Robert Capon – Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

This week we are discussing the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35) and the Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-10). Please read chapter 5 “Death, Resurrection, and Forgiveness” and chapter 8 “Grace More Than Judgment” of Rev. Robert F. Capon’s book  Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Fr. Kimel’s teaching on the chapter is here.

The Context:

In Matthew’s gospel, immediately after Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus begins his teaching on forgiveness. These two teachings are very similar. The shepherd must forgive the sheep to reconcile it back into the flock, and in the teachings on forgiveness, Jesus is trying to teach his disciples (and us) that just as God forgives his lost sheep, in the same way, we must forgive others – without condition, without repentance, and without a promise of reform. (We have previously discussed this issue in our study of Kierkegaard, Sermon on the Mount, and Jonah.) Capon is adamant that we must read all of Matthew 18 to appreciate and fully understand the parable. Capon also wants us to remember that, as we saw in the Parable of the Weeds, forgiveness, permission, and remission are the same word.

Conditional Forgiveness:

Jesus starts his teaching with three-step program of forgiveness – ask the sinner directly for repentance, take a few others with you to ask for his repentance, take the whole assembly with you to ask for his repentance, and if he does not repent make him as “Gentile and tax collector.” Matt. 18:15-20. Capon says that Jesus is being intentionally ironic in this teaching. p.192. The first irony of this program is that one of the primary criticisms leveled at Jesus is that he socializes with Gentiles and tax collectors! Cf., Matt. 9:11. In other words, if the sinner does not repent, let him be as a lost sheep to you.

The second irony in this teaching is that Jesus limits the chances given to a sinner to three. Jesus knows that coming to an understanding on your own is more lasting than simply being told something. This is what Jesus does with Peter and the other disciples. Capon offers the following alternative reading (with white as Jesus and black as his disciples):

White: “… so the shepherd seeks the lost sheep unconditionally.”

Black: “You don’t really mean that as practical advice, do you?”

White: “Okay, so I’ll make it practical. Forget the first story. The shepherd in the new parable gives the stupid sheep three chances to get found; then he gives up on it.”

Black: “Hey, maybe that’s a little tougher than you meant to be. How about, he gives it seven chances?”

White: “Aha! Gotcha! How about seventy times seven? And how about checkmate? You thought I didn’t really mean unconditionally, huh?” p.193.

The teaching of conditional forgiveness is simply a set-up.

Binding and Loosing:

The irony of this teaching on limited forgiveness is bundled up in Jesus’ statement that whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Matt. 18:18. In other words, if you go around binding your brother’s sins on him, if you insist that beyond three months or three thousand miles of sinning his warranty of forgiveness will run out – if, in short, you treat him like an outcast instead of joining him in his lostness as I have joined Gentiles and tax collectors in theirs – then the deadly rule of unforgiveness will be all you have, here or hereafter. But if you loose his sins, if you move toward him in unconditional, unlimited forgiveness, then the life-giving rule of grace will prevail, both now on earth and forever in heaven. p.194. Binding the sin to the sinner not only binds the sinner but binds us as well; and loosening or forgiving the sin of the sinner not only loosens the sinner but loosens us as well.

The Parable:

Jesus’ teaching that begins with the foretelling of his death and resurrection and continues through his teachings on our humility and God’s prodigal grace reaches its climax in this parable on our forgiveness:

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents (sixty million denarii); and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.

But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, 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 servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. Matt. 18:23-35.

Mathematics of Forgiveness:

In the parable, the servant owes the king 10,000 talents which equals about 60,000,000 denarii. The servant has no means to pay the debt back and so the king orders the servants’ estate liquidated and he and his family sold off into debt slavery. There is nothing unjust about the king’s order. The servant took out the debt, could not pay it back, and was well aware of the consequences of non-repayment. This is an everyday business transaction. It’s the just rule.

