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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Matthew 18:21-35

Amidst today’s solemn gatherings, plaintive recollections, and lachrymose tributes which will honor the thousands murdered on 9/11, we should also pause and contemplate the cost of American “justice.”

This article is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to david.true@wilson.edu.

Amidst today’s solemn gatherings, plaintive recollections, and lachrymose tributes which will honor the thousands murdered on 9/11, we should also pause and contemplate the cost of American “justice.”  The cost of our vengeance has been incredibly steep, possibly totaling $4 trillion dollars for wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  With the war being financed almost totally by borrowed funds, $185 billion dollars in interest has had to be repaid and incessant US military offensives and operations have created 7.8 million Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakastani refugees.   Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed as a result of our wars, and over five thousand American troops have tragically lost their lives.  This is what happens when anger runs amok and bitterness takes root in the soul.

In this case, the soul of America has been almost irrevocably hardened and scarred by the brazen attacks of a group of terrorists ten years ago.  Taken aback by the prospect of anybody challenging her lofty position atop the international pecking order, America has unleashed her immense strength and might against her enemies.  And now, ten years later after the horrific historical event that has entered our shared national vocabulary as “9/11,” we poignantly stand together before the majestic “Old Glory” who waves.  And even though the glare of the rockets and explosion of bombs don’t always speak to us regarding the gruesome horror of war, they at least assure us that she’s still there.

But for how long? In the parable from this week’s lectionary text, a servant, his family, and his possessions are going to be sold to pay the servant’s debt of ten thousand talents, an extremely large sum of money.  After begging for mercy, the master of the house cancels his servant’s debt.  This same servant goes and finds another fellow servant who owes him one hundred denarii—a woefully meager sum of money—and demands that he pay him back.  When this other servant begs for mercy, the servant whose master had forgiven him shows his fellow servant no empathy and has him thrown into prison.

It is nearly inconceivable that someone who experienced such exorbitant forgiveness could be so deficient in compassion.  Jesus develops this contrast because he knows just how incredulous his listeners would become upon hearing it.  However, like Nathan told King David who became apoplectic after hearing Nathan’s story of the ewe, Jesus tells his listeners “You are the ones.”  You are the ones who have been forgiven and blessed by God, but who have the propensity to perform equally hypocritical, cruel, and unjust acts.

Jesus looks at America and says, “You are the one.”  You are the one who has prospered militarily, financially, socially, and culturally, but you hide a vicious thirst for blood behind a sanitized language of war and conquest. You are the one who fabricated an attack that led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the build-up of force in Vietnam, which eventually led to the death of three million Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.  Jesus reminds us that we are the ones who conquered, colonized, and brutalized millions of Native Americans, Mexicans, Japanese, and African-Americans for financial gain.  You are the ones who still refuse to forgive the escalating debt of Third World countries but force them to continue trading with us to their own detriment.  You are the ones who have been shown grace, but yet refuse to forgive.  The difference between America and the king in our text is that this king knew that he was one catastrophe away from servant hood, and thus one disastrous occurrence away from needing mercy himself.  He could show mercy because he knew that one day he himself could need it.  In the midst of our ardent cultural expressions of national pride, do we not realize that we will not rule forever, and that one day we too will need mercy?

I do not want to gloss over the deep hurt and pain that so many families still endure annually on this day as they are reminded of their loved ones whose flames of promise were violently and prematurely extinguished ten years ago.  However, I cannot ignore an responsibility to call America to the critical reflexivity that will lead to true repentance.  What centuries ago was unfathomable is now in sight.  China holds over $900 billion of our debt, a sum that costs us over $100 million a day in interest alone.  As one journalist puts it, “China’s huge accumulation of US dollars gives it the sway to lead the United States by the nose like a sheep to slaughter, holding in its hands the power to decide the economic destiny of the now collapsing American empire.”  One day, sooner or later, we too will be seeking forgiveness.

The parable concludes with the master hearing about the terrible thing that his servant had done.  In anger, he turns him over to jailers to be tortured until the servant’s debt of ten thousand talents is paid.  Jesus concludes, “This is how my heavenly father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Regarding 9/11, let there be no more mass bloodshed and no more wars.  Enough is enough. After ten years, let us remember the atrocities perpetuated that day, but let us remember that we have been forgiven of much worse, and we may soon desperately need mercy ourselves.

Aaron Howard is a second year PhD candidate in Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University. He is an ordained elder in the Church of God in Christ and has been happily married to his wife Mimi for 12 years. He has two children, a son Yosef, and a daughter named Blaine.

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