Last revised: September 16, 2017
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PROPER 19 (September 11-17) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 24
RCL: Ex. 14:19-31 or 15:1b-11, 20-21 or Gen. 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
RoCa: Sirach 27:30-28:7; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, has a section on Joseph and his brothers, pp. 54-60. On this particular passage, he has a good insight (p. 58) into the importance in Joseph’s response to his brothers of his beginning by denying his deity: “For am I in the place of God?” In the Girardian reading of sacred religion, the victim of the scapegoating is both demonized and divinized. Sure enough, in this story Joseph’s brothers end up falling on their knees to worship — as his dreams had predicted earlier! Instead of accepting such divinization — as he seemed to have done in his youth, when the dreams foresaw this eventuality — the mature Joseph points to God’s providence in being able to turn their evil act into their salvation.
2. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 8, “Rivalry or Reconciliation?” McLaren writes,
When his brothers groveled before him, as Joseph had dreamed they ‘would when he was a boy, and when they offered to be treated as slaves rather than brothers, Joseph didn’t gloat. He refused to play God, judge them evil, and sentence them to death or enslavement. Instead, he reinterpreted the Whole story of their relationship. Their evil intent had been overshadowed by God’s good intent, so that Joseph could save their lives. He had suffered and he had been blessed, he realized, for their benefit. So instead of imitating their resentful and violent example, he imitated the gracious heart of God. By refusing to play God in judging them, he imaged God in showing kindness to them.
In this way, Joseph — the victim of mistreatment by his brothers — became the hero. The one everyone cruelly rejected was the one whose kindness everyone needed. The one who was considered favored wasn’t made superior so others could grovel before him; he was made strong so he could serve them. (34)
3. René Girard, numerous places, since the Joseph saga is one of his favorite examples of the Gospel in the Hebrew Scriptures. A first place was Things Hidden, devoting a section to the Joseph saga, pages 149-54.
His closest reading of the Joseph saga comes in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, ch. 9, “The Uniqueness of the Bible,” where he compares and contrasts the Joseph saga with that of Sophocles’ Oedipus. He writes,
This final episode is a meditation on the kind of collective violence with which the biblical story is obsessed just as much as the myths, but the results are just the reverse. The final triumph of Joseph is, not an insignificant “happy ending,” but a means of making explicit the problem of violent expulsions. Without ever leaving its narrative framework the biblical account pursues a reflection on violence whose radicalism is revealed at the point where pardon replaces the obligatory vengeance. It is only this pardon, this forgiveness, that is capable of stopping once and for all the spiral of reprisals, which of course are sometimes interrupted by unanimous expulsions, but violently and only temporarily. The biblical account accuses the ten brothers of hating Joseph for no good reason and of envying him because of his intrinsic superiority and their father Jacob’s doting on him. The real cause of the expulsion is mimetic rivalry. (111-12)
But the greatest importance is how the Joseph saga participates in the revelation of collective violence as something that could be otherwise — namely, forgiveness. Myths do not question the lie of collective violence and offer an alternative.
In myths as in the biblical text the expulsions of individuals adjudged to be evildoers play a huge role. Both myth and biblical text agree on this point, but the myths are incapable of criticizing this role; they cannot question themselves about collective expulsion as such. The biblical account, on the other hand, attains this level of questioning and resolutely affirms the injustice of collective expulsion.
So the discovery of all the features common to the myth of Oedipus and the story of Joseph, the presence of the mimetic cycle in such texts, does not at all demonstrate the equivalence of these two texts. It allows us rather to dismiss the trifling and useless differences of contemporary postmodern “differentialism,” which can do nothing but multiply differences that lead further and further into absurdity. In avoiding this obsession with difference, we can concentrate on the essential divergence of what has to be called biblical truth from the lie of mythology.
This truth transcends the question of referentiality in the biblical account. That is, does it refer to real events outside the story or not? The essential truth of the Joseph story lies, not in its possible correspondence to facts outside the text, but in its critique of mythic expulsions. This critique is absolutely relevant given that these expulsions always have their source in mimetic contagion and thus are not the fruit of rational, impartial judgment.
Far from being minor, the divergence of the biblical account and the myth of Oedipus, or whatever other myth, is so great that no greater difference could exist. It’s the difference between a world where arbitrary violence triumphs without being recognized and a world where this same violence is identified, denounced, and finally forgiven. It’s the difference between truth and deception, both of them absolute. Either we succumb to the contagion of the mimetic snowballing effect and fall into the lie of victimization, with mythology, or we resist this contagion and rise into the truth of the innocent victim, with the Bible.
The story of Joseph is a refusal of the religious illusions of paganism. It discloses a universal human truth that is relative neither to the referentiality or nonreferentiality of the story nor to a system of beliefs nor to a historical period nor to language nor to cultural context. It is therefore absolute. (113-14)
The absoluteness of this difference is what is behind the scandal of the parable in today’s Gospel. It offers a world unimaginable in the everyday world of myth, the foundational of all human cultures.
