So then, each of us will be accountable to God. — St. Paul of Tarsus
I owe some of my thoughts here to John Pilch to whom I give credit in advance.
In our Gospel text this morning there is a bit of haggling going on. The unmerciful servant haggles with the master, the second servant with the unmerciful one, and Abraham haggles with God over Sodom and Gomorra. I know, the latter text is not on the table this Sunday but it is instructive.
Haggling is not so much about money as it is about relationship, which is why Abraham can get up the nerve to haggle with God. The seller can set any price he wants though he probably has a lower limit. The buyer has limits of his own, mainly the amount that he can actually pay. The process of haggling is an exercise in relationship. Both sides are attempting to find out what the other can afford.
This is true if both are living in a relationship culture, not a money culture like ours today where pulling one over on someone is just good business and known as used car sales. In a way, used car sales technique tries to simulate ancient relationship culture by presenting us with a confidence man who is trained to schmooze us. Yet, the actual sale is negotiated with an unseen and uninvolved person in the business office who has no emotional entanglement with the buyer at all.
It goes without saying that in the traditional arrangement of the parable’s time, the closer the relationship, the lower the price will be for the buyer. The seller will still get sufficient returns on his investments, but the relationship demands that he not be greedy about this. To become known as not giving ones close relationships a good deal is to become known as one who does not value relationships and is untrustworthy in personal interactions. At the same time, continuously not getting ones due in negotiations means becoming known as benighted.
There are things at stake for the buyer as well. To refuse to come to terms on the sale by demanding unrealistically low sale prices indicates that one does not value the relationship. Haggling is a strange dance of relationship, says Pilch. The sale has already been made. The relationship has seen to that. Who else would one buy from than from ones closest allies? The haggling process is merely indicative of and is guided by how close the relationship is and how the participants’ hearts show that they value relationships.
So, here we have a household. A master of the house is doing business with his servants. Those servants were considered part of the household, just a little lower than the actual family they were serving. Just like the full family members they were expected to be fiercely loyal to their master and to show that loyalty by comporting themselves according to the masters expectations and the master’s own ways of acting when in public. The servants are to act in public like their master since they were seen as an extension of the master’s presence himself.
Therefore, once the master models forgiveness, once the master models a highly generous haggling style with his own, there is then no excuse for the servants and the family to not do likewise.
As the unmerciful servant meets the second servant he shows two flaws in his heart: First, as fellow servants in the same house they are to be in relationship and therefore any haggling ought not ever end as harshly as his dealing with servant two. He does not value the relationship at all it would seem. Instead he is putting the second servant out of the house not for debts against the master but debts due him. In other words, he is treating a member of the master’s house like a total stranger.
Secondly, his actions deny his own place in the master’s house. Having just been shown great mercy in dealing with the debts of others he is refusing to follow the master’s modeled way of acting. He is acting like one who does not belong to the household or does not value being part of the household.
The result of the matter is that he is treated as he wishes. He is treated as a stranger who happens to owe money. Though the master would not do this to his own, he will to do so with strangers since there is no relationship. He must. To do other is to show either powerlessness or imbecility. For the servants this is a fairly clear matter: You either belong or you do not and your actions will disclose what your heart believes.
When St. Peter asks: “How many times must I forgive a fellow church member,” he is asking a very important question. We do him wrong stipulating that he is looking for some fine print to visit onto those whom he does not like. No, Peter is asking what the ways of the master of the church are for it will be incumbent on him to enact whatever that character might be. Therefor, Jesus’ answer is not about St. Peter, or you, or me, it is about God.
Ours is a used car culture more than relationship culture. It would not have occurred to St. Peter to say or believe the modern day proverb: never buy a used car from a friend. That would have been the opposite of the way that his brain was wired. It is said that Jesus talked about money more than most anything else. It made sense in his time when dealing with money and therefor with others was done mainly in relationship culture ways.
In our time talk of money might well trigger mainly the used car part of our brains. We believe in transactions governed by contracts. In our society it makes sense to plead with people to not see the 7 times 70, or 77 times as a “77 strikes and you are out hardened and fast contract.” But even if we succeed in that will they hear that the underlying message really was to be conformed to the Master’s heart? It is not the sign of the church to be a forgiving people that values the relationship for its own sake. That is the road to cheap grace. One must remember that this is a parable about forgiving. Real offense against the master’s will has occurred. It is forgiven, not tolerated. Further, the absolution only really means anything if everyone has stake in the house that speaks it.
The servant in the parable gave twofold offense: He did not value his relationship to the master and he did not value his relationship to his neighbor. These two are connected so as to be one conviction of the heart and should one be played off against the other. That conviction might be summed up: “this is the house I live in, this is where I belong, I am injured when it is injured, I rejoice when it rejoices, this is the place that has first claim on me, this is who I stand with,” or shorter and straight to the point: “I am a child of this house and God is its master.”
We haggle with God every day. It is called prayer. Prayer’s purpose is to tune our hearts to the Father’s heart and live life from the heart. (Nouwen) “Forgive us our debts (trespasses),” is a haggle spoken by one of the house. Only in the house with the Master does it make sense to say it. Were Master and petitioner not in relationship, the negotiation would merely be a matter of which level of hell one would end up in. Only with those where a mutual and bound relationship is evident can there be an assurance of mercy. The servant has all he has because of the generosity of the master. Any paying back a debt would be a zero-sum game for the house. It is not so with strangers. To pray is to remind us by the very action of praying that we belong, that this God has first claim on us, that this God and these people is who I stand with, that this is the house I live in, and here I live forever.