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 should 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.
WHAT are the issues that really get you in the gut, the ones that can make you cry when you see the news? These days, with charities able to advertise on social media, and dozens of news outlets able to stream video to our phones, we can experience compassion fatigue — a self-protective numbing to the sights and sounds of distress.
Even so, we often find that there is one issue, perhaps just one image, that breaks through our barriers and twists our hearts, making us angry, emotional, and determined to act. It will be a different issue for everyone, based perhaps on our own past experiences or whether it has affected someone we love. It will move us deeply every time we come across it. It will keep us awake at night.
For me, it is anything to do with children in trouble, and most recently it was images of refugees in camps on Lesbos that caused such a reaction. Children who had made terrifying journeys across the sea in leaky rafts, who had seen members of their family drowned, were now gathered outdoors in knee-deep mud with nowhere to go. They were burning plastic bags to try to keep warm, breathing in the toxic fumes as they huddled around in freezing, damp clothes.
Sending money didn’t stop my feeling of desperation for them. I longed to leave my own children in our warm, cosy home, and fly to Greece with warm sleepsuits and coats. I prayed constantly for the rain to stop in Greece, because it was all I could do. I checked the charity’s website repeatedly for news of whether my prayers were working. I was taken over by it for weeks.
The king in Christ’s parable is an example of someone who is motivated by an issue just like that. For him, it’s forgiveness and mercy — or, rather, the lack of them — that cause that gut reaction and inform the way he acts. Not only does the king compassionately agree to forgive an enormous debt, but when he sees even a small mercy refused he flies into a rage and seeks immediate justice.
The king does try, briefly, to play by the rules. At the beginning of the story, he makes arrangements for his slave and the slave’s family to be sold, which is a logical reparation, in those days, for so much money having been lost. He knows that the slave will never be able to repay his debt. But the moment he actually sees the slave pleading with him, his compassionate response is sparked, and he offers mercy. He can’t help it. Face-to-face with distress, and in a position where his forgiveness can solve the problem at once, he acts.
When the slave immediately fails to forgive a smaller debt owed to him, Jesus mentions that his fellow slaves “were greatly distressed”. The whole household, belonging to their master, shares his sense of justice and recognises the need for mercy; it distresses and moves them just as much as it does him. This tiny piece of information shows us something more about the character of the forgiven slave, in that he has somehow been impervious to this shared knowledge, this important household value. Somehow, even now that he has experienced its outworkings directly, this slave has managed to stay in his own bubble, to remain selfishly absorbed with what is owed to him.
It’s that attitude that now enrages the master. Doesn’t this slave see, hasn’t he only just seen for himself, that forgiveness and mercy are the most important things? How has he not understood how vital forgiveness is as a value in this house? The same fierce compassion that had mercy on the slave now exacts justice, because it’s the value of forgiveness itself rather than the future of the slave that motivates the king.
In this parable, we see a God who is motivated by the issue of forgiveness. It’s what brings tears to his eyes when he sees it on the news or when it comes up on his social-media feed: every angry word and bitter exchange, every retaliation. He longs for his household to live in peace with him and with each other.
Of course, God is not a human being like the master in the parable; so it’s not quite that the issue of mercy moves him and drives him to act. He doesn’t need that reminder: his values and emotions are constant. It’s more that God is mercy, and will always be that way.
It’s why he forgave the world; it’s what sent him to die on the cross; it’s the purpose behind his final words of mercy to the soldiers that nailed him there, to the thief that hung beside him. Through Jesus, it’s his attitude towards us, all of the time, even though we could never possibly pay him what we owe.
This is an extract from The Bible Reading Fellowship’s Advent book, Image of the Invisible: Daily Bible readings from Advent to Epiphany by Amy Scott Robinson (BRF £8.99; CT Bookshop £8.10)).