Reflections on a parable

Reflections on a parable August 20, 2012

Consider this famous parable, contained in a recent daily Mass gospel:

“That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.”

Clearly the lesson here is that we should place no bounds upon our mercy – we must forgive others as God forgives us. But when I was pondering this recently, I was struck by a more literal reading, one that resonates in our current financial crisis. As we all know, the crisis was precipitated by the massive debt and leverage of Wall Street financial institutions. On the verge of collapse and bankruptcy, they were bailed out by the government, and nursed back to health (and large profits). But the assets on their balance sheets are other peoples’ liabilities. Think, for example, of the huge housing debt burden hanging over homeowners, with mortgages held by financial institutions and other investors. And yet these same financial firms that were bailed out by the government in turn were the biggest opponents of any debt relief to homeowners – debt relief on a far smaller scale.

I have a feeling that Jesus has something to say about that.

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  • Chris Sullivan

    While there are spiritual meanings to the parables I think we’re much the poorer for missing the obvious social/economic messages.

    God Bless

    • Rat-biter

      To MM:

      “Clearly the lesson here is that we should place no bounds upon our mercy – we must forgive others as God forgives us…”

      ## But what Jesus says is impossible, if taken to apply in all human relations. Saddam didn’t need to be forgiven – he needed to be crushed. That, at least, did happen, however immoral and stupid the 2003 invasion may otherwise have been. Hitler needed to be bombed into obliviion – to have acted otherwise would been grossly immoral, because the practical effect of forgiving people like that, is that one is enabling them. It is indecent and horribly selfish to do that: because it saves the forgiver’s Christian ego at the expense of letting others be enslaved, tortured, or killed. It is ultimately a self-centred behaviour – one that nobody has any moral right to indulge in. This is a problem with early Christian morals – they didn’t dirty their hands governing or fighting: the pagans had to do that, and protect the selfish Christians from the practical consequences of their refusal to ttake up arms or to govern. That selfishess is not a moral position. It’s ugly. STM the best explanation of the disappointingly impractical teaching of Jesus is that of C. I. Scofield (of all people !) – that Jesus was addressing the Jews, not the Gentiles. That pressumably means that it is of historical interest only.

      The only forgiveness that is – *maybe* – not immoral, is that between two indiviiduals with a shared set of values & a shared universe-view. Mercy is fine in theory, but immoral when it leaves those with evil intentions free to do more evil. If Christians really thought it was practical, there would be no prisons. There might be fines, *maybe* obligatory work programmes, but no death penalty either. No state, however Christian, would last a day if its authorities really believed that they must always forgive wrongdoers. And if they did not ignore this passage & insist on payment, the state would very soon have no funds of any kind to support it. Regrettable as it may be, the only way any state can survive is by chucking the teaching of Jesus in the bin. States are run by not having mercy, oppressing the weak, telling les, conspiring against enemies, bombing enemies into the ground, using (if need be) “enhanced questioning”. Torture can be useful – but forgiveness ? That would be a crazy policy. (FWIW, as some non-Christians point out, Jesus was not exactly forgiving to everyone. His record of forgiving is spotty at best.)

      Jesus did not have to address the problems of states – His teaching gives no clue how to deal with Rosenbergs, Hitlers, Hanssens, Bundys, & characters lilke that. It’s impractical because it is long out of date. It’s built on a false premise: the imminence of the Parousia. He thought He would return within the generation – rather obviously, He did not. His teaching works, if at all, onlly in small groups – in Churches with millions of members, decades & more old, it has to be ignored or revised, in practice if not in theory. Otherwise, it is useless. Acts – to name only one book – shows a lot of it being quieetly forgotten, presumably because it was of no use or practical value outside Palestine. The religion of Jesus is worthless outside Palestine. Nice ideas – pity about the applicability. The teaching of the Aoostles is a bit more useful than that of Jesus, but there are are out of date & useless sectons even there

      • Dan

        What are you doing posting in a Catholic forum if you believe the religion of Jesus is worthless outside Palestine?

        You have a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of forgiveness:

        1) Forgiveness requires repentance as a prerequisite. If Hitler shows no indication of repentance, then resistance, not forgiveness, is the appropriate response.

        2) Forgiveness is about restoration of a relationship to its previous order. Where there is injustice, the repenter is required to make reparations for his injustice to the extent reasonably applicable to restore the relationship to right order. Otherwise, it isn’t really repentance, is it?

