Monday, February 23, 2009

Legalize this!

If you read only the Synoptic Gospels for a while, Christianity starts to greatly resemble that dreaded legalism.

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 the 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."

-- Matthew 18: 23-35

The biggest thing I get from this section is that it's not enough to simply accept the forgiveness of God. If you don't forgive others, you won't end up in a great place. Which comes very close to the idea that your actions can determine whether you truly receive salvation or not.

I also think the Western world has a habit of glossing over just how prevalent the concept of slavery was back then. Not only are most of the players in this parable referred to as slaves, the lord was legally entitled to sell the slave, as well as the slave's wife and children. And it's simply presented as a fact of life. We can say that obviously God wouldn't endorse slavery as it's morally wrong (or that it wasn't actually slavery as we knew but barely qualified to what we define slavery as today). Yet the concept of slavery is so entwined in this parable, even up to the aspect of people being sold.

I'm pretty sure the overall point of the parable is the idea that if one is forgiven by God for something huge, it's incredibly hypocritical to turn around and refuse to forgive another person when what the other person did was done on a much smaller scale. But there's also an idea here that a person can in fact do something to release themselves from the debt, whereas the penal atonement theory teaches that you can't do anything, and Jesus paid the debt for you (Granted, it could easily be desperation, since the first slave owed a huge sum that he could probably never pay. Nor did he actually have to, as the lord forgave the debt, period).

The torture aspect also made me do a double-take. Odd. I can glide over reading the word "hell," as I'm kind of immune to that word because it's a rather common one. But the lord here is compared to the Heavenly Father, and the lord is also someone who handed the bad slave over to be tortured because the lord was angry over the hypocrisy. I understand the anger. But the lord/Heavenly Father actively handing someone over to be tortured is interesting to mesh with the idea of "God doesn't send people to hell, people send people to hell."

24 comments:

atimetorend said...

It is difficult to take the positive message (forgive others), while ignoring the negative (torture!). A more liberal christian theology seems to be able to pick and choose better than a conservative one, writing off the torture part more easily. But personally I have a hard time getting past verses like this without "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." If the baby includes torture like that, see you later baby.

At least the king is a nicer guy then Luke's king in the parable of the talents. Or not? Matthew's king is the King of second chances, while Luke's king might be more merciful with his quick justice...

Luke 19:26-27
He replied, 'I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.

Steve Martin said...

Great post!

In the Lord' prayer, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

I hope not.

Do any of us want to be forgiven in the manner that we forgive or have forgiven.

Not me, anyway.

Lorena said...

Yes, an absolutely great post.

As a Christian, I reduced this story to a romantic tale of God's eternal love for me.

But through the years, I came to abhor the whole idea of God's forgiveness, because as you cleverly point out, we must always forgive, but God doesn't. His love and forgives have conditions and limits. This I can't accept.

Even during my last few stay-Christian-for-dear-life months, I came to believe in a God who was a lot better that the slave-driver, ultimately punishing, hateful God described in this story, and the whole Bible, for that matter.

atimetorend said...

Do any of us want to be forgiven in the manner that we forgive or have forgiven.

Steve, I understand where you are coming from (if I am reading what you are saying correctly), and no, I do not want to be forgiven in the manner that I forgive others. But I would rather that than, "bring them here and kill [him]in front of me." I may be short tempered with my kids, but they haven't heard that from me yet...

If that is who God has to be because of his infinite Holiness, there is nothing I can do about it. But it doesn't seem likely to me that he is.

Sarge said...

A group I played with for a while was pretty xian and fundie, and the one woman was about the meanest...well never mind.

But she was a great one for "The Lord-uhs Prayer". I mentioned that part about forgiving as forgiven. She said that she didn't have to worry about it, she was 'saved' so she was safe from this alleged entity. She thought she'dd pulled the wool over her deity's eyes, had a loop hole.

She had daughters older than me and she treated them like six year olds. Still punishing them for what they did when they were children. She never punished for correction, she punished just to hurt, just because.

It seems to boil down to the fact that the very act of being born human is an unpardonable sin. Sorry. Pound of smoke time.

OneSmallStep said...

Atimetorend,

**A more liberal christian theology seems to be able to pick and choose better than a conservative one, writing off the torture part more easily.**

Perhaps another way would be that liberal Christian theology can forgive without all the strings attached. Whereas the conservative one, if taking the Bible literally, does need to somehow process the negative aspect, which is the torture/punishment part.

