Through a glass, darkly
Forgiveness runs contrary to self-interest, whereas judgment is instinctual. In Romans, Paul speaks of a community as a place where we are faced with having to tolerate difference – or not, as more often the case may be. Toleration of difference seems to run contrary to our natural instincts while fear and judgment seem to be our natural inclinations. The toleration of difference requires reframing the instinctual desire to condemn. Have you noticed how much condemnation and judgment is in the Bible?
If we read the Bible as if God is the author, then we can’t but help notice that God appears to be rather too much like ourselves for comfort. For like us, God appears incredibly inconsistent – mostly judgmental, yet unpredictably forgiving.
Are the images of God we encounter in the Bible God’s self-representation, unchanging for all time? To approach the Bible in this way is very dispiriting. How can we have any confidence in being loved and accepted by such an unpredictable and inconsistent figure, the very worst kind of parental model?
Alternatively, we can read the Bible as the record of its human authors’ picturing of God. Such imaginings are always limited by the human writers’ historically and culturally shaped experience and expectations. This is why the Bible is so amazing because it presents a long historical record of how God gradually emerges into human consciousness within Israel’s particular history. God seems to grow and change in sync with the development of Israelite experience, because although human authors’ project themselves onto God, God rebuffs their projections by acting in unanticipated ways.
As the Biblical images of God develop and deepen over time, the Bible’s human authors’ gain a little distance from their own projections to discover something new about God. Through behaving unexpectedly, God shows each generation that the divine nature is always more than we can imagine.
The Bible Challenge is aptly named. However, the challenge lies not in meeting the daily commitment of reading so much Scripture, although at times it can feel like this. No, the challenge lies in encountering the Israelite authors’ images of God – images that are not in sync with our 21st-century imagination.
Day 120 brings us to the First Book of Kings. On the way to this point, God has emerged repeatedly as a contradictory tyrant who on the one hand is a liberator, and on the other hand, is a genocidal tyrant. God seems to be a very human figure, by turns angry and then merciful, condemning and then forgiving; who turns a blind eye to the unspeakable abuse of women and the ruthless politically motivated murder of rivals.
It’s difficult to share the conservative fundamentalist defense of the Bible as a rulebook for family values and modern good government.
The parable of the forgiving king
One commentator on this parable in Matthew 18 asks:
“Could it be that judgment is something we do to ourselves when we face the infinite love of God who does not judge, because God, after all, forgives even unpayable debt and sin?” 
How do we who are prone to harsh judgments experience the novelty of being forgiven? The unforgiving steward in this parable is a case study in the human response to being forgiven, offering insight into the unconscious rage that being forgiven can provoke.
To be forgiven that which we are powerless in any case to repay is both liberating and humiliating.
This story is set in a world where the economic structure of society is predicated on the continual flow of wealth from the 99% at the base, upwards through the layers of the hierarchical pyramid to those in the top1%. Each successive layer of the social hierarchy is organized to exploit those beneath it for the benefit of those above it.
The king is at the top of the 1%, and immediately below him is his steward who is also still part of the 1%. The impossible size of the steward’s debt indicates that this is not a personal debt, i.e. money he borrowed from the king, but maybe something akin to the national debt that he is responsible for collecting and delivering to the king. Although the direction of the flow of revenue is always upwards, at each level the collectors take their cut. This story is a vignette of the economic exploitation that characterizes non-egalitarian societies.
This is a particular kind of story called a parable. A parable is a teaching tool that exploits what’s familiar from the hearer’s everyday life to make an unexpected point. In this parable, the king acts unexpectedly.
The steward is the immediate beneficiary of the king’s action, for which he is grovelingly thankful. But he remains unchanged by the king’s generosity. Once he leaves the throne room he continues with his conventional expectations of business, as usual, evidenced by his behavior towards the steward immediately under him. It is this, his remaining unchanged by generosity, that leads to his eventual condemnation and punishment.
We can pride ourselves on being cleverer than the unjust steward, leading us to feel morally superior and judgmental towards him. We quickly perceive that the king is modeling an action intended to be the blueprint for forgiveness and generosity.
That’s because, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the forgiving king is Jesus’ metaphor for a new and radical image of God that breaks open the limited imaginations of his 1st-century hearers’.
With 20/20 hindsight, we recognize that this is a story about human resistance to being changed by gratitude. Authentic gratitude changes us because it motivates in us new expressions of generosity. Yet, understanding this, in theory, so to speak, is one thing, but letting it have the power to actually change us, is another.
Let’s not feel too clever because there is a message in this parable that we probably will miss. Our imaginations are shaped by a cultural focus on accountability as a personal and individual matter. Whether we act on it or not we get the point that when we locate God as the source of our gratitude we become less likely to pass up an opportunity to for generous action. Yet, there’s a deeper interpretation that takes the meaning of this parable far beyond the sphere of individual generosity.
David Brooks writing in the New York Times last week noted:
“People are still good at acting individually to tackle problems. Look at how many Houstonians leapt forth to care for their neighbors. But we have trouble with collective action, with building new institutions, or reviving old ones, that are big enough to deal with the biggest challenges”.
Viewed politically, the king’s action is an upending of the economic system. Leading by example, his action is intended to suggest a different and more collectively sensitive vision of God. How many of us are ready for the implications of this for our own society? As David Books suggests, not many of us, it seems.
Both Matthew and Paul in the readings for Sunday are showing how God by acting in unanticipated ways administers a seismic shock to the human ordering of things. Jesus presents a vision of a God of limitless forgiveness. This changes everything in the trajectory of Israel’s story, leading Paul to envision communities where people refrain from judgment about petty rules and learn to tolerate difference. Thus a step change was brought about in human consciousness awareness of God out of which, new images of God emerged that were big enough to deal with the new challenges of a post-Jesus world.
Might this parable become more for us than we otherwise imagine? Could it speak to our period of upheaval and crisis, catapulting us into a step change that will enable our collective imagination to build new institutions, or to revive old ones that are big enough to deal with the momentous challenges facing us today?