinners, maybe even worse than us. Look how they have all different kinds of sins (and things that are not sins) mixed in there together, as if they're all the same. "Paul was a murderer, Gideon was insecure" as if those are anywhere close to the same problem. Christians, THIS IS NOT OKAY.

This is what happens when you think the main reason sin is bad is it breaks your relationship with God. You don't even realize that maybe a rapist or murderer should be in jail, instead of working at your church. You don't even realize that he could be dangerous and no matter how much he says he's repented, we have to keep an eye on him.

Okay I've gotten kind of off-topic. I'm ranting here because of all the stories I've heard from abuse victims who were told by Christians to just "forgive" their abusers and pretend everything was fine because they "repented", and then it was the victim's fault for still being upset about it.


For garden-variety sins, the kind that we've all committed, yeah you should forgive. But if it's something really serious, no. Nobody deserves to be abused (or any of those other really life-ruining sins). Nobody has some kind of huge "sin against God" that makes abuse not a big deal.

If you're actually in a situation like the parable of the ungrateful servant, where somebody hurt you in a way that's proportional to/less than your own sins, then yeah, Jesus says you should forgive. But nowhere does he say all sins are like that.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Matthew 18 (Matthew 18:15-20)

Next post: It Doesn’t Actually Matter What Jesus Said About Divorce (Matthew 19:1-12)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

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