As I have already suggested in I See Satan, in the Old Testament, the innocent victim appears for the first time. The victim is the only innocent person within a guilty community. Joseph is a scapegoat, but he is a rehabilitated scapegoat. That is why there is an aura of genuine humanity around Joseph, and a form of realism in the account of the biblical story which is absent in the Oedipus myth. The Bible brings the reader into a fully human world, in the real historical Egypt. In the story Joseph appears as the scapegoat of his brothers who are ‘jealous’ of him (Genesis 37.11). Then, in the Potiphar affair, the Egyptians imprison (i.e. scapegoat) Joseph, accusing him of adultery, but the text tells us once again that he is not guilty: it was Potiphar’s wife who wanted to make him her lover (Genesis 39.7). Joseph’s story consistently rehabilitates him in situations that in ancient texts like Oedipus are always resolved against the victim. In I See Satan I tried to list all the similarities between this myth and the biblical text in order to emphasize the differences.
It is not just the Oedipus myth that is contradicted by the Joseph narrative, but the very structure of myths themselves. The myth always asks the question, ‘Is he guilty?’ and provides the answer: ‘Yes.’ Jocasta and Laios are right to expel Oedipus, since he will commit parricide and incest. Yes, Thebes is right to do the same, since Oedipus has committed parricide and incest. The mythical narrative always confirms that the heroes are guilty. In the case of Joseph, everything works in reverse. The hero is wrongly accused. The question is the same, but the answer opens our eyes to an entirely different world. I think there is a fundamental opposition between biblical texts and myths. The truth of the biblical text isn’t a question of referentiality/non-referentiality. It doesn’t have to be referential to be true. It is true in so far as it is the denial of the myths, which are the source of the lie, since they always confirm the scapegoat mechanism, and in so doing cover it up. …
I think that the story of Joseph in particular is paradigmatic …: it is, for me, a rewriting of myth, a rewriting against the mythical spirit, because it features the mythical spirit as a source of deception and injustice.
In the Greek world there was also an increasing potential awareness of that problem, above all in the tragic poets. Sophocles suggests that many murderers killed Laios. This is a crucial passage usually overlooked by critics. Oedipus asks the question: ‘how could the many and one be the same thing?’ He doesn’t realize that he is defining the scapegoat principle. However, Sophocles is surely aware of it, and he is winking at us. Sophocles seems to guess this truth but he doesn’t say it as clearly as the Bible does. He cannot say it openly, because he writes for an audience that is totally immersed in a mythical framework, and wants the myth to always be told in the same way, as a ritualistic practice. If the tragic poet did away with the lynching of the victim, he himself would be ‘lynched.’
On the contrary, the biblical story changes the ending and tells the reader about it. The last episode proves that Joseph’s story is about scapegoating. Joseph welcomes his brothers. …
In relation to the biblical reversal of scapegoats and to Christianity, the story is astonishingly pertinent. The theme of forgiveness of scapegoating is there, prominent at the end of the story, undertaking a powerful rereading of mythical accounts, doing it in reverse, saving the victim rather than condemning him. (Remember that the cup is put on purpose in Benjamin’s bag, Benjamin being Joseph’s figura. At the crucial point of a mimetic crisis, when a victim is chosen to be scapegoated, false evidence is used in order to prove that the victim is actually guilty) I use this story as its conclusion demonstrates that the scapegoat interpretation is authentic. This is the eternal story of collective violence, which, instead of being recounted deceptively, as in mythology, is recounted truthfully, as it will be again in the Passion of Christ. That is why traditional Christianity sees in Joseph a figura Christi. It is anthropologically and scientifically true. (199-202)
4. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 243-46. Marr, in a chapter titled “Forgiveness: an Ongoing Process,” emphasizes that Joseph’s road to forgiving his brothers in Gen. 50 has not been an “easy forgiveness.” Joseph has gone through numerous stages over many years. And a crucial piece comes through an incident the first time the brothers find themselves before Joseph in Egypt. Joseph actually sets them up for revenge by planting a valuable cup on them as they leave. He plans to take Benjamin for them, and from his father, as punishment, but Judah offers himself. Marr writes,
Judah triggers Joseph’s forgiveness by offering himself as a slave to spare Benjamin that fate. His offer redirects the mimetic process among the brothers away from persecution to reconciliation. More fundamentally, Judah has entered the place of the victim by offering himself in place of Benjamin, who appeared to be the new designated victim at the time. (Judah had not reached this point during the earlier visit and did not offer to take the place of Simeon in prison.) Joseph is won over and he forgives his brothers, but not until he has worked through a great deal of anger on his own part. Maybe it was his intention to put his brothers to the test as a means of reconciliation. Maybe Joseph was only, or mostly, exacting revenge. As it turned out, Joseph himself was put to the test by Judah. Fortunately, Joseph had the grace to give up his control of the situation, which had finally slipped out of his fingers, and cry on the necks of h is brothers. (246)
5. Brian Zahnd, Radical Forgiveness; the Joseph story is featured in Ch. 4, “No Future Without Forgiveness,” a chapter where he pairs the Joseph story with that of Nelson Mandela:
Injustices still occur, and occasionally great souls still rise up to lead people out of the dead end of retaliation into a future only reconciliation can create. The story of a prisoner who becomes president and gives his people a future based on forgiveness is the story of the Hebrew patriarch Joseph. It’s also the story of Nelson Mandela. (77)
Such visionary leaders of Truth and Reconciliation are the key to the future, as the Joseph story makes clear:
The world of paybacks and reciprocal revenge is a world where the strong intimidate the weak and where fear is both a means of manipulating your enemy and the specter that haunts your own dark dreams. In the world of paybacks, the first order of business when gaining power is to exact revenge upon your enemies — to make them pay. … The testimony of the wars and atrocities perpetrated under this system are what we blithely call “world history.”
In the system of paybacks, Joseph and his brothers (the redemptive seed of Abraham!) will be stuck in a family feud of recycled revenge. Time will roll on, but nothing will change. There will be nothing new under the sun. Unless. Unless forgiveness can break the cycle and give them a future. Here is where we see just how essential forgiveness is to God’s program of redemption, for without forgiveness the seed of Abraham has no future, just endless repetitions of the painful past. Without forgiveness, the seed of Abraham will never arrive at its redemptive destiny. But Joseph is smarter than that. Joseph is better than that. Joseph is more Christlike than that. Joseph did not go from a prisoner to a prince only to be imprisoned by the dead-end cycle of revenge. So, to his brothers who are full of fear and expecting a retaliatory payback, Joseph says, “Don’t be afraid of me. Am I God, that I can punish you? You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good.”
These words come at the close of Genesis. It is only because Joseph chose to forgive that the Bible has a future. Only because Joseph chose to absorb the injustice, forgive his brothers, and move forward by trusting God can God’s project of redemption through the seed of Abraham move forward. Without forgiveness, the Bible doesn’t get past Genesis. Without forgiveness there really is no future! (74-75)
Reflections and Questions
1. The story of the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers is one of my favorites. Joseph’s words at the end are another one of those gospels-in-a-nutshell: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” When we are tempted to assign everything to God’s will, these words from Joseph clearly distinguish between human and divine responsibility. The harm done was a human responsibility, the good that came out of it was God’s doing.
2. The Joseph story clearly prefigures the Exodus story. God takes the human evil of being sold into slavery and somehow allows good to come out of it. But the good that comes out of it differs: Joseph’s liberation from slavery and subsequent forgiveness of his brothers leads to reconciliation. God’s liberation from the Hebrew slavery in Egypt ends in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and his destruction. There is not the ultimate reconciliation of siblings that had its beginnings in Joseph’s high status as an Egyptian. And so the mission of Israel remained unfulfilled until that time when all nations are one under God, a mission which Jesus fulfills by offering himself to the self-condemnation of those whose hearts are hardened (which is all of us, to some extent). See the piece from Schwager under the gospel lesson.
1. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, pp. 143-157. McLaren (whose next book will have a significant Girardian component) suggests a theme for making a unified reading of Romans that I think works well — namely, Jews and Gentiles being able to live together in Christ, who is “the firstborn within a large family” (Rom. 8:29). See the citation on this book in Proper 4A for a more complete description of the theme and McLaren’s Seven Move outline for Romans. This passage comes within his Seventh Move: Call everyone to unity in the kingdom of God (Rom. 14:1-16:27), of which he writes:
Having emphasized the importance of love, Paul gets down to grassroots contemporary issues that put love to the test and that can easily alienate and divide Jews and Gentiles dietary scruples, holy-day practices, and so on. Pauls message is not new or unique; its exactly the message of Jesus. Dont judge one another. On these controversial matters, he says, individuals should do two things: first, be convinced in their own mind, and second, keep their convictions to themselves. What they do regarding disputable matters is important, because it expresses their devotion to the Lord. But what they do is not relevant to what others do as their expression of devotion to the Lord. The kingdom of God (Paul mentions it explicitly now) will not be a community of uniform policies and practices. Only one policy will be universal: love. (pp. 155)
2. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Nothing will ever be quite same in Pauline scholarship for those who take seriously Campbell’s dismantling of justification, and his arguing that Paul’s language of justification was a secondary way of speaking for Paul when in debate with a version of Christianity that is conditional in its grace. And because we misread Romans 1-4, according to Campbell, Protestantism has often lapsed into the conditional grace that Paul is trying to undo. Paul’s primary language of unconditional grace is a language of deliverance elaborated in Romans 5-8. This is now the definitive book, in my opinion, that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. See my “Customer Review” on the Amazon.com page. The most controversial thesis involves his contention that Paul used the Roman rhetorical convention of Diatribe, meaning that it contains Paul voicing his opponent’s views within the text of Romans which we thus need to sort from Paul’s own views. In short, for twenty centuries after Paul delivered this letter to the Roman church, training the carrier to read it properly in two voices, subsequent generations have read two opposing views in the text all as Paul’s view only. I find this thesis compelling and vitally important; here is my own explanation and plotting of the opposing views in a translation of Romans 1:1-4:3.
