A rich man decided to call in the debts of a slave who was so buried by them he couldn’t pay them back in even 10 lifetimes. Yet in a twisted sense of justice the master says, “Pay your bills or else.”
“Or else I will sell you, your wife, your little children and all of your possessions in order to recover some of what you owe me.” Presumably this would be the end of their life as a family, and the slave could only imagine what terrible things were in store for his pathetic little family.
The slave knew that it was impossible for him to pay back the debt. He felt like a single mom who has received one too many pay-day loans from the shark down the street. Buried. Gasping for a financial breath. Not even three jobs will solve the problem.
A money metaphor is the basis of the story, but the debt could also be relational – a husband cheats on his wife. Or vocational – an employee sells company secrets to a competitor. Or political – an official boldly lies to his constituents in order to protect himself. All impossible debts of different sorts.
Then an incredible thing happens in the story. The master says, “You can’t pay it back? Of course you can’t pay it back. Never mind then; the debt is forgiven.” Just like that, the man had a clean financial slate. It’s hard to imagine such forgiveness in a world which today grinds its teeth and demands retribution.
If the story ended here, it would be the ideal Facebook post. “This story of forgiveness will make your day,” the headline would read. But this is no cute-puppy story.
In the next stage we go to the pit of hell. To rage. To incredulity. To revenge. The cute-puppy Facebook story now becomes a rant. Why?
The forgiven slave who had just gotten his life back becomes the best example of greed, self-righteousness, and forgetfulness. Instead of dancing out of his master’s house, the first act of this forgiven man was to grab the neck of a fellow slave who owed him a few cents.
“Pay me back, damn you!” is probably a rough version of what the forgiven slave said to his friend.
When his friend couldn’t pay the few cents, the forgiven slave threw his friend in debtor’s prison. If this were a performance at a theater, it is where the audience would begin chanting, “Boo hiss” and throwing peanuts.
The story ends with the master repossessing his forgiveness. In the final hyperbole, the slave was thrown in prison where he was tortured until he could pay off his debt. We know he couldn’t make money while being tortured in prison, so this was essentially a death sentence.
It’s an obscene story. Readers recoil from its horror. But reserving mercy and forgiveness for only one’s self is equally obscene, and that is what Jesus wants us to see.