In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a parable to help us understand the kingdom of heaven. A modern translation removes the cultural difficulties of the amounts owed.
“One day a king decided to call in his officials and ask them to give an account of what they owed him. As he was doing this, one official was brought in who owed him fifty million silver coins. But he didn’t have any money to pay what he owed. The king ordered him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all he owned, in order to pay the debt. The official got down on his knees and began begging, ‘Have pity on me, and I will pay you every cent I owe!’ The king felt sorry for him and let him go free. He even told the official that he did not have to pay back the money.
“As the official was leaving, he happened to meet another official, who owed him a hundred silver coins. So he grabbed the man by the throat. He started choking him and said, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ The man got down on his knees and began begging, ‘Have pity on me, and I will pay you back.’ But the first official refused to have pity. Instead, he went and had the other official put in jail until he could pay what he owed.
“When some other officials found out what had happened, they felt sorry for the man who had been put in jail. Then they told the king what had happened. The king called the first official back in and said, ‘You’re an evil man! When you begged for mercy, I said you did not have to pay back a cent. Don’t you think you should show pity to someone else, as I did to you?’ The king was so angry that he ordered the official to be tortured until he could pay back everything he owed.” – Matthew 18:23-34, Contemporary English Version.
A question that strikes the reader is “What was that guy thinking?” He knew what just happened. Matthew says “As the official was leaving he happened to meet another official.” He was still wiping the perspiration from his brow and the dirt from his knees with his shaking hands. You can’t help but wonder how in the world he could not see the idiocy of his actions.
But if you think a little longer about it, and compare yourself to him, the man is not all that hard to understand. When you remember the horrible, but unrepentant, things you said to someone close to you; followed by the remorse and apologies over forgetting an appointment with a client, you realize that you and that guy are breathing the same air.
In his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, C. S. Lewis reflects for a moment on the odd and often unreliable ways our sin and emotions interact.
“Anyway, in solitude, and also in confession, I have found (to my regret) that the degrees of shame and disgust which I actually feel at my own sins do not at all correspond to what my reason tells me about their comparative gravity. Just as the degree to which, in daily life, I feel the emotion of fear has very little to do with my rational judgment of the danger. I’d sooner have really nasty seas when I’m in an open boat than look down in perfect (actual) safety from the edge of a cliff. I have confessed ghastly uncharities with less reluctance in small unmentionables — or those sins which happen to be ungentlemanly as well as un-Christian. Our emotional reactions to our own behavior are of limited ethical significance.”1
The whole notion that what we feel has no bearing on what we’ve done is disconcerting. So is how Jesus ends the parable.
“That is how my Father in heaven will treat you, if you don’t forgive each of my followers with all your heart.” – Matthew 18:35.
- C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012), 99.