3. N. T. Wright is another important resource to consult for Romans. See, first of all, his commentaries: The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10; and his Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Romans 1-8) and Part 2 (Romans 9-16). See also The Resurrection of the Son of God, ch. 5, Resurrection in Paul (Outside the Corinthian Correspondence),” sec. 7 on Romans; and Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. His ‘big book’ on Paul in his Fortress Press series “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” was published in 2013, Paul and the Faithfulness of God; the most sustained section on Romans 5-8 are pages 1007-1026. Wright’s more recent book on theology of the cross, The Day the Revolution Began, devotes more space to Romans than any other book of the New Testament, chapters 12-13; see also my review of this book, “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry.”
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 15, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
Reflections and Questions
1. This is a more specific instance of Paul’s strategy in the second part of chapter one into chapter two. It can be summarized by Jesus’ words: Judge not lest you be judged (Matt. 7:1, which also appear in the comments from Schwager on the gospel).
2. We often read verses 7-9 at funerals. But if we read them in the context of this passage, so poignantly about judging each other, I think that the dying and living are more inclusive than literal, physical life and death. In the Schwager comments below there is talk of a kind of doubling of hell we make for ourselves when we take it upon ourselves to judge others. But the end to which Jesus died and lived again is so that we might be embraced by his love no matter how much we double our own hells. What ultimately matters is not what we do, whether living or dying, but what Christ has done for us.
1. The this is the first of four consecutive major parables in Matthew that begin with a double designation to introduce the main character:
- 18:23: anthrōpō basilei — “a man, a king” — Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (18:23-35)
- 20:1: anthrōpō oikodespotē — “a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Generous Vineyard Owner (20:1-16)
- 21:33: anthrōpos ēn oikodespotēs — “There was a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-46)
- 22:2: anthrōpō basilei — “a man, a king” — Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding (22:1-14)
Some commentators say that the use of anthropos before “king” or “housemaster” is a typical Aramaism. But what if Matthew is trying to tell us something? Very often in history an allegorical interpretation is applied to these parables in which this main character is interpreted as God. But what if Matthew is using the double designation to make sure we don’t do that? That this householder should simply be seen as a man and not as God? This would be most crucial for the fourth of these parables where the king is downright brutal and vicious (see Proper 23A). I have come to frame Matthew’s Gospel as a encounter between God’s kingdom, the “kingdom of heaven,” and human kingdoms. See my essay
2. “Handed him over” in v. 34 is paradidomi is the word used by Jesus throughout the Gospels to describe his betrayal, his being handed over into the hands of those who will kill him. After briefly stepping into the master’s debt-free world, the unforgiving servant steps back into the world where debts are kept by holding onto the debt of his fellow servant, and so suffers the consequences.
1. David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospel; pp. 110-127 provide a close reading of Matthew 17:22-18:35. Matthew 18:21-25 is dealt with specifically in the section “The Unforgiving Slave,” pp. 123-127.
McCracken chooses as the theme of this passage the phrase in 18:3, “change and become like children”: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4). McCracken writes,
Jesus is like the one who deserves a millstone around the neck in that he, too, brings offenses, but he differs importantly in that his offenses are necessary in order for a person to turn toward faith. Jesus’s offenses are made offensive not by Jesus but by the stumbler. The stumbler’s fall will come about, in the presence of an offense, because of what he thinks of it, or what it seems to be to her, or how the reader reads. It is not in this passage a matter of knowledge or teaching or doctrine but of transformation: to “change and become.” Changing-and-becoming is not the assimilation of doctrine in this passage; it is nothing less than entering life. (117)
There is a juxtaposing of offenses. The standard scandals or stumbling blocks of the world are elaborated by MT as deriving out of relationships that devolve out of the perceptions normal to mimetic desire. It is a world in which envy as a form of debt-keeping cannot comprehend a world of grace.
Thus, the scandal that Jesus places in our path is the invitation to virtually step out of that world of debt-keeping and into a world of grace, an invitation to change and become like children. Blessed are those who are not scandalized by the gracious world that Jesus embodies, enacts, and makes possible for others.
This parable is the perfect ending to this passage as a story that invites the listener into the world of grace:
This parable offers an enactment of changing and becoming in one relatively laconic sentence: “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (18:27). (124)
And so all disciples of Jesus are invited to respond:
What the disciples enact on earth is life or death, whatever else the kingdom of heaven or Gehenna also may be. If they forgive from the heart, they are binding in heaven and on earth; if they receive a child like the one in their midst, they receive the son of the heavenly Father; if they scandalize little ones, they are worse than if they had been drowned with a millstone around the neck. They may choose to enter life, as the king did, or not. Degrees, methods, and numbers are irrelevant; an action, changing and becoming, is required.
