The Mercy of God (Exodus 20: 1-20; Matthew 18: 21-35)
by T.V. Philip
T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Exodus 20: 1-20; Matthew 18: 21-35
You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? (Matt. 18: 32-33)
Jesus told several parables to illustrate the nature of the kingdom of God. The meaning of the kingdom of God, which is the central message of Jesus, is the unlimited love and mercy of God. A number of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom refer to this love of God. The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who hires people who are unemployed, hiring them at different times of the day but paying them equally. "Are you envious because I am generous," he asks.
The kingdom of God is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet. When those who were invited did not turn up, he tells his servants: "Go there in the street and gather everyone for the banquet".
Or it is like a man who had hundred sheep; if one is lost, he leaves the ninety nine and goes after the lost? It is not the will of my father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
Or, the kingdom of God is like the woman who lost one coin and sweeps the whole place until she finds it. Then she calls the neighbors and says, "Rejoice with me". "I tell you", says Jesus, "there will be joy before the angels of God in heaven over the one sinner who repents".
The kingdom of God is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servant. When the man, whose debt ran into millions, fell down at his master’s feet and prayed, "Be patient with me", the master took pity on him and let him go free.
The kingdom of God is about the unlimited love of God, about the unlimited patience of God, about the unlimited forgiveness of God. We often want to set limits to God’s mercy and forgiveness. This is what Peter wanted. He asked Jesus how many times he should forgive. He wanted to be exact, he wanted to be definite and he wanted to draw the line when to forgive and when not to forgive.
In the same way, there are unwritten laws in the church about forgiveness. The kingdom of God is the unbound bounty of God. We are often impatient with God because he is generous in his forgiveness. Jonah was very angry with God for forgiving the people of Nineveh. In the parable of the householder who hired laborers at different times and paid them all equally, the people who were engaged first were envious of the generosity of the householder.
God cannot be God if he is not forgiving. In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve: You can eat everything except the fruit of one tree. If you eat, you will die. The wages of sin is death. They ate, they were entitled to die. Will God’s love allow them to die? Can he break his own law and spare them? God was in a dilemma. What did he do? He himself became a human being in order to receive the punishment which was meant for human beings and died instead of them. This is how St. Atbanasius of Alexandra and some of the other early church fathers explained the meaning of incarnation. God cannot be God if he is not forgiving. So what is our response?
The king asked the unforgiving servant: Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you? I remitted the whole of your debt when you appealed to me. Were you not bound to show your fellow servant the same pity I showed you?
Our first lesson for today, Exodus chapter 20, begins thus: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage". Then follows the Ten Commandments. The Law was not given so that Israel could work out its own salvation; it was not a means of salvation at all. It was given to a people who were already saved. The observance of the Law is a joyful response to a God who has shown mercