This Sunday’s Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary (Matthew 18:21-25) is a good example of why a critical reading of the text is so important. It is a reminder that we are not reading an infallible text. The biblical writers could be just as biased, prejudiced, judgmental and petty as we are. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to read the biblical text, not just spiritually and devotionally, but also critically and historically.
It is extremely unfortunate that most lay Christians are not taught how to read a text critically or why it’s even important. In this regard many clergy have failed their congregations. Of course, some clergy have never been taught themselves the importance of reading a text critically. On the other hand, some clergy know what they need to teach their congregations, but they are afraid to do it. They think their parishioners can’t handle it.
It’s important for lay Christians to know that these stories didn’t drop down out of heaven on the wings of angels. It’s important for them to know that the stories (parables) and teachings of Jesus, as well as the stories about Jesus that constitute our New Testament Gospels, were told and retold many times by word of mouth (this is called the oral tradition) before they were ever written down. And it is equally important for them to know that the Gospel writers who incorporated these stories into a basic narrative of the ministry of Jesus also edited these stories adapting and altering them to fit their framework and emphases.
It’s quite possible our Gospel writers had several versions of these stories to choose from, or maybe just one — we don’t know. What we do know is that they added some things, left out some things, and changed some things in the stories to fit their purpose (the technical term for this is “redaction”). Scholars who study these things make observations about the unique characteristics of each Gospel writer. Actually, you don’t have to be a scholar to engage in this kind of study of the text. All you have to do is be willing to compare the Gospel stories, give attention to the details, and make note of the repeated emphases and characteristics of that particular author.
In the text for this Sunday Jesus tells a story that highlights the unlimited and outrageous nature of God’s forgiveness. An official serving in a king’s court incurs a huge debt through the mismanagement of the king’s resources. The debt is beyond anything possible. Jesus had a real penchant for employing hyperbolic and shocking elements in his stories to get his point across. “Ten thousand talents” is an unrealistic number. One talent was equal to the wages of a manual laborer for 15 years. The annual tax for all of Herod’s territories was 900 talents per year. The point here is that a debt was incurred that was impossible to pay back. The servant finds himself in a hopeless situation. But here is where the good news is such good news. Astonishingly, the king does the unconventional, outlandish thing. He forgives the debt. Certainly the king’s actions are meant to reflect the actions of God.
But then, the servant also does an unthinkable, outlandish thing. Having been forgiven an unpayable debt, instead of responding in gratitude by extending the same forgiveness to one indebted to him, he demands the debtor pay him the hundred denarii (a denarii was the average daily wage of a manual laborer) owed him. This was a sizeable debt, but nothing like the unpayable debt that was cancelled by the king. How unlike the king is the servant of the king! How outlandishly generous is the king and how ungratefully demanding and vindictive is the servant. The contrast couldn’t be clearer.
A critical reading of the text sees verses 32-33 as the logical conclusion to the story where the king says to his servant: “You unjust servant! I forgave you all that debt because you asked for mercy. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had on you?” The careful reader can recall a similar conclusion to Jesus’ instruction to love one’s enemies in Matthew 5:44-48. There Jesus instructs the disciples to love their enemies, to pray for them and do good to them because then they will be like their Father in heaven, who sends blessings (“rain” and “sunshine”) on the just and unjust alike. He concludes by saying: “Be perfect [be mature, compete, spiritual], therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” God doesn’t torture God’s enemies. God sends blessings on God’s enemies. And because we are the sons and daughters of God, we are instructed to do the same.
Here in this passage (Matt. 5) we have the same (though inverted) conclusion about outlandish forgiveness as we find in the parable in Matthew 18. God loves God’s enemies, therefore we are to love our enemies. God dispenses unlimited and outlandish forgiveness, therefore, we are to forgive likewise. So the story ends right?
No, it doesn’t. Here’s where a critical reading is so important. The text continues in verses 34-35: “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt [that would be forever, since the debt was unpayable]. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” You don’t need a seminary degree to recognize the clear contradiction here. The king takes back his unlimited forgiveness and responds vindictively punishing forever the servant who failed to practice the forgiveness he received.
I have no doubt Matthew added this to the original parable. Scholars would call this a “Matthean embellishment.” In lay terms you could say Matthew has an ax to grind. Matthew, like all of us, struggles with the unlimited, outlandish forgiveness of God. We like to claim it for ourselves. But we have a hard time dispensing it to others. So while Matthew’s embellishment distorts the nature of God’s forgiveness and character, contradicting the teaching of Jesus he gave us in chapter 5, what it does do is invite us to struggle with God’s outlandish forgiveness ourselves and our own tendencies toward anger, our struggle with vindictive desires for retribution, and our own unwillingness to forgive others as we have been forgiven.
It also invites us to seriously consider what judgment might await those who fail to practice the forgiveness they themselves have received. Matthew’s redaction/embellishment/addition to the parable raises that question. We should be able to discern from Jesus’ teachings elsewhere (such as Matt. 5) and his own experience of God as Abba that the Abba of Jesus would not torture anyone. We should be able to apply common sense and reason to the overall portrait Matthew paints of Jesus and realize that God would never abandon anyone. Matthew apparently would like for that to happen, as some Christians I know would as well, but the God of Jesus would never abandon anyone. Common sense teaches us that. Would any of us ever abandon a child or grandchild? There is nothing a child or grandchild of mine could ever do that would cause me to stop loving, hoping and praying for his or her restoration and redemption. Surely God loves God’s wayward children at least as much as I would love mine or you would love yours. Common sense interpretation, intuition and reason tell us that Matthew’s addition in verses 34-35 cannot possibly be an accurate reflection of God. Whatever God’s judgment might involve or however painful it might be it would surely be for the purpose of restoration, not retribution. Matthew’s redaction (his adding his own words to the story he received in his tradition) does not accurately reflect God, but what it does do is invite us into serious reflection and awareness of our own tendencies toward unforgiveness and retribution, which are so unlike our Father/Mother in heaven.
Without this critical reading of the text one might draw unwarranted and foolish spiritual and practical applications from Matthew’s embellishment in verses 34-35. One might conclude that God is the kind of God who can give forgiveness one minute and take it back the next. One might conclude that one could actually do something to merit eternal damnation without any hope of redemption. One might use a text like this to turn God into a petty, punitive Ruler rather than the loving Abba that God is. Without a critical reading of the text, one may engage in spiritual misuse and abuse of the text.
My challenge to all ministers reading this piece is this: Face your fears, put in the work, and teach your people how to read scripture critically. The spiritual health and transformation of the sheep in your flock depend on it.