Through the king, the parable offers an enactment of a changing and becoming. . . . (126)
Here we can see the importance of emphasizing the king as a person, and not a stand-in for God (see the first Exegetical Note above). If a king can enact such a world of grace, then certainly the disciple of Jesus can.
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, cited on p. 92:
This means something rather important: that there is no story at all of our participation in creation, according to the flexible paradigm of the heavenly story, which is not what is usually called a story of conversion. By a story of conversion I don’t mean one of those accounts of how I was bound by this or that vice, had an overpowering experience, and have now managed to leave it all behind me – though such changes are by no means to be belittled when they happen. However, they are incidents, and not stories. Someone can give up doing something held a vice only to turn into a persecutor of those who lack his same moral fibre. That is not a Christian conversion. The authentic convert always writes a story of his or her discovery of mercy, which means that they learn to create mercy, and not despite, for others. This rule of grammar we find set out in the parable of the servant who was let off all he owed by the King his creditor, but who didn’t forgive the tiny debt his colleague had with him (Matt. 18:23-34).
3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation; the section entitled “Doubling of Sin and Hell” (excerpt, pp. 63-69) is alone worth the price of this book — and this book is really worth it! This section is a prime example of one of Schwager’s main theses: despite the significant gains of the various biblical criticisms, the loss of meaning that occurs by analyzing passages out of their context has been significant. The most troubling aspect of Matthew is his many conclusions that seem so harsh, the “great weeping and gnashing of teeth,” for example. This passage presents us with another: “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.” But the problematic nature of such passages to biblical criticism is due in part to their being taken out of context.
Schwager interprets the gospel texts in the context of a five act drama about salvation in Jesus. His interpretation of such harsh texts comes within the “Second Act: The Rejection of the Kingdom of God and Judgment.” In a very real way, this parable of the unforgiving servant mirrors the drama that Schwager outlines for the reader. Act One involves Jesus’ mission of announcing the coming of God’s Kingdom, a kingdom that reverses the usual order of human kingdoms when it comes to things like debts. God begins by forgiving our debts unconditionally so that we might live in a new world of freedom: “In his basileia message, salvation and penance seem to have exchanged places” (p. 38; see also p. 55). The master in the parable of the unforgiving servant parallels the first act in the Jesus Drama, i.e., announcement of unconditional forgiveness.
But now what happens when people reject the offer of such a new world? In the Second Act of the Jesus Drama, many people, primarily the Jewish leaders who benefitted the most from the existing order, did in fact reject Jesus’ offer. Many of Jesus’ sayings, then, begin to reflect the consequences of such decisions. Schwager writes:
Whereas the preaching of the prophets contains an alternative (‘if you repent, you will find grace; if not, the judgment will be upon you’), the message of Jesus initially disregards the readiness to repent or the hard heartedness of the sinner and consequently at this level excludes the alternative ‘of rejection for not repenting.’ Preceding, and at first independent of, the actual human decision, it offers to oppressed humankind the pure mercy of God. If, nevertheless, it is a call to decision…, then the pure offer of grace must be clearly distinguished from an arbitrary offer. It does not presuppose conversion, but wants to awaken it, and where the offer of pure grace is rejected a person falls prey to all the consequences of his or her own decision. With Jesus, grace and judgment are not two alternative possibilities within one single appeal; the predominance of grace is shown by the fact that the offer of grace takes place in advance of human choice. The problematic of judgment, on the contrary, emerges from the other side, from the human decision actually made. In the framework of the message of Jesus, the judgment sayings can therefore be taken seriously — without any weakening of the salvation sayings — only if they are related to a second situation of proclamation, which is distinguished from the first by the human rejection of the offer of salvation that is given without prerequisites. The two situations are … opposed to each other not as offer and refusal of the offer. The transition to the second situation is not made by Jesus, but it results from the reaction of his hearers. Jesus only makes clear the theological consequences of their decision. (pp. 55-56)
What are the consequences? Essentially it can mean the doubling of the hell one already lives in, though the one who rejects this message fails to see him or herself as living in a such a hellish world, or the offer to live in a new one wouldn’t be rejected. We don’t fully realize the hell of living in a world that operates by judgment and by strict repayment of debts. Jesus tries to make this clear to his hearers even at the start in the Sermon on the Mount: “Judge not that you be not judged! For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt. 7:1-2). Isn’t this also the point of the Parable of the Talents? The servants who judge their master to be generous invest his money and are judged by a generous measure. The servant who judges his master to be harsh and buries the money is judged harshly according to his own measure.
