Most Christians at some point have memorized and recited the Lord’s Prayer. In it, we pray that God would forgive our debts, just as we too forgive our debtors (Matt 6:12). Note, though, that the tense of the second use of the verb “forgive” suggests that we come to the prayer having already forgiven those who have hurt or offended us (see, for example, the NASB, NIV, and NRSV). It may suggest an attitude that says, We know you want us to be merciful to others, and we’ve done it; at the same time, we pray for your continued mercy on us!
But we may forget what Jesus says to his disciples immediately after teaching them this prayer:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt 6:14-15, NRSV)
We encounter a similar teaching later in the gospel of Matthew. Peter has come to Jesus asking how many times he should forgive someone who keeps sinning against him. “As many as seven times?” Peter suggests gamely, perhaps thinking that number to be both pious and sufficiently generous. Jesus’ answer no doubt caused Peter’s face to fall: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matt 18:21-22). Jesus’ answer can also be translated “seventy times seven” — was he telling Peter to forgive 490 times?
It is better, I think, to see Jesus as peering past Peter’s question to the attitude beneath: Peter, it’s not about the math. I don’t want you to keep track of how many times someone has offended you. And as usual, to make his point, Jesus told a story.
We know the story as the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt 18:23-35). A king, in the process of settling accounts with his servants, discovers that one has lost “ten thousand talents” of the king’s money — here, read “a gazillion dollars” — in bad business deals. The servant pleads for more time to pay back the debt. But the king grants the pitiful slave an unexpected mercy: he wipes the entire debt off the books.
One would expect the servant to be astonished and jubilant, his heart transformed by this surprising turn of fortune. But no. Leaving the king’s presence, the servant comes upon another servant who owes him money, and refuses to grant the second servant the same mercy he had already received. When the king hears about it, he is furious, and thunders the moral point of the story: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt 18:33). The king’s mercy is withdrawn, and the unmerciful servant is thrown into prison.
Then Jesus delivers the punchline: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt 18:35).
At this point, I imagine Peter gulped and had nothing more to say.
. . .
James, as we’ve seen, invokes the language of law, judgment, and mercy as he attempts to persuade his readers to abandon the way they have been honoring the rich among them and dishonoring the poor. Such favoritism is sin, he teaches (James 2:9). Then, to cap his argument, he makes a statement that seems to echo the teaching of Jesus from the passages above:
For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13)
A similar teaching, positively stated, is found in Jesus’ Beatitudes, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matt 5:7). But what is Jesus saying, here and in the other texts? That if we ever fail to extend mercy to others, if we fail to forgive even once, that we will stand condemned before God?
What we have to remember in each of these texts is that the mercy of God is already assumed, and not something to be earned through good behavior. James, for example, is speaking to people who have already received the gospel; Jesus directs his disciples to address God as “Father.” And strikingly, in the parable of Matthew 18, the servant’s unimaginably large debt is simply wiped away, despite the servant’s irrational and desperate promise to pay the money back somehow. The king is moved to pity and grants mercy. There is nothing in the servant that deserves this.
The servant’s subsequent unmerciful behavior showed that he had never received the king’s mercy as mercy, or else his heart would have been transformed. He had received enormous mercy for an enormous debt, and in turn, refused to grant even an ounce of mercy to someone else for a comparatively minuscule debt. One might say he had come into the king’s presence hoping to buy himself some time, and nothing had changed in his mindset when he left. He was still thinking to repay the debt somehow, by his own means, starting with the hapless fellow to whom he had refused mercy.
He showed, in other words, that he didn’t get it; he didn’t understand what the king had done on his behalf. And Jesus didn’t want his followers to make the same mistake.
The merciful, in other words, receive mercy not because they’ve earned it, but because their behavior demonstrates that they understand what they’ve already been forgiven. They embody the what James calls the “royal law” of love of neighbor.
And as we’ll consider in the next post, James wants his readers to rethink their understanding of the law accordingly.