The “hidden fees” of emotional debt (Matthew 18:28-35)

Financial debt is easy to quantify.  If you damage my property, justice comes when you pay what you owe.  But what about things that can’t be monetized so easily?

We spoke yesterday of “emotional debt,” the pain that accrues from being hurt or betrayed.  For some offenses, a simple apology won’t cover it.  The legal system has tried to put a price on this by pursuing litigation (and compensation) for “pain and suffering.”  I communicated briefly on this subject with our own A.J. Serafini, who said that it’s customary to ask for 2-3 times the physical damage to cover pain and suffering.  While I don’t doubt that financial restitution can’t improve one’s quality of life, I doubt that this brings genuine release from one’s emotional debts.  Take, as an extreme example, families who seek closure in watching a family member’s murdered get executed.  Common sense tells us that yes; those family members witnessing this event will find a renewed peace in seeing justice meted out.  But contemporary research from Stanford University says that the opposite is often true.  Families may feel re-victimized by witnessing such a traumatic event.  For others, the protracted wait from sentencing to execution may seem like justice deferred—and effectively denied.  For still others, a relatively painless death seems too convenient a price for the suffering caused by a hardened killer.

Now, most of us may—thankfully—never need to endure this level of emotional debt.  But like the debtor in the parable, we may feel like someone out there owes us something.

Take a moment to re-read the fallout of the debtor:

28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:28-35)

Why would God’s forgiveness depend on our willingness to forgive another?

Like the debtor, we want to see our offenders experience pain.  And pain usually travels downward.   We “distribute” the emotional debt by entertaining private thoughts of revenge, or feeling the need to “warn” others about that person’s potential actions.

In short, we’ve made forgiveness entirely conditional on our private sense of justice.  But here’s the point of exploring the whole topic of pain and suffering: it’ll never work. Even in the most extreme examples, we fail to find the closure we seek.

That’s why Jesus says that failing to forgive leads to a failure to be forgiven.  Why?  Because if I make forgiveness dependent on a moral code, it reveals that I never really understood the gospel at all.  The gospel promises salvation through God’s grace—through what Christ did.  To make forgiving others based on anything less than that only reveals hearts that seek to deal with emotional debt without God.  So Jesus isn’t saying: “Forgive or you’ll be punished.”  No; Jesus is saying: “Have it your way.”  Try and manage your emotional debt, and you’ll spend a lifetime hurting another human being while receiving no satisfaction in return.  Look to the cross for personal forgiveness and relational justice, and you’ll find a renewed capacity for love.

 

 

 

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“…to forgive is divine” (Matthew 18:23-25)

If you grew up in a religious environment, then you surely were encouraged toward a spirit of forgiveness toward others.  Many religious systems emphasize forgiveness—usually as a part of a larger moral code.  Even if you’re not an overtly religious person, you’ve probably been encouraged to “be the bigger person” when confronted with the hurtful actions of another.

Jesus likewise encourages limitless forgiveness.  But what’s interesting is that in the context of Matthew’s biography of Jesus, we’re not explicitly told how to forgive.  Sure, Jesus describes a process of restoration and discipline.  But when it comes to forgiveness, Jesus is less concerned with the “how” and much more concerned with the “why.”  Why forgive?  Jesus’ parable illustrates how the gospel shapes the reason and the way we forgive:

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. (Matthew 18:23-25)

We might pause here just to chew through some cultural background.  The system of servitude most likely was patterned after social laws and order established in Egyptian culture under the Ptolemies—or at least Rome likely borrowed from their practices and this became a cultural standard.  Under this system, if a servant could not pay, the king had only one option to recoup a loss: sell the debtor into slavery.  But all our source material tells us that even the most expensive slave sold for only one talent—and the king could not possibly sell the man 10,000 times.

How much was a talent, you ask?  Good question.  In his recent commentary on Matthew, Craig Keener helps us understand the math:

  • 10,000 talents would have been equivalent to 60-100 million denarii, which would have been the equivalent of 30-100 million days’ wages.
  • This means that 10,000 talents would have been worth roughly 1.5—5 billion S. dollars
  • For the king to sell the servant, he would still have been at a loss of several billion dollars.
  • Keener estimates that the combined resources of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea was around 600 talents. Therefore the man owed the king more money than what was in circulation in the entire country.

However, as Keener also points out, in an agrarian society, there would have been little—if any—need for large numbers.  10,000 was the largest number they had back then, so it’s equally possible that Jesus was exaggerating.  He may have even been trying to be a bit humorous in showing the contrast between the debtor and the man we’ll meet in the next few verses.

26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.  (Matthew 18:26-27)

The king must by this point seem equally crazy to forgive such a massive debt.  But it’s also why the forgiven debtor’s next actions seem so appalling:

28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. (Matthew 18:28-30)

Let’s do the math again.  The debtor had been forgiven several billion dollars.  Now, in the system of the Ptolemies, if you were forgiven your debts by a superior, anyone beneath you was required to be released from their debts as well.  The debtor probably knew this, but still tried to get some money from his fellow servant.  How much was 100 denarii?  A lot less than 10,000 talents, that’s for sure.  Keener puts it at 0.2 talents, or about 30,000 U.S. dollars.  That’s still a lot, but let’s remember that it’s 500,000 times the amount he was forgiven!  And while the king had tried to sell the debtor, the debtor now inflicts physical harm on his fellow servant.  Maybe—just maybe—it wasn’t really about the money.  Maybe it was about feeling in control.