Thus, Schwager’s summary of the parables of Jesus moves into his interpretation of the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matt. 18. The Parable of the Talents in Matthew ends: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matthew 25:29). Schwager makes it clear that the story is not about the rich and poor in a monetary sense and continues:
***** Excerpt from Schwager’s Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 65-66 *****
The understanding we have achieved concerning the haves and the have-nots leads us back to Jesus’ speech about the parables which is introduced and justified by the saying in question (Matthew 13:12 [“For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away”] and parallels; see also Mark 4:250. The parables therefore set in motion a double process. Whoever sees becomes through them even more seeing; and whoever is blind becomes obdurate through them. The parables attempt to open up a new vision of those everyday things which are in themselves recognizable to everyone, but which not all see. Jesus made his teaching clear from everyday experience also in other connections. He justified the love of one’s enemy from an experience which is accessible to everyone, but from which normally no lessons are drawn, or quite different ones: “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45 ). Looking at the sun and the rain could teach people something crucial, as also looking at the birds of the sky, which do not sow, and at the lilies of the field, which do not work (Matt. 6:26, 28). From the experience of how God cares for them, people ought to learn to let go of their own cares and trust the heavenly Father. Similarly with the experience of the sower, the weeds among the wheat, the mustard seed, the leaven, the buried treasure, the pearl of great value, and the fish net thrown out into the sea (Matt. 13:1-53). All these experiences of everyday life can, when they are read correctly, give witness to the kindly Father, his proximate coming and dealings with people. Even if the new community in the kingdom of God contrasts completely with the old laws of the human world, it is however not something unrealistic. It only needs a new look to see signs of it everywhere in our everyday world. If people defend themselves against this new vision of reality, if they remain in their old positions of fear and self-defense, then they necessarily defend themselves also against what Jesus brings. Thus they lock themselves even more into their old world and give themselves up to a process of judgment, which runs according to self-chosen and stubbornly defended norms. Hence the parables lead those who hear them, and yet do not hear, into a process of self-induced hardening of heart (Mark 4:10-12 and parallels).The connection sketched out between the goodness of God in his dawning kingdom and the harsh words of judgment is confirmed in an impressive manner by the parable of the unforgiving servant. The master in this parable sets at the outset no condition for his servant, to whom he remits a gigantic debt without any return deed, and links with his action only the expectation that the fortunate man in turn treat his fellow servants in accordance with the experience that was granted to him. But this expectation is not fulfilled, and the servant, who had to pay nothing back, clings slavishly in his dealings with his fellow servant to the old norm of payment and repayment, so he is called back and made to explain himself: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33). The debt already remitted to him is now counted against him again. The master, who at the beginning of the story was pure goodness, behaves after the servant’s refusal precisely according to the norm which the servant – despite his experience of generosity – applied in his treatment of his fellow servant. As the servant had his fellow servant thrown into prison, “till he should pay his debt,” so the master gives him over to the torturers “till he should pay all his debt” (Matt. 18:30,34). Jesus concludes the parable with the clear application: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
***** End of Schwager excerpt *****
The brilliance of Schwager’s wholistic, dramatic interpretation of the gospels comes through at this point, because the ending of this parable is not the ending of the Jesus Drama. Yes, there are real consequences to our human decisions to reject God’s unconditional offer of salvation. But even the hellish consequences of that rejection do not have the ultimate word, which comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus, Acts Three and Four in the Jesus Drama. Jesus’ proclamation of an unconditional divine mercy is lived out on the cross and shown to be a love that even offers itself to enemies, to those who reject him. And so the Heavenly Father’s ultimate judgment is manifested in the resurrection. One last quote from Schwager:
Further, we must consider that Jesus, faced with a violent death, gave himself completely for the opponents of God’s kingdom, who had closed themselves off. In the resurrection brought about by the Father it is consequently not enough to see merely a verdict for his Son and against those who opposed him. Certainly, this view is correct, as Jesus’ opponents are convicted as sinners. But the verdict of the Heavenly Father is above all a decision for the Son who gave himself up to death for his opponents. It is therefore, when considered more deeply, also a verdict in favor of sinners. The opponents of the kingdom of God, closing themselves off, had the way to salvation once more opened for them by the Son, who allowed himself to be drawn into their darkness and distance from God. Although they already had turned their backs, as far as they were concerned, the self-giving of the Son got around this hardening of hearts once more, insofar as he allowed himself to be made the victim of their self-condemnation. (p. 135)
4. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 118-20. He writes,
The point of the parable is clear enough: If you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven. But there is a small hitch here. The “forgiving” master suddenly becomes unforgiving, suggesting that the forgiving Abba in Heaven is not forgiving either, at least for this offense. Not forgiving is the unforgivable sin. Or so it seems.
The unforgiving servant is handed over to be tortured until he has paid his entire debt. The servant had been invited to a new way of living based on forgiveness but he rejected it. Living without forgiveness, which is tantamount to living by vengeance, is torture. It isn’t God who is unforgiving; it is the servant. Clinging to vengeance in the face of God’s forgiveness tortures us with our vengeance for as long as we are imprisoned by it. (119)
6. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote a series of essays on forgiveness in 2014 that twice included this passage: “The Sin against the Holy Spirit” and “Receiving Forgiveness.”
