I’m looking forward to speaking at a local congregation this weekend about the parable of the unmerciful servant, found here. I had an opportunity to re-read the chapter I wrote in my first book, Parablelife, meditating on this story both in its original time and place and in the here and now.
Sometimes allowing my imagination to ponder Jesus’ now-familiar words back in the time when they were first spoken jolts me afresh into realizing how very radical Jesus’ words really are. Here’s my riff on the this story about forgiveness…
I wonder if Eliud sat looking at his hands in the fading light his first night in prison. His hands were the unsoiled, smooth hands of someone who’d spent his life negotiating deals and pushing paperwork, not doing manual labor.
Eliud’s hands had perhaps offered the Near East equivalent of a handshake on the agreement he’d struck with the king some time earlier. He’d borrowed enough money from the king to fund his latest building project – constructing the ancient equivalent of Trump Tower in downtown Jerusalem. “Yeah, king…I’ll even name the building after you,” he gushed. “This is the investment of a lifetime. Once we’re open for business, I’ll be able to repay you easily. The money will roll in the front doors. It’s a sure thing.”
The king, who’d heard a sales pitch or two in his life, examined Eliud’s track record. He was a sharp businessman with a decent credit history. But this project was ten times the size of anything he or anyone else in the kingdom had ever done before. The king asked him what sort of collateral he was willing to offer.
“I’d bet my life, my family, all that I have. It’s a sure thing, I tell you.”
Eliud’s rock-solid certainty began to dissolve into rubble as one problem, then another plagued the project from the start. He had troubles with suppliers. There were weather delays. A couple of the guys had accidents at the building site. He played one set of subcontractors off of another, loaning money to some of them in order to keep them on the job. He bounced checks to others. The whole project had turned into mountain of loose ends until finally all work on the structure had ground to a halt.
The half-finished building hadn’t been touched for over a year. The failure was more than he could face – he’d lost his “sure thing” gamble. And Eliud was unable to see himself as a loser. He hadn’t gotten to where he was in life by thinking of himself as anything other than a shrewd businessman. He was convinced that the project’s failure was everyone else’s fault.
He was almost able to forget about the truth – that he’d borrowed a boatload of money from the king – and he was the one responsible for repayment. He busied himself with the rest of his life, taking his wife out to dinner, going to his children’s soccer games and ballet recitals.
Until the day he got the summons to appear before the king asking for repayment of the loan.
His route to see the king that day took him past the half-finished hulk of a building. He’d carefully avoided it for months, but that day, he forced himself to go look at it. He found himself wishing that the building had magically constructed itself and this was all a bad dream. Nope. It was as unfinished as it had been the last time he’d been at the site. Excuses circled in his head like vultures as he walked toward the king’s home.
The king smiled as he greeted him. Unbeknownst to him, the king had given him some extra time on the loan, injecting a dose of mercy into the process. The king had occasionally visited the building site, and genuinely hoped that the man would be able to get the project moving again.
But the king couldn’t wait forever. He knew that one day, maybe not so far in the future, the responsibility of running the kingdom would be handed down to his beloved son. The king wanted to make sure that all was in order before that time came. And this loan was a huge piece of unfinished business on the books.
The king extended his hand to the man. Eliud’s looked at him and threw himself onto the ground, prostrating himself, his unsoiled, smooth businessman’s hands extended toward the king, begging for just a little more time. He was painfully aware of what he’d bartered for this loan. He and his family were going to spend the rest of their lives in slavery working off the debt if he couldn’t figure out a way to repay it. He pleaded for more time, excuses spilling from his lips in a blizzard of words.
But when he looked up at the king, he could see that the king had already made his mind up about what his punishment was going to be. He said quietly, “I’m going wipe the debt off the records. It’s gone as of this moment.”
Eliud departed from the king’s home that day certain of only one thing – that he was indeed innocent of any wrongdoing in the whole affair. His hands were clean.
Later that day, he ran into one of his subcontractors to whom he’d loaned a C-note a few months earlier. The sub…the low-life!…hadn’t repaid the loan. Revenge-tinged rage rose up in Eliud, geyser-like, from an angry place inside of him that was like an uncapped well. He grabbed the subcontractor around the neck and screaming, “Where’s my money? Where is it?” Though the sub was a big, burly guy, he was no match for Eliud’s rage. He threw the sub on the ground, screaming at him and choking him with those unsoiled, smooth hands of his until the sub’s lips were lilac and his eyes bulged. Bile spent, Eliud summoned a cop and had his subcontractor arrested for robbery.
Then he went home and threw his family a party. He was off the hook for the building debt!
It didn’t take but a few hours for the word of the scene in the street and the subcontractor’s arrest to reach the king. The cops came right in the middle of the family party going on at Eliud’s home and dragged the lot of them before the king.
Eliud had crumpled up mercy like it was a wad of filthy paper towels, tossing it aside with those unsoiled, smooth hands of his. He’d never really believed he needed it. His loan shark treatment of the subcontractor told the king that what this man really valued was justice. The king told Eliud angrily, “You want justice instead of mercy? It’s yours, starting now.”
Sitting in a prison cell that night, Eliud sat staring at his unsoiled, smooth hands. Those beautiful hands were about to become the rough, dirty hands of a slave…after his will had been broken by the jailers given the job of torturing him into submission.
* * * * * * *
Before Jesus told this story, He’d been talking with His disciples about the best way to handle things when someone sinned against another person. He gave them a way to confront hurt that both addressed the hurt and offered protection to each party in a dispute (Matthew 18:15-20). The thing He didn’t give them was a promise that if they followed these steps, it was a guaranteed happy ending.
Jesus’ friend Peter heard that omission loud and clear. So he asked Jesus the question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus’ famous seventy times seven response isn’t a math problem, it’s an answer. He tells each of us that metering out “forgiveness” by the numbers isn’t forgiveness at all. In God’s upside down accounting system, Jesus tells us that we stop the free flow of mercy into our lives when we insist on trying to exact repayment from the one who has taken something from us unfairly.
This flow of mercy is the true happy ending, not the temporary rush that comes with repayment extracted from another by revenge.
Why not take a few moments to put yourself in the story today – as the king, as Eliud, and as his late-to-pay subcontractor?