“In Context”: Matthew 18:21-35

29 08 2010

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And 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.”

Through my work with Ujamaa (specifically with Skhumbuzo and the worker justice program) and my engagement with the academic side of Ujamaa’s work at UKZN, I cannot read this passage without noting the economic nature of the parable. The story involves economic debt, hierarchy/kyriarchy, and a system in which servants seem to consistently be unable to repay their masters. I’m curious to probe the story with questions such as: why did the servants owe their respective masters money? Why did the master decide to settle his accounts and how did he become so wealthy? Were the other servants able to repay their debts—and how many servants owed him money? What does the master stand to gain by forgiving the debts? Does this not correlate to the economic state of the world today?

Post-liberation, many churches and groups in South Africa have returned to a theology that emphasizes spiritual needs and moral concerns. The new government (who once relied on liberation hermeneutics and theologies) has publicly celebrated that churches can now stop focusing on the political and can return to their real (spiritual and moral) concerns. As I have noted before, there is still a vast disparity between the wealthiest South Africans and the poor and marginalized majority. Though the ANC came to power with the promise of economic redistribution, most of these goals have been abandoned although many South Africans have experienced little or no economic benefit. When churches try to confront these economic concerns, they are often told that they should focus on the church’s “real [moral] concerns” and leave the economy to the experts. Unfortunately, the Bible has much more to say about economic justice as both a spiritual concern and a moral imperative than it does on any other issue!

I’ve also been thinking a lot about what it means to forgive (is it really as easy to forgive actions as it is to forgive a debt?) and in the words of Antjie Krog, “the limits of forgiveness.” Krog was a radio reporter who covered the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; her book Country of My Skull describes her experience as a reporter as she herself struggles with the meanings of truth, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The book relies on the narratives of the women and men who testified as part of the commission, both victims and perpetrators. Most of these stories are horrifying: this is the hardest book I have ever read. I quickly realized that I could only read one chapter at a time; to read too much at once is to risk becoming desensitized to the horrors described. The question that runs through my mind is “How do you forgive this?” Many do not, and I cannot blame them. Krog records the sentiment of Mrs. Kondile, whose son was brutally murdered by Dirk Coetzee, a well-known member of the apartheid police hit squad:

“It is easy for Mandela and Tutu to forgive…they lead vindicated lives. In my life, nothing, not a single thing has changed since my son was burnt by barbarians…nothing. Therefore I cannot forgive” (Krog 142).

In South Africa, these experiences are real and recent; how does Matthew’s parable of forgiveness apply to a context like this? How do you forgive a system that enforced racial segregation and created the economic disparity that still exists today? These are questions well beyond my ability to answer; they strike at questions that theologians have been grappling with for centuries. They also speak to a context in which I am still an outsider. I can listen to these stories, but I cannot share an understanding of the common experience. But as I hear these stories and learn about people’s experiences, I realize more and more that this lesson about forgiveness cannot be discussed in South Africa without a consideration of the political and economic realities of this context. Further, Matthew’s parable cannot be fully understood without considering the economic and political framework that surrounds the story.

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One response

29 08 2010
Catherine Hoke

This has always been a problem. To understand man’s cruel actions to other men is beyond comprehension. There are many acts in our world history which are hard to believe and even harder to understand…much less forgive. I think rather than forgive somehow you must be able to live with such knowledge and be able to regain a positive position in your own heart and soul. Makes you wonder if the Devil is abroad for the actions to be so inhuman. Yet, man is not perfect. I admire those who can “carry on”. Much love, Gran

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