  • Dan

    As an economist, you know as well as any that fraternal mercy and the government bailout is apples and oranges. The banks didn’t get a bailout due to the merciful pity of the government, but rather because their failure would effect the failure of millions of others.

    • The analogy is not perfect, but I still think it resonates.

      • Dan

        Can you explain how it applies in a concrete, practical way?

        • Trellis Smith

          Yes, God should have paid the debt of the fellow servant and thrown the first servant in debtor’s prison. i.e. we’d be living in debt free homes and Goldman Saks would be as bankrupt as they deserve.

  • Ronald King

    MM, For me this is a practical example of a moral solution to our present financial crisis. Please correct me if I am wrong, but if I remember correctly, WWII and the rise of hitler was partially due to the heavy financial burden of WWI placed on Germany by governments and financial institutions who were unwilling to forgive the debt or to work out some sort of compromise to ease the burden. One of the institutions I recall was Chase. Solidarity and charity would find a solution to the current crisis. Self-preservation and greed would not have the creative vision for a viable and fair solution in my opinion. However, my only experience is in the area of human relationships and the observation of how financial stress is the result of a desire to have more and more of whatever it is which we think will make us secure and happy with the consequence of a breakdown of the family structure with each member isolated from one another within their individual experience of suffering.

  • Maybe we can approach it another way and say that we are the ones forgiven–our debt to God is erased*–and now we need to return the favor on those who were guilty of the financial malfeasance. We didn’t return the favor by the programs to bailout the banks in 2008/2009. After all, the justification offered for the bailouts was not to forgive the banks for the sake of forgiving the banks, but to keep the economy from collapsing. As you know, there’s a mixed jury on whether it worked or whether not doing anything would’ve been better.

    Of course, we’re talking about “banks,” not soul-bearing creatures. And I think the fact that we are talking about banks speaks to the difficulty with which we can apply the spiritual lessons of the sort offered in this parable to the material world.

    *Disclosure, I’m agnostic.

    • Paul DuBois

      First we are not talking about banks, but the people who run them. The error represented by talking about corporate entities as if they are individuals is that the do not exist except as a figment of the law and peoples imaginations. People exist and people have made the decisions to accept the bailouts and use that money to increase profits and bonuses as opposed to help revive the economy. These people are responsible for their actions, but by discussing this as the “banks” doing this we excuse their actions as being those of faceless entities who are merely acting as free market enterprises are supposed to act.

      Second, as an agnostic, I think you have made a profound Christian point. The focus of our thoughts and actions should always be directed toward how I can improve myself to be a better Christian and not how you can improve yourself. All of the best sermons I have heard, those that I quote to other people and remember myself, make me uncomfortable about my own actions. We should never concentrate on what the other guy should do.

      I do see MM’s point, and it is one of the spiritual acts of mercy to admonish the sinner. So it is appropriate to point out the errors of the individuals operating the banks and this parable seems an apt way to do that. The best way to do this would be in private with the individual, but few of us have that opportunity.

      • Ronald King

        Paul I disagree somewhat with your last paragraph. IMO to admonish the sinner in private does not seem to be the best strategy when dealing with the sinful actions of a corporation or government. A public form of group sacrifice and withdrawing support from the offending institution over a length of time would seem to work better. History depicts success with such sacrifice. The bible is a transparent depiction of how we sin and how we gain forgiveness for ourselves and others. We need to be just as transparent and sacrificial. This is the opposite of what we see in our culture and our faith and this is what our culture and our faith have in common.

        • Paul DuBois

          A corporation or a government cannot be sinful, only people can. I agree we would find it difficult to admonish the sinners responsible for the misguided policies. I have been doing my banking with a credit union for 28 years to limit my involvement with the banking industry and I agree we must protect ourselves with better regulation of the banking industry. We say how the bailout money was spent with no regulation to govern it.

          We have a very effective way to punish government officials responsible for the sins that caused this crisis, but we have chosen not to use them. Part of the reason is we would have to vote for a party we can’t stand for other reasons, so we stick with the lesser evil.

          But in the end sins are committed by individuals, we cannot admonish them privately all the time so when we do it publicly, we should do it with an eye toward correcting behaviors, not demanding punishment.

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