A Reconfigured Parable – Dennis Ormseth reflects on a parable’s proposal of the unlimited economy of grace.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday September 11-17, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)
With a compelling primary theme of forgiveness, the readings for this Sunday after Pentecost seemingly offer little of direct relevance to our concern with care of creation. To be sure, the attention given to the church community’s ethos in the Gospel and the second lesson can prove salutary for any effort that requires corporate discipline and generosity of spirit. The emphasis on forgiveness might be particularly helpful, specifically, in strengthening the interpersonal relationships of a congregation that seeks to model the kind of face-to-face web of neighborhood relationships we proposed in our comment on last Sunday’s readings.
Can forgiveness be extended to the relationship between congregation and neighborhood?
F. LeRon Shults and Steven J. Sandage illustrate the point nicely in The Faces of Forgiveness: Searching for Wholeness and Salvation. They interpret Matthew 18:23-35 in terms of a “facial hermeneutics of intersubjectivity” that reveals a community “struggling with problems of power in their way of ordering their life together and needed instruction and exhortation on manifesting grace toward each other.” The offending slave of the parable, they suggest, shows no “positive movement toward forgiveness in the sense of therapeutic transformation.” The horizon of his understanding needs to be extended “both temporally and spatially so that he could imaginatively envision his own place in the broader human community” (Shults and Sandage, pp.237-39). Any such extension of understanding within the community, we can hope, would contribute to a healthier dynamic in the relationship between a congregation and its neighborhood.
See how God’s goodness has cosmic dimensions!
Encouragement for going beyond this modest result to reflect further on these texts in search of specific direction for care of creation might nonetheless be inferred from reading the Psalm appointed for the day. Giving thanks for God’s goodness (“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—who forgives all your iniquity”), the psalmist measures God’s “steadfast love” with cosmic dimensions: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us” (103:11-12). The psalmist speaks of the Creator’s love: “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (103:14, not included in the appointed verses). Is there, possibly, a cosmic significance, then, to the practice of forgiveness?
Could this tyrant reflect God’s image?
Furthermore, the parable with which Jesus exhorts the undoubtedly astonished Peter to unlimited acts of forgiveness is focused rather less clearly on interpersonal relationships than Shults and Sandage tend to view it. Rather, the frames of reference are the economic, social, and political relationships characteristic of imperial rule. As Warren Carter observes,
“The king and his reign are usually understood as images of God and God’s empire (18:35). But the gospel has established that God’s empire manifested in Jesus is generally not like the death-bringing and oppressive reign of Rome and typical kings (17:25; 20:25). Yet the parable evokes precisely this scenario! The king is a tyrant who, like Rome (see 18:24), collects excessive tribute, and in the end inflicts vicious torture on a servant” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 370-71).
Thus, the scope within which the act of forgiveness is being considered has been expanded to encompass “affairs of state,” in the phrase of Bernard Brandon Scott.
And there is even more. There is a striking contradiction in this parable’s presentation by Matthew: It evokes for the reader that “the familiar image of God as king, but the imperial scenario of exploitative and oppressive reign . . . indicates that this figure cannot be God. The audience can discern that God’s empire is not like this, is not oppressive, does not deal in self-serving ‘mercy’. . , does not forgive just once only to revoke it.” Nevertheless, to the reader’s great surprise, at the conclusion of the parable, Jesus insists that his “heavenly Father” will do exactly what this king does to his servant. The frame of the parable has been enlarged to embrace the huge and even monstrous question of the relationship of God to the great conflicts of human history.
Is this not unjust fiscal policy?
Interpreters struggle to thread their way though the thicket of this text. Scott is helpful in providing a reading that does not require strict narrative consistency to reach its result. “A chaotic situation entraps the audience,” he notes:
“The king’s brutal action forces a hearer to reconsider the consistency building that has held the story together. By identifying with the fellow servants in reporting the servant, a hearer bears with them responsibility for unleashing the king’s wrath. By bringing vengeance on the servant, the fellow servants (and the hearer) have left their own situation in jeopardy. The demand for ‘like for like,’ for apparent justice, has left them exposed. If a king can take back his forgiveness, who is safe?” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, pp. 278).
