Matthew 18: 21-35
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”?
There is a brilliant scene in the 1980s historical sitcom Blackadder the Third which begins Edmund Blackadder, butler to the hapless and half-witted Prince Regent walking into the kitchens where Baldrick, his equally dim-witted stooge is working.
As Blackadder enters we hear him kick the cat. To which Baldrick says: “Oh, sir! Poor little Mildred the cat, what's he ever done to you?”
And Blackadder replied pithily: “It is the way of the world, Baldrick. The abused always kick downwards. I am annoyed, and so I kick the cat, the cat” – we hear a loud squeak – “pounces on the mouse, and finally, the mouse” – we hear Baldrick cry out in pain – “bites you on the behind.”
“And what do I do?” Baldrick asks plaintively.
“Nothing” Blackadder says. “You are last in God's great chain. Unless there's an earwig around here you’d like to victimize.”
It is a simple and brilliantly delivered scene that fits the genius of the programme because it satirises the belief in a social order which Blackadder – in his thrusting middleclass way – could see was crumbling in the social patterns of the late-Eighteenth century society.
This idea of the natural order of things – known often as the “Great Chain of Being” – was a great edifice which lasted for centuries.
Many of us will have grown up with a child friendly version of this idea in our hymns as we sang innocently in All things bright and beautiful
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.
It was believed there was a natural order of things grafted onto gender, and wealth, and race, and age which was, we were told, part of God’s great plan.
The problem is that those who thought this was God’s great plan clearly hadn’t read God’s great plan revealed to us in the Gospels and the stories of the promised for Kingdom Jesus shows us, where these patterns of hierarchy and power are overturned again and again.
The parable of the unforgiving servant is one of the most powerful stories Jesus uses in the Gospels to show us the promised truth of the Kingdom.
Like many of the parables there is a heightened reality, an almost ridiculous pattern to the story which has a lot in common with the truth revealed to us in the comic ridiculousness of Blackadder.
The parable begins with a King calling in his debts and settling accounts. A servant is brought before the king to pay his debt of ten thousand talents – a vast fortune. More than the entire tribute paid by the province of Galilee to Rome in a fifteen year period. Faced with ruin the servant falls to his knees and, in some translations, worships the King crying out:
Have patience with me and I will pay you everything
As the King takes pity on the servant and releases him he comes across another servant who owes him money. Compared to his vast debt this is a trivial amount – about three months wages – a trivial amount compared to the great debt the unforgiving servant had just been forgiven by the king. But because of his supposed station and power over his debtor the unforgiving servant has the second servant roughed up and grabbed by the throat as he too cries out with the same words:
Have patience with me and I will pay you everything
But the unforgiving servant, caught up in his own self-importance and power refuses to show mercy. Like Blackadder he prefers to revel in the relative power of his station in his great chain of being and has his debtor thrown in prison.
But the Kingdom, Jesus says, will not be like this. The Kingdom will be a place were, as he says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, the merciful will be blessed and they will receive mercy.
Far from being God’s ordained plan for the world as Blackadder, and no doubt the unnamed unforgiving servant, believed it would be. The Kingdom is a place built not on power or station or wealth, but on mercy and forgiveness and love.
As we hear this parable and refract it through the lens of Blackadder’s satire on the Ancien Regime of the eighteenth-century, we could congratulate ourselves for not living this way. But to do so would be to deceive ourselves.
We might not sing the censored verse from All things bright and beautiful anymore, but the experience of Covid-19 has revealed many of the hidden and implicit hierarchies of our society. Through April and May we have lived through the ravages of a virus which was not an equal threat to all, but one which targeted the elderly and vulnerable who didn’t have the wealth or space to hide from the virus, but were put on the frontline of its ravages.
As our schools we closed, and we were locked down we reflected in our own family on the implicit affluence of our experience. Neither of us had to worry about the loss of work from a zero-hours contract. We did not have to think about how to manage the education of children through online resources we didn’t have the equipment to access. And we didn’t have to double-up in shared rooms with no outside space when we could only leave our homes for an hour a day.
Covid-19 has revealed much about our society and our world. And chief amongst it is that we still live in a world just as ordered as Blackadder’s great chain of being and the world that Jesus attacked and satirised in his parables.
So far from being distant stories we need to hear Jesus speaking to us. And as we return and restore our world to take the time to question and challenge the hierarchies of wealth and privilege and station that still define our experience.
If we are to be true to the gospel, we need to seize this opportunity to build a world not built on our insecure need for position and station. Rather we need to build a world shaped by the Kingdom Jesus invites us to be part of. A world built above all things on the compassion and mercy, the forgiveness and love, Jesus shows us the way to.
Questions for personal reflection
• Have you ever thought, or been told, that you have “got above your station”?
• How did that make you feel?
• What would a world built on mercy look and feel like?