7. Brian Zahnd, Radical Forgiveness, offers a close reading of this parable, pp. 59-63. Interestingly, he highlights an element of this parable that challenges to logic of substitutionary atonement theology, which is still trapped in transactional thinking. Of the master pardoning the debt of his servant, he writes,
This is not a cheap pardon. There is real loss. In Jesus’s parable, the master was willing to lose the unimaginable amount of ten thousand talents in order to pardon and keep the servant a free man. The master in effect said, “I will suffer the loss, I will bear the pain, in order that you can remain a free man in the human community.” But his loss was substantial. And lest this be misunderstood as the offer of cheap grace, we must be reminded that at the center of God’s offer of pardon stands the cross of Christ.
But let’s understand the cross of Christ correctly. The cross of Christ is less the payment of a debt than it is the absorption of injustice. In the parable, the master is not repaid; he simply absorbs the loss. It is only through absorbing the pain of his loss that he is able to offer pardon to the debtor. Indeed, the forgiveness of great wrongs is never cheap but always painful, because someone must bear the loss. But when the pardoned servant imprisoned his fellow servant because he was unable to pay, he exited the world of grace and reentered the world of retribution where every penny has to be accounted for and every debtor must pay or be punished. In his lust for payback, he had broken the law of reciprocal grace set forth in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ In reverting to the dichotomy of payback or punishment, he had cast himself back into the torturous world of recycled revenge. (61)
Reflections and Questions
1. The Girardian reading of this parable takes seriously the notion of self-condemnation. Another way to put it is that the unforgiving servant had a choice to live in the world of forgiveness and then turned down the offer when he refused to forgive the debt against him. Link here for a 1996 sermon entitled “Choosing to live in the World of Forgiveness.”
2. In 2002, these lessons appear the week that we observe the first anniversary of September 11. Is it a cruel joke that we have to contend with the most radical passage on forgiveness the same week that we remember the despicable deeds of destroying the World Trade Center and a portion of the Pentagon? Keeping in mind the First Lesson, are there ways in which God can turn such a horrific act of sacrifice into our salvation? Can we trust in the cross enough to look for ways in which God can turn our evil to good?
3. President Bush is talking a lot about “justice during this week of remembrance. And I happen to be re-reading Girard’s Violence and the Sacred. In the first chapter, he compares and contrasts ancient institutions of ritual sacrifice with modern judicial systems. He says, for example:
If our own system seems more rational, it is because it conforms more strictly to the principle of vengeance. Its insistence on the punishment of the guilty party underlines this fact. Instead of following the example of religion and attempting to forestall acts of revenge, to mitigate or sabotage its effects or to redirect them to secondary objects, our judicial system rationalizes revenge and succeeds in limiting and isolating its effects in accordance with social demands. The system treats the disease without fear of contagion and provides a highly effective technique for the cure and, as a secondary effect, the prevention of violence. This rationalistic approach to vengeance might seem to stem from a peculiarly intimate relationship between the community and the judicial system. In fact, it is the result not of any familiar interchange between the two, but of the recognition of the sovereigns and independence of the judiciary, whose decisions no group, not even the collectivity as a body, can challenge. (At least, that is the principle.) The judicial authority is beholden to no one. It is thus at the disposal of everyone, and it is universally respected. The judicial system never hesitates to confront violence head on, because it possesses a monopoly on the means of revenge. Thanks to this monopoly, the system generally succeeds in stifling the impulse to vengeance rather than spreading or aggravating it, as a similar intervention on the part of the aggrieved party would invariably do.
In the final analysis, then, the judicial system and the institution of sacrifice share the same function, but the judicial system is infinitely more effective. However, it can only exist in conjunction with a firmly established political power. And like all modern technological advances, it is a two-edged sword, which can be used to oppress as well as to liberate. Certainly that is the way it is seen by primitive cultures, whose view on the matter is indubitably more objective than our own. (pp. 22-23)
From within our own cultures — Christian, secular, Islamic, etc. — our own efforts at vengeance seem to be justice while the other’s appears as hideous revenge.
Girard also talks about an intermediary third option to sacrifice and judicial systems: “the harnessing and hobbling of vengeance by means of compensatory measures, trial by combat, etc., whose curative effects remain precarious” (p. 21). Where does modern warfare fit in here? Isn’t it this intermediary option between sacrificial and judicial? There is not a world court to settle matters judicially between two judicial societies. Lacking the effectiveness of the other two options, is this why modern warfare tends to spin so out-of-control?
4. If the U.S. wants to see what its war efforts against terrorism really look like, can we dare to look at the situation in Israel? Are the military responses by Israeli to the suicide bombers leading toward peace, or simply creating more suicide bombers, a situation of vengeance spiraling out of control?
5. Two weeks ago (2002) I promised in the sermon “The Re-Formation of Faith” that I would consider the matter of hell this week. In terms of the two-world approach mentioned above, God is offering the debt-free world of forgiveness as an alternative to our debt-keeping worlds. Does this amount to offering us God’s heaven to live in as opposed to our hell? When the Israelis and Americans respond to terrorism with our own reigns of violence, are we choosing hell over heaven?