One of my biggest complications with verses like that is it really slams against the idea that "God doesn't send you to hell, you send yourself there." I see that reasoning a lot from those who fully hold to the idea of hell. And if you take the Bible literally, and don't try to make a metaphor or pick/choose, then no, God does send people to hell, and He does so willingly.

OneSmallStep said...

Steve Martin,

Or, it makes someone take a long hard look at the process of forgiveness, and all that's involved.

Plus, if you hope it doesn't happen that way, why pray in such a manner? Why be instructed to pray in such a manner?

OneSmallStep said...

Lorena,

**His love and forgives have conditions and limits. This I can't accept.**

In a lot of ways, I agree. I read an interview somewhere with a Christian singer who was saying that she tries to please God, and yet knows she'll never be able to, but that's okay because God is pleased by [the blood of] Jesus who covers her.

I'm sure to her, it's a romantic view. To me, it's saying that God's forgiveness and pleasure is conditional, because He needed that blood spilled before He could forgive. That, and if God is in fact pleased with Jesus, then where exactly is the person in the equation? Is the person herself even seen, since Jesus is the one God sees in the person's place?

OneSmallStep said...

Sarge,

**I mentioned that part about forgiving as forgiven. She said that she didn't have to worry about it, she was 'saved' so she was safe from this alleged entity.**

I don't understand this mindset -- if it's not something she has to worry about, then why did Jesus instruct his followers to pray in that manner? What would be the point?

**It seems to boil down to the fact that the very act of being born human is an unpardonable sin. Sorry.**

It really does, doesn't it? It's like people are being told they have to be forgiven for simply existing.

Sarge said...

In her case, "The Blood" saved her, she was "saved, not perfect". Sort of like a kid thinking that being under blankets renders them invulnerable to the long-leggedy beasties that go bump in the night menacing them from the shadows.

Just magical thinking, the ultimate kings X that even trumped "Her King" (her discription of her deity and it's extended family), or a philosophical "Yes, but..." so she could do what she felt like, and was safe.

She was one of the most apalling, ghastly people I've ever met. She was an immature, selfish, mean little bully, if she thought you had something she wanted or were above her socially or economicly, she'd kiss your butt. If ahe thought you weren't in either of these two states she'd kick your butt. She regarded the kids in the group as emotional scratching posts and availed herself of them at every opprotunity. The main reason I stayed as long as I did was because I did what I could to look out for them.

One of the tip - offs about how bogus "salvation" is comes with how layered it seems to be.

Tit for Tat said...

OSS

Heres another way to look at the Christian G-d and forgiveness.

The idea that divine justice requires forgiveness accords very well with the New Testament analogy between God and a loving parent. It also illuminates in an intriguing way the nature of Gods opposition to sin. As the Augustinians see it, God opposes sin enough to punish it, but not enough to destroy it altogether; instead of destroying sin altogether, he merely confines it to a specially prepared region of his creation, known as hell, where he keeps it alive for an eternity. According to our alternative picture, however, God forgives sin for this very reason: In no other way could he oppose it with his entire being. For as the St. Paul saw so clearly, our specific sins express a sinful condition, and the latter is a form of spiritual death; it is simply our condition of being separated or estranged or alienated from God and from each other. So the opposite of a sinful condition is a state of reconciliation; and if that is so, then God cannot be against sin, cannot oppose it with his entire being, unless he is for reconciliation. And he can hardly be for reconciliation unless he is prepared to forgive others even as he has commanded us to forgive them. Indeed, if God should refuse to forgive someone, as is not even possible given his loving nature, he would then separate himself from this person; and that is the very essence of sin as Paul himself understood it.
Thomas Talbott …The inescapable Love of God

Just another way some people read scripture ;)

A said...

I have a feeling the God-concept actually makes it more difficult for some people to forgive.

Perhaps that why we have so many wars over religion.

http://singaporeexchristians.blogspot.com/2009/03/forgiveness.html

OneSmallStep said...

TitforTat,

I have his book, and greatly enjoyed it.

OneSmallStep said...

A,

I agree with where your thoughts were going: forgiveness in part about letting go of the justice/revenge one is entitled to. God never let that go. He still got his punishment meted out, with the sacrifice of Jesus. So I would see that type of forgiveness as conditional.

And if Jesus was innocent the whole time, that also violates the concept of justice.

A said...

OSS,

Exactly!

To err is human
To forgive is
not something god is likely to do.

societyvs said...

For me, I see a parable - a story - an example. I also the complexities of reality in that parable - which is more admirable than not seeing them.

The point is the power/strength of forgiveness and how it is supposed to effect us/others (we get forgiven a lot - we should also be able to forgive some). The point is not punishment nor slavery.

Now slaves exist and existed in this story - and as much as I abhor the condition it's irrelevant - this was the times the parable was written in. Are we slaves to God? Also not the point.

Punishment exists - thank God it does. People need to be held to the extent of the law for crimes against the law/person. Now although the example is extreme - the person is thrown in 'jail' until the debt is paid (which is similar to crimes today).

I will concede this may part of the point - their is a consequence to our actions - even not being merciful to another when we recieve such grace from others. Isn't that basically ungratefulness which leads to a hardening of the heart? Basically, in this story, one could say the man 'hated his neighbor'.

But punishment is bad? Yeah right. Someone robs any of us tnight - we seek justice for the crime before the law (person to answer for that crime so he (a) pays for his crime against us and (b) cannot committ this crime against another). Punishment or justice is a very normal reaction - if the parable does not include this - it smacks of fairy-tale.

The parable is not a literal thing - but a story relating a point (or maybe even a few points). I read it and I see an teaching to live by - be merciful to one another/forgive another their debts to you. Basically, do not hold something over another's head so as to punish them forever for their actions which were committed in the past.

I do not see a God of hate - but of love and justice - equally. Does that make sense? I guess I see a complex God and I kinda like that.

OneSmallStep said...

Society,

**I also the complexities of reality in that parable - which is more admirable than not seeing them. **

I'm not sure if this is a general statement about viewing the parable, or if you feel that this post does not in fact see the complexities of the parable?

**Now slaves exist and existed in this story - and as much as I abhor the condition it's irrelevant - this was the times the parable was written in.**

But I'm not saying this parable was told to make a statement about slavery or that it's the sole purpose of the parable. I was viewing aspects this parable in the context of the idea that "the Bible does not endorse slavery since slavery is morally wrong." Yet slavery is not treated as morally wrong, it's treated as a fact of life, maybe even as something acceptable. If a book or a document treats something like slavery as something that simply exists, then can we say the book/document also says that slavery is morally wrong? If a document/book says that slavery is something that simply exists, then is it somehow endorsing the practice? (I'm not saying that the Bible is or is not endorsing slavery, I'm wondering about the line between slavery being treated as a fact of life, and slavery being endorsed as morally acceptable).

**But punishment is bad? Yeah right.**

No one's critiquing the aspect of punishment in relation to a crime -- the critique in this particular parable is the aspect of torture. The slave refused to forgive his fellow slave, and in response, the first slave is to be tortured. Not thrown into jail. Tortured. And then it's connected with how the Heavenly Father will treat those who won't forgive as they are forgiven ... then those who don't forgive are to be tortured? I would want someone who broke into my house to be tried in a court of law (the 'want' in this case would be murky depending on why I was stolen from -- pure greed, or desperation to feed a family/self? Is the person being influenced by drugs/alcohol?). I would not, however, want that person to be tortured. That goes beyond justice and into the vengeance category.

So, yes, punishment/justice are normal reactions. But since when is torture considered part of punishment/justice?

And, there's two things going on here. Your example is including a punishment for committing a crime, such as stealing from someone's home. It's a legal aspect. But in the case of a parable, can we say it's a legal aspect? The first slave technically broke no law -- he requested what was legally owed to him, and then responded accordingly. However, he also responded as a huge hypocrite, since he himself had been in the same situation. (On a side note, based on my readings of "Social-Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gospels," the first slave had also made a mockery of the lord's mercy done to him and made the lord look foolish. The slave had declared to everyone that he had taken advantage of the lord, and so the lord had to act in such a way to get his honor back). But in our court of laws, we can't try people for being hypocrites or expect the legal system to return justice to us -- probably because the courts would be flooded on a daily basis ;)

Plus, the biggest part of that notice I had was how it goes against the idea of "God doesn't send people to hell, people do." I've had quite a few conversations with conservative Christians about the aspect of a God who will send people to an eternal torment, and they usually say that God doesn't send people to Hell, people simply choose to go there and God respects their choice. He doesn't want to send someone there.

That answer does not mesh with how the Heavenly Father is presented in this parable. The lord gets angry, and the lord, in that anger, hands the person over to be tortured.

societyvs said...

"The lord gets angry, and the lord, in that anger, hands the person over to be tortured" (OSS)

I would ask - what is the torture here? How can we assume it is actual torture and not just being imprisoned (which may very well be seen as a type of torture) until he served the time for his debt? I do not see anything in that parable describing the actual torture used except "And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt"...which matches "But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt".

Maybe we are running too far with a word in a parable? Maybe?

"I'm not sure if this is a general statement about viewing the parable, or if you feel that this post does not in fact see the complexities of the parable?" (OSS)

It's a general statement - I think some of the comments dig deep into sections of the parable but struggle with it's complexities - and make it seem (my assumption) that if they were not there the parable would be more morally complete?

"That goes beyond justice and into the vengeance category." (OSS)

Good point and I agree - but in this scenario prison (which I think is the torture) is the payment/vengeance. However, should there not be vengeance for crimes?

Although you are right - no crime against the law was committed here - a crime against the moral law (or sin) is committed (which in some cases is just as bad - the one slave threw another in jail - depriving his family of a provider - putting him through the hell of prison - all this for what can only be termed 'greed'). Now that may not be against the law - it sure is against something morally decent in all of us (to which I would consider it criminal).

Now it is hypocrisy what happened - sure - but the king knew what those prisons were like and what owing money was like in those places - and forgave a huge debt to the same person who turned around and didn't pay no homage or respect for the freedom (instead abused it). The king did nothing but revoke a decision he had granted mercy for earlier...and brought back the original penalty for the crime/debt.

Now I am not sure that is vengeance as much as that is revoking a judicial decision on the basis of 'breaking probation' - thus back to prison with you. The king held the power to keep or revoke the decison (true?) and chose to revoke it due to the behavior of the one 'freed'.

The person that deserved the freedom (small debt and treated horribly for it) might have actually deserved the revoking of his case - but the guy that actually got it (who owed an arm and a leg) didn't deserve what he got - and in the end - he acted like he didn't care...so the king held him to his own actions.

societyvs said...

wait...maybe it's very simple (except the torture part - that requires some more in depth study).

The person was simply held to his own personal judgments - and he king although he was merciful in the first scenario - revoked the decision to let the person live according to his personal judgments (which in this case was not to be merciful and thrown another into jail - for the same exact thing he was exempted from originally).

It's really a parable about how we are to judge/forgive...be merciful (like the beautitude speaks of). If we cannot adopt this characteristic - we may find ourselves in many prisons and tortorous situations also (by the hand of God or ourselves - whichever we want to look at that I guess).

OneSmallStep said...

Society,

**I would ask - what is the torture here? How can we assume it is actual torture and not just being imprisoned (which may very well be seen as a type of torture)**

I would say because of the Greek word itself. Another translation says that the man was handed over to the torturers until he could pay his debt. A glance at the Greek word puts that word at torturer/tormentor, with the root word meaning 'to torture.' Also, "pain, toil, torment, toss, vex." So I don't see how it can be an assumption to go with the idea of torture -- after all, when we say that someone was tortured, we don't usually need to have a specific description of the torture in order to realize what the word is implying.

**that if they were not there the parable would be more morally complete?**

It would depend on how one is viewing the parable. In terms of the point behind the parable -- don't be a hypocrite -- the settings such as the slavery or torture aren't relevant. But in examining the parable in a different light, not in the purpose, but what the parable might demonstrate in other moral aspects. As I stated earlier, it's not that someone is saying, "This parable is meant to address slavery." Rather, it's examining how slavery is used in this parable and contrasting it to what some might see in terms of the Bible and slavery. Or what someone might say about God sending people to certain locations. That's what really grabbed me about the Heavenly Father sending people to be tortured -- it doesn't mesh with the common statement of God doesn't send people to Hell.

**However, should there not be vengeance for crimes?**

Is vengeance the same as justice, though?

**The king held the power to keep or revoke the decison (true?) and chose to revoke it due to the behavior of the one 'freed'.**

There's also the matter of the king being shamed by the first slave, and the fact that the first slave made the king look like a fool. There was the king's honor involved here, too.

Now, what I do like about this parable is that it involves the actual person in the whole process. It shows that salvation is not as simple as having the right faith/doctrine. Instead, it's about behavior and intent, as well, and saying that it's not as simple as being really sorry for one's sins and having faith in Jesus. There's accountability here, too.

DagoodS said...

One Small Step: (On a side note, based on my readings of "Social-Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gospels,"…

What a great book. Frankly, should be required reading for any person who desires to understand the cultural influence of stories about Jesus.

societyvs said...

"Another translation says that the man was handed over to the torturers until he could pay his debt" (OSS)

I am not denying there is/was torture in this story - defintely was...my quest is more...what is considered torture in the story? It seems to me the man has to 'pay back what he owed'...maybe he has to make a million license plates as part of his torture while in prison (as a funny example). Maybe the torture is the place he is held in and what 'work' he has to put in to 'repay his debt'.

"That's what really grabbed me about the Heavenly Father sending people to be tortured -- it doesn't mesh with the common statement of God doesn't send people to Hell." (OSS)

Good point - it's obvious God is involved in the judgment business at the least. However, what does God judge? In this case, our behavior is the thing on trial (and that's really based on what we do - not what God does).

"Is vengeance the same as justice, though?" (OSS)

Good question - I figure they are a tandem like Batman and Robin. Sometimes we see Robin in the scenario's with Batman and sometimes he is not present in the scenario with Batman. In this case, we vengeance is meted out with the justice - and I think in some normal way - we all desire some vengeance for crimes committed against the person.

Point in case is really someone like Ted Bundy. It is justice to lock him away for years so no one see's his mug again - but with his mockery of the trial and those families he hurt (in many ways) - and his mulitple taking of lives in brutal fashion - would it not befit the justice to end with him losing his life?

One could also say about a home invasion that if the family is accosted and made to feel hostage in their own homes - vengeance is right around the corner in their minds. It's fairly normal to want someone to pay exactly in measure for what they did to you.

"Instead, it's about behavior..." (OSS)

I agree - and this is something the church in all of it's phoniness overlooks and downplays.

OneSmallStep said...

DagoodS,

It is a great book. I've also purchased the commentary on the Gospel of John and Paul's letters.

On the other hand, it's also a depressing book when you realize just how much the Western world reads it's own culture into the Bible. I'm no exception in that.

OneSmallStep said...

Society,

**what is considered torture in the story?**

I see this in line of your question of how can we assume it's actual torture. One, because of the phrasing of the parable. The lord handed the slave off to be tortured/tormented or handed him off to the tormentors. Either way it goes, I don't see the torture set up as something that the first slave considered to be torture (such as making all the license plates), but rather a standard definition of torture itself (random example, pulling out fingernails).

The other reason why is because I don't see us asking that same question in any other context. Say we're told that POWs were handed off to the tormentors until the enemy country received satisfaction or felt a certain debt was paid off. Would we ask how can we know it's actual torture, and not just something that the POWs would subjectively consider torture?

Or if we're told about some medieval king who decided to take pity on a servant, and forgive the servant's debt. The servant then turns around and demands a second servant pay up. The second servant can't, and so the first servant throws the second one in prison. The king hears about this, gets angry, hands the first servant off to the torturers/tormentors, and saying that the debt once forgiven must now be re-paid.

In that second example, I don't see asking how we can assume it's actual torture. We'd know based on the phrasing that the first slave is in for torment.

(Maybe that's part of the parable. Not only did the lord say that the debt must now be re-paid when it was once forgiven, there's also an extra thing added -- torture -- because of how the first slave was a hypocrite on top of everything else, and humiliated the lord).

**However, what does God judge? In this case, our behavior is the thing on trial (and that's really based on what we do - not what God does).**

But in this case, the lord/Heavenly Father wasn't at all reluctant to send the first slave off. And that's often the common perception in certain Christian circles -- God feels really, really bad when you skip off to Hell. Of course, this is also attached to the concept of people going to hell for the wrong belief, and so forth.

**families he hurt (in many ways) - and his mulitple taking of lives in brutal fashion - would it not befit the justice to end with him losing his life?**

But in this case, we're still saying that it's within the scope of justice that the man lose his life for the crimes he committed. And we say this because of the nature of the crimes. Whereas vengeance would be someone broke into your house and stole from you, and in vengeance, you demand the penalty of death.

Yes, most people who have horrible things done to them want to do horrible things back. That is a natural reaction. I just always get stuck on Gandhi's statement of "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."