Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if someone in the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive that person? Seven?”
Jesus answered, “It’s not a number. It’s as many times as it takes. The goal is like this:
The secretary of the treasury needed to settle the national debt. So he had the Department of Homeland Security haul in a banker who owed $163 billion. Since the banker couldn’t pay, he ordered the banker to a lifetime jail sentence without trial or parole in Guantanamo, and his entire family fortune along with that of his wife and children confiscated. So the banker fell on his knees and pleaded, “Have patience, and I will repay everything.” Seeing this, the secretary changed his mind about it and let him go, and besides that wrote off the whole $163 billion right then and there.
That same banker, went back to his office and called in the mortgage of a mill worker in Cleveland, who was behind on his payments by $500. The mill worker filled out all the paperwork, applied for all the available loan modification programs, but still the banker refused to relent, and threw the mill worker, together with his family, out on the street, and then threatened to press criminal charges unless the entire mortgage was paid in full.
When the mill worker’s co-workers, and the other working-class folk in his neighborhood heard what happened, they were outraged. They wrote to the secretary of the treasury and told him what was going on. Then the secretary summoned the banker back to his office, and said to him, “You ungrateful bastard! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have the decency to do the same thing? And he handed the banker over for extraordinary rendition to a secret CIA gulag in Uzbekistan to be tortured until he paid the whole $163 billion.
“Now,” said Jesus, “consider what you’ve been forgiven, and then treat your fellow church members – and anyone else, for that matter – likewise, remembering that you, too, could wind up in Uzbekistan.”
There’s no need for extensive commentary here, because when we look at the parable as Jesus might have told it today, it’s implications are, for the most part, self-evident.
You can almost hear the back-story for Peter’s question. Someone has offended Peter on numerous occasions (maybe seven), and Peter wants to know at what point he can retaliate. He poses his question, as people often do, in the form of a theoretical situation: “What if?” The question’s deception is to imply that this issue is not about me personally. Same as when someone says, “I have a friend who …” It makes no difference what commentators say about seven being the number of offenses to be forgiven in the popular rabbinical literature of the day. Nor does Jesus care about keeping score. For Jesus it’s about working through differences, whatever that takes. And Jesus knows it really is about the person asking.
Frequently, interpretations of this parable try to make out the secretary of the treasury (the king in most translations) as standing in the place of God. But it clearly doesn’t work. It makes no sense whatsoever that Jesus intended to represent God as a fickle, whimsical, government financier who one moment threatens, the next writes off huge debts, and then sends someone off to be tortured. (Well, maybe it does if you’re Michele Bachmann, but not for sane people.)
But this isn’t about God, it’s about Jesus’ vision for community among ordinary folk. The story designed to place the outrageous alongside the common ways real power impinges on everyday life, and then to ask the reader (or the hearer): Given the unequal distribution of power and debt in your relationships, what will you do?