6. What would it look like to begin to step into the world of forgiveness whilst the debt-keeping hells we live in continue to rage about us? In our current context, I think it might look something like this:
Nurit Elhanan and her husband, Rami, both 52, are campaigning for an end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. What’s remarkable about their peace campaign? The Elhanans are affluent Israelis whose daughter Smadar, 14, was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. “The pain of losing our beautiful daughter is unbearable, but our house is not a house of hate,” says Rami, whose father survived Auschwitz and who lost many family members in the Holocaust. In their grief the Elhanans began looking for people like them — from the other side. They met Izzat Ghazzawi, a Palestinian whose son Ramy, 16, was killed by Israeli troops. Together they founded the Bereaved Family Forum, which now has more than 150 Israeli parents and 120 Palestinian parents who have lost their children as a direct result of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and who are committed to working together for peace. (“Death Shall Have No Dominion,” Sojourners, Sept-Oct 2002, p. 12)
7. I also had a funeral on the morning of September 11, 2002, and used 1 Cor. 15:51-58 as the text, with the theme, to borrow the above title, “Death Shall Have No Dominion.” Despite its other-worldly theme of having our earthly bodies transformed into our spiritual bodies, the bottom-line of 1 Cor. 15 is very this-worldly:
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:56-58)
In Romans 6:23, Paul uses a monetary image that is more in keeping with this parable of the Unforgiving Servant: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In other words, the bottom-line of our debt-keeping worlds is death, while the gift of God’s debt-releasing world is life. The kind of response made by the Elhanans in the above Sojourners article “Death Shall Have no Dominion” seems completely naïve to the perspectives of our debt-keeping worlds, since death has reign there. The typical response to such “pacificism” is, ‘You’re just going to get yourself killed, and lots of others with you. You’ve got to protect yourself from such evil.’ But isn’t this to continue to let death have dominion over you? Does the Elhanans’ choice still seem naïve if one has begun to live in a world where death no longer has dominion?
8. The Book of Revelation is so often used by Christians to support the traditional view of hell, that in the end God will vanquish all the bad people with a divine violence and send them into eternal punishment. I’m not at all sure about that interpretation. I think there are many clues to being able to read it in keeping with the view here that hell is descending into the violence of the Satanic powers that currently rule humanity. It is the Satanic powers of violence collapsing in on themselves, not a vanquishing divine power of violence.
In any case, I don’t believe that is why the Book of Revelation was written. The primary purpose was to give hope to those who still suffer the hells of human violence. The terrorists who flew the planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon died in a fiery hell violence of their own making. But they took many innocent people with them! I believe that the book of Revelation was written to give comfort to those innocent folks, and their loved ones, who still suffer the fiery hells of human violence. They are the white robed martyrs of Revelation 7:
Then [the elder] said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:14b-17)
It is this hope of God’s ultimate victory — but not a violent one! — over sin and death which can give us a faith for which death shall no longer have dominion over us.
9. Does the this-worldly interpretation of heaven and hell offered here give a more graceful twist to the notion of purgatory, too? Purgatory can be seen as that in-between place we sometimes live in, wanting to step into the mercy of God’s debt-free world, but also holding onto some hurts that are difficult to forgive. Some hurts run so deep that we cannot always find it possible to forgive right away — perhaps not at all in this life. We live in a gracious purgatory of time allowed for being able to forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven.
The terrorist bombings give an example of horrifying acts that are difficult to forgive. One needs time to let go of such hurts. Is purgatory that gracious time we need?
10. The other passage which is important for wrongs of such magnitude is the word of Jesus from the cross that asks for forgiveness for those who kill him. Notice he doesn’t say, “I forgive you.” He asks his Father to forgive them. When we aren’t ready to forgive those who are hurting us, can we at least begin by asking God to forgive them? Is that a helpful first step?
11. The 2002 sermon weaving these themes together, on the first anniversary of the terrorist act of September 11, is entitled “The Parable of the Servant Who Chooses Hell.”
12. In 2008 our parish was studying Brian McLaren‘s A New Kind of Christian and talking about the enormity of change in the church’s ministry and message under the pressure of the wider cultural change from modern to postmodern. The sermon on this passage began with The Wizard of Oz scene where Dorothy opens the door into Oz, a change from black-and-white to technicolor. This parable presents a similar level of change: living in the world of debt-keeping or stepping into the entirely new world of grace — resulting in the sermon, “Immigrating to a World of Grace.”
13. The parable of the unforgiving servant might not take us to the end of Jesus Drama, but the story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers does. We remarked that the Exodus story does not come as fully to the good ending that the Joseph story does. There is not yet the reconciliation between nations, between all the siblings, all the sons and daughters of God. That ending, by the way, is Schwager’s final and “Fifth Act: The Holy Spirit and the New Gathering” (pp. 142ff.).