31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:31-35)

Can we “monetize” hurt?  We may try; we can even sue for “pain and suffering.”  But it’s impossible to truly deal with the kinds of hurts we endure.  We can cover them over, but the hurt bleeds through every time.

In recent years psychology has taken to calling this “emotional debt.”  When someone hurts us, we feel a sense of internal burden.  What do we do with that burden?  Like the unforgiving debtor, we shift our pain downward—or at least outward.  We try and spread it around.   But, says traditional religion, we shouldn’t feel as bad as all that. We should forgive; it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?

In the absence of grace, in the absence of the cross, such forgiveness is impossible, because no one is equipped to deal with this emotional debt.  We can forgive, but now we’re forced to pay the debt ourselves.  How?  When we choose to forgive rather than run someone down, it hurts.  When we choose to wish that person success and not failure, it hurts.  When we choose to not hold a grudge, it hurts.

On the cross, Jesus absorbed all our debt—spiritual and emotional.  This means two things.  First, it means that like the unforgiving debtor, I am forgiven the enormous magnitude of debt in the eyes of God.  But second, I may look to the cross as a source of justice.  If I have been wronged in some way, I may rightly recognize that my offender deserves to pay for what he or she did.  The gospel says that instead of God taking the blood from my offender, he offers his own through Jesus.  So if I crave justice, if I crave satisfaction, I may look to the cross to find it.  But that also means that I no longer look to my offender to make absolute payment for his offense.  We’ll talk in the coming days about the role of earthly justice and repentance, but for now we rightly stand before the cross in awe of the mercy extended to both ourselves and others, a mercy that flows down to mingle with our tears and wash clean our pasts so as to clear a way for our futures.   Religion makes forgiveness necessary, but it is only the cross that makes forgiveness possible.

 

“To err is human…” (Matthew 18:15-22)

Pop quiz: What emotion tends to “go viral” most frequently?  If you remember from a few weeks ago, things “go viral” when they get shared through social media and email.  We might share news stories, videos, short pieces of writing, etc.  So if we survey all that, what emotion has the best chance of spreading throughout the internet?  Is it happiness?  Sadness?  Humor?  It’s anger, at least according to recent reports from the Smithsonian Magazine.  In 2014, Matthew Shaer reports:

“Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, reached a similar conclusion after conducting a study in the United States. “Anger is a high-arousal emotion, which drives people to take action,” he says. “It makes you feel fired up, which makes you more likely to pass things on.” (Matthew Shaer, “What Emotion Goes Viral the Fastest?” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2014)

Anger—particularly reactions to perceived injustice—seems to thrive when shared.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with anger, necessarily; it would be troubling if we responded to injustice or offense with indifference.

Jesus understood that as the church increased, so too would the opportunities for hurt and betrayal.  So Jesus outlined for his disciples a general method for dealing with pain within the church:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)

Today we call this “church discipline.”  Now I know what you might be thinking, but “discipline” in this context isn’t about punishment but about restoration and keeping the community intact.  Still, the idea of having to bear with one another must have seemed a bit troubling to Jesus’ followers.

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him,“I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)

In some ancient cultures, the number seven was conceived of as bearing special significance.  So Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples to keep a journal; he was telling them that their forgiveness should be limitless.

That’s hard.  After all, there are some things that can be forgiven through an apology and some sort of restitution.  If I wreck your car, then I owe you the cost of the damage.  But not everything can be so neatly measured in dollars.  What about things that can’t be fixed through a simple apology?  Relational betrayal, lies, manipulation—these leave us with what pop psychologists have started calling “emotional debt.”  We feel better when we can distribute this debt around: we might run down that person in front of other people, we might vent our frustration to close friends, we might fantasize or wish for their unhappiness—or worse.  In 2009, you might recall the scandal surrounding the South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.  His affairs were quite public, as was the emotional toll on his wife, Jenny.  In September of that year, Vogue magazine ran a feature story on Jenny Sanford, though you’d have to skim to the end to really see the fruits of Jenny’s faith start to emerge.  Regarding the affair, she said:

“If you don’t forgive…you become angry and bitter. I don’t want to become that. I am not in charge of revenge. That’s not up to me. That’s for the Lord to decide, and it’s important for me to teach that to my boys. All I can do is forgive. Reconciliation is something else, and that is going to be a harder road. I have put my heart and soul into being a good mother and wife. Now I think it’s up to my husband to do the soul-searching to see if he wants to stay married. The ball is in his court.” (Rebecca Johnson, “Notes on a Scandal,” September 17, 2009, Vogue)

Jenny’s courage and character are equally admirable, as his her admission that forgiveness is part of a larger, lengthier process.

As Christians, we are called to forgive one another.  The natural question is: “How?”  But that’s what makes the parable Jesus tells—that is, the parable we’ll be looking at this Sunday—so unusual.  Jesus doesn’t go on to explain a method for forgiving others; he goes on to explain the basis for forgiving others.  See, it’s easy to say: “Forgive others because the Bible says so,” or to insist on forgiveness as part of a larger moral code.  Many religions have exactly that.  If that’s true, what becomes of our “emotional debt?”

Come along with us on Sunday as we explore the answer—though for now let’s pause and ask God’s Spirit to search our hearts for any unconfessed or unaddressed anger, that we might pursue healing first of all for ourselves, and second to step toward healing in our relationships.