The servant goes to the king and asks for a grace period in which to begin repayment of the debt. The servant simply asks for patience and more time. The servant knows that he has no way out except to rely on the grace of the king for more time to pay back his debt. The servant does not ask to be relieved of his debt but is simply given an extension of time.

Death of Mathematics:

To everyone’s surprise, the king not only gives the servant more time to repay the debt, the king completely cancels the debt. (Once more, the hero of the story commits malpractice, in this case, financial malpractice.) Jesus says the king has “pity on him.” The king does not make a mathematical calculation of profit and loss, but simply forgives out of pity. The king’s reaction, Capon says, is left-handed power. p.196. Forgiveness for forgiveness’ sake for the servant’s condition. The most important principle, as Capon writes, is that the servant has to do nothing more than ask for grace to get grace It is not that he earns it by extravagantly promising to repay everything at some future date. It is simply that the king cancels the debt for reasons entirely internal to himself. For the cancellation of the debt, the king asks for nothing in return.

In this forgiveness, the king dies. He ignores the manifest nonsense about repayment. . .  The king dies to the life he had when the story began: he goes out of the debt-collecting business altogether. p.197. The king puts to death the mathematics of sin and forgiveness. The entire question of what must we do to be forgiven gets crucified. The entire question of what offering must we make, what penance we must endure, or even what type of life must we live in order to obtain God’s forgiveness becomes nonsensical. God’s system of blessing those who obey and cursing those who rebel dies on the cross.

But . . . .:

The parable does not end with the king’s forgiveness.  The servant is now faced with the exact same scenario but now he is the creditor. But the debt owed to him is only 100 denarii, not 60 million. The debtor makes the same plea to the previously forgiven servant, but the servant refuses to end his life as a good bookkeeper. With deathless logic, he puts the arm on his fellow servant. And hence he misses the whole new life he might have lived out of death. p.198. The king hears about the servant’s inability to forgive as he has been forgiven, and he orders the servant to be bound and delivered into slavery. The servant’s inability to give grace prevents the servant from receiving grace. But, of course, Jesus has already made this point once before at the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer. Matt. 6:14-15.

Is Grace Conditional?:

The conclusion of the parable, and of the entirety of Jesus’s teaching throughout all of Matthew 18, is more descriptive than prescriptive. God’s grace and forgiveness is never withdrawn, rather it is (temporarily?) blocked. If we refuse to die – and in particular, if we insist on binding others’ debts upon them in the name of our own right to life – we will, by not letting grace have its way through us, cut ourselves off from ever knowing the joy of grace in us. p.199. The conclusion to the parable describes a life lived without grace and forgiveness. Unless we too forgive seventy times seven we remain dead in our sins. As Capon writes:

In heaven there are only forgiven sinners. . . . In hell there are only forgiven sinners. . . . The sole difference, therefore, between hell and heaven is that in heaven the forgiveness is accepted and passed along while in hell it is rejected and blocked. In heaven, the death of the king is welcomed and becomes the doorway to new life in the resurrection. In hell, the old life of the bookkeeping world is insisted on and becomes, forever, the pointless torture it always was.

There is only one unpardonable sin, and that is to withhold pardon from others. The only thing that can keep us out of the JOY of the resurrection is to join the unforgiving servant in his refusal to die. pp.199-200.

Dinner is at 6:00. The menu is Moroccan chicken. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here!

Forgiveness is forgiveness; your forgiveness is your forgiveness; your forgiveness of another is your own forgiveness; the forgiveness which you give you receive. . . It is only an illusion to imagine that one himself has forgiveness, although one is slack in forgiving others. . . . It is also conceit to believe in one’s own forgiveness when one will not forgive, for how in truth should one believe in forgiveness if his own life is a refutation of the existence of forgiveness. . . . For the judgment that you seek against another is the same judgment that you will receive.

Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, p.348

2 thoughts on “Robert Capon – Parable of the Unforgiving Servant”

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