“Who, indeed?” we might ask in our times of massive public indebtedness generated by the policies and behavior of a global financial elite. While the fellow servants might have avoided the moral hazard of “bailing out” the king’s lead tax farmer, in the phrase of our day, they have lent legitimacy to the crushing disintegration of the economic order that they themselves depend on for their well being. All of them have become inescapably more vulnerable to the harsh policy of the king who will destroy the servant’s business, his family, and his position of power within the community, in the name of accountability.
But the disturbance goes even deeper, Scott observes. The fellow servants’ reporting is like the first servant’s own activity. In the end, the fellow servants have behaved the same way he did, namely, they failed to forgive and they demanded punishment. And so the audience is drawn ineluctably “into a threatening world whose boundaries and guidelines begin to dissolve,” and the hearers are “swept into a vortex for chaos” in which they fail as the servant fails: they, too, “have failed to forgive.” The narrative thus leads its audience to a “parabolic experience of evil, not intentional evil but implicit, unanticipated, systemic evil . . . where the only option left is repentance” (Ibid., p. 279-80).
How might the scenario of this parable have gone differently?
The audience’s conundrum serves to raise the question, beyond the telling of the parable, regarding how things might have gone differently? How might this terrifying result of the king’s need for accountability be avoided? Is it really conceivable that the king might have forgiven his debtor not just once, but a second and third time, or even “seven times seven times,” as Jesus set the standard for Peter? In a less troubled but real world, of course, the situation could have been avoided entirely if the debtor paid his debt, with appropriate interest. Or being unable to do that, on account of whatever combination of factors, perhaps he might have succeeded in winning the king’s assent to a plan that would have allowed him to continue service of his co-servants debt, with which he might, over time, pay what he owes. Contemporary readers of Matthew’s Gospel will recognize a set of problems that confront us daily in a time of extended financial crisis.
Such leniency on the part of king and servant alike would have the advantage, it might be argued, of allowing the others to share in the good king’s generosity. It seems that the servant’s better course might have been not only to encourage his master in this creative course of action, but to demonstrate its value and power by first taking the initiative himself, even risking his own wealth, in order to show the others that such a generous spirit works to the well-being of all. Couldn’t the king then indeed be the good king of God’s empire, on whom one could rely for a properly positive analogy for an infinitely forgiving God? Indeed, might one not quite appropriately imagine that the king of the parable is truly Jesus’ heavenly father, the creator of all things?
How can we give account of our care for the Earth?
If that were taken to be the case, then the servant who was called to give account is clearly the human being tasked with responsible care of the creation, and we have a parable very much concerned with care of creation. Ideally, the servant could report that his care has indeed enhanced the creation, so responsible has he been in exercising his responsibility. But failing that, again for whatever reason, would it not be appropriate for him, relying on his king’s generous mercy, to set forth in a great venture to restore what has been lost, drawing along with him in this great project of restoration of all those who are in turn accountable to him, so that they could know and rejoice with the king that not only his original gift was being honored, but that with each successive allowance of space and time to further amend their destructive ways, the glory of that creation might be enhanced far beyond its original state, now understood to have been good enough for starters, but hardly perfect?
We can be participants in a web of creation that is re-given in every moment of its journey through time by an infinitely loving God.
The reader will hopefully understand and appreciate what this new spinning of the parable is meant to accomplish: as an alternative to the “parabolic experience of evil” set out above, we propose a “parabolic experience of good,” as it were—indeed, an intentional, explicit, anticipated, and whole reality of created goodness, in which both king and servants participate with great joy! This, we would suggest, is what becomes possible when Jesus is seen to be truly the servant of creation, who does the will of his heavenly father, the creator of all things. God is indeed infinitely gracious in giving the creation for the benefit of humanity, but only as participants in the whole web of creation that is re-given in every moment of its journey through time. Precisely in responding to this infinite love of the creation by properly caring for the creation his father loves, the servant of creation works out the role that the unforgiving servant refused. Now that he has been introduced in the shadow of his antithesis, this true servant will appear in other parables of Jesus’ telling in Matthew, such as “the Faithful and Wise Servant” (Mt 24:45-51), “A Man Entrusts Property” (Mt 21:33-46), and “A Householder Went Out Early” (Mt 20:1-15), and, of course, in many parables in the other Gospels.
The new parable proposes an alternative economy of unlimited grace.
The parable proposes an alternative economy of unlimited grace as a clue to understanding what forgiveness is about, and why it must be unlimited. Our resetting of the parable proposes a narrative of the relationship between the human servant of God and God’s creation that envisions its restoration as a possible outcome of a radically forgiving spirit. Support for this re-setting can be found in two provocatively different essays. Thomas Friedman has argued in his Hot, Flat, and Crowded (Release 2.0 Edition), that the 2008 financial crisis and the environmental crisis are derived from one cause. As he puts it, the Great Recession that began in 2008 was a “warning heart attack” that we ignore at our great peril:
“. . . while they might not appear on the surface to have been related, the destabilization of both the Market and Mother Nature had the same root causes. That is why Bear Stearns and the polar bears both faced extinction at the same time. That is why Citibank, Iceland’s banks, and the ice banks of Antarctica all melted down at the same time. The same recklessness undermined all of them. I am talking about a broad breakdown in individual and institutional responsibility by key actors in both the natural world and the financial world—on top of a broad descent into dishonest accounting, which allowed individuals, banks, and investment firms to systematically conceal or underprice risks, privatize gains, and socialize losses without the general public grasping what was going on” (Friedman, pp.6-7).
This insight is strong reason to attend, as this reading does, to the origins of the practice of forgiveness of sin in the practice of forgiveness of debt, as the phrase “forgive us our debts” in what used to be the standard version of the Lord’s Prayer serves to remind us. Its implications for the current “affairs of state,” not just its psychology of the failure to forgive as Jesus would have us forgive, are clear.
Our current financial crisis is a crisis also of the environment
If the financial crisis is also a crisis of the environment, are they not together also a crisis of the creation? If our reading finds surprising resonance with such current “affairs of state,” however, it also remains faithful to the theological concern for forgiveness as a relationship between God and humankind. In his discussion of the doctrine of salvation in The Beauty of the Infinite, David Bentley Hart observes that Christian theology effects a conversion “of the story of wrath into the story of mercy,” replacing “the myth of sacrifice as economy with the narrative of sacrifice as a ceaseless outpouring of gift and restoration in an infinite motion exceeding every economy.” Without developing his argument in full, we see its relevance to our reading in the following comment:
“The sacrifice that Christian theology upholds is inseparable from the gift: it underwrites not the stabilizing regime of prudential violence, but the destabilizing extravagance of giving and giving again, of declaring love and delight in the exchange of songs of peace, outside of every calculation of debt or power. The gift of the covenant—which in a sense implores Israel to respond—belongs to the Trinity’s eternal “discourse” of love, which eternally “invites” and offers regard and recognition; it precedes and exceeds, then, every economy of power, because all “credit” is already given and exhausted, because the love it declares and invokes is prior to, and the premise of, all that is given” (Hart, pp. 350).
Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores the Creator’s gift and offers it anew for our responsible care as an act of forgiveness;
God’s balances, he concludes, “are not righted by an act of immolation, the debt is not discharged by the destruction of the victim and his transformation into credit; rather, God simply continues to give, freely, inexhaustible, regardless of rejection. God gives and forgives; he fore-gives and gives again” (Ibid., p. 351). Just so, Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores the Creator’s gift and offers it anew for our responsible care as an act of forgiveness; those who join in care of creation share in that act, as often as it takes place.
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.