No deal on debts


The most ferocious parable Jesus told was one about two debtors. The lord calls in the first of the debtors, who owed a colossal sum, and demands he pay up. He threatens to thrown the slave in prison and enslave his family. The slave begs for mercy, for time to pay. The lord has compassion on him, and gives him more than time to pay: he forgives the debt and released him.

This forgiven slave then leaves the lord’s presence and meets a fellow-slave who owes him a much smaller debt. He throttles him and demands immediate payment. The fellow-slave falls to his knees and begs for mercy. The first slave refuses to respond. When the lord finds out how the forgiven slave has behaved, he reverses his generosity and has him tortured until he repays everything he owed.

‘And so,’ concludes Jesus, ‘will my heavenly Father do to you if each of you does not forgive brother or sister from the heart.’ (Matthew 18:35)

Kenneth Bailey describes the economic back story. In each village in the Middle East a principal landowner controlled all the cropping and grazing in the village. This abu or sheikh was like a feudal lord. Every aspect of economic life in the village derived from the sheikh.

Jesus makes first a comparison between this village economy and the economy of God. The lord in the story demonstrates a generosity that goes far beyond justice when he ignores the request for time to pay, and instead releases his servant and forgives the debt. This lord is not behaving as a prudent sheikh would behave. A prudent sheikh would be generous by making a deal. This lord reveals instead the divine generosity, which gives total freedom to those who seek it.

The expectation is that those who are graced with freedom should reveal the same generosity in dealing with others. The forgiven slave in the parable acts in the opposite manner than the lord expects and so receives the worst punishment the lord can inflict on him.

But as in the challenging parable of the dishonest steward, Jesus foregrounds the absolute generosity of the lord, the sheikh of the village and not so much the behaviour of the servants. Can you imagine the sheikh of your village forgiving the debt absolutely? If so, can you imagine a little of the extraordinary generosity of the divine economy? Once you start to get this picture of God you can begin to participate in the generous economy.

Imagine if we treated our sister or brother not simply with justice, but by releasing everyone from all the claims we might make on them. Our village, our community, would be marked by a wonderful freedom and genuine intimacy one with another.

At its best, we can glimpse this divine economy at work in our church and even in other communities.

But this parable holds up a mirror to the messy world of commerce as well as God’s economy.

Jesus’ attention is caught by the differential between the first and second slaves. The first slave owed his lord ten thousand talents. My Bible notes that a talent was equal to 6,000 denarii. One talent is what a labourer could earn in 6,000 days. The debt, 10,000 times 6,000 denarii, is in the order of eight billion dollars in contemporary money. Let’s not forget that this is a parable, and there is an element of exaggeration, but even so, the money owed by this slave is tying up at least the economic operation of this village, or more. The Gross National Income of our neighbour East Timor is only 2½ billion dollars.

Jesus contrasts this figure with the debt of the other slave: 100 denarii. This is about $14,000. It is not a trifle for someone who might earn only 300 denarii a year, but it’s a possible debt. The sort of debt I know people have on the credit card or in car finance. If I owed $14,000 and was asked for immediate payment, I could make it, but with difficulty.

Note the contrast in the debt: billions to hundreds. The economy of a nation contrasted with the economy of a small household. The first slave owed six hundred thousand times what the second slave owed.

This differential rings bells: the Institute for Policy Studies says that CEO’s are paid 340 times the average worker in 2011, compared to 42-1 in 1980. (The Institute calls itself a ‘progressive think-tank’, which probably means that is to the left politically, but its figures are compelling.)

Jesus understands the economic system where the sheikh holds the life of every villager in his hands. Everything is the ultimately the sheikh’s gift, and villagers can suffer enormously under greedy or incompetent village management. But surprisingly, Jesus does not criticise the system. His fierce words are for those whose greed exploits the system whatever it is, for those who feel entitled to hundreds of thousands times more resources than his fellow-citizens.

The system, Jesus seems to say, may evolve and repair itself slowly. But whatever the system the urgent wrong to right is the exploitation by the rich of the poor.

The system itself will reward greed: what is asked of us is to express our moral outrage that people feel so entitled.

In the end, Jesus does suggest a subversion of the system: rather than make generous deals with debtors, debts should be forgiven so that no member of the community is beholden to another. The existence of power of one brother or sister over another especially through indebtedness threatens the free functioning of a just and loving community.

We are challenged to make sure that we do not have claims over other people’s lives. Are there debts we can forgive? If there are we should forgive them now. Do we hold a sense of entitlement to things that should belong to all? What does it mean that I can live modestly on $30,000 a year and over a billion of my brothers and sisters are struggling to live on less than $2 a day? How can I let go of that claim?

When the parable is held up as a mirror to the messy world of commerce, these are some of the questions that are revealed. The big question is: How do we parallel the generosity of God?

Jesus tells the parable of the two debtors

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Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

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