Historical Cultural Context
From the Heart
Last week we reflected on sin as an interpersonal offense, something that divides members of the Christian community. When the sinner refuses to admit the sin, he or she is thrown out of community. When the sinner admits the sin, the community’s forgiveness reinstates him or her to membership. Reconciliation (“forgiveness from the heart,”) presumes and is based upon forgiveness.
Today’s reading proposes two ideas. Central to each is how “members of the church” (see the NRSV translation) are to behave toward each other. The first idea in Jesus’ reply to Peter’s question is that disciples of Jesus must forgive one another always (“seventy times seven”), without limit. The second idea, found in the parable, is the communal dimension of forgiveness.
Let us take a closer look at the parable (Matt 18:23-35).
First-century Mediterranean peasants understood sin, that is, interpersonal transgressions, after the fashion of debts. That is what Jesus taught his followers to ask of God: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). For Westerners accustomed to a money-driven economy, debts almost always translate into “money owed.”
Since economics is our culture’s predominant institution, everything is viewed from an economic perspective. In drug arrests we hear not of people saved from potential addiction, but rather the dollar value of the drugs confiscated. In natural disasters we hear not so much of people’s misfortunes but rather the economic loss in terms of dollars.
Not so our peasant ancestors, for theirs was not a money-based economy. Their lives were based on interpersonal relationships even in what we would recognize as “economic” transactions. In such a culture, the purpose of haggling is not economic but interpersonal. That the potential buyer will make a purchase is a foregone conclusion. The buyer haggles and the seller willingly goes along because both are building an interpersonal relationship called friendship (see Genesis 18:22-33; James 2:23). Friends will be faithful: the seller will always set and the buyer will always get a good price.
But the king is sensitive to his honorable reputation. If he deals harshly with a servant of his own household, his subjects will judge him to be shameless, a man without honor. So the king decides to act in “mercy” and forgive the debt. He gains more honor by this decision than he would by insisting on receiving full payment of the debt.
In behavior that is both shocking and sad, the forgiven slave turns toward a fellow slave in the same household and refuses to forgive a much smaller debt. He refuses to imitate the merciful behavior of the king-patron. If he gets away with this strategy, the king will become a laughing stock. To protect his honor, the king-patron has no choice but to put this brazen slave in his proper place: jail!
The moral of Jesus’ story is that members of the community must treat one another as God has treated each of them. They must choose the more honorable path and forgive one another “from the heart.” Jesus’ instruction echoes Leviticus 19:17: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart … you shall love your neighbor [understood here as a fellow-Israelite, a member of your in-group] as yourself.” How well do Americans fare on forgiving or loving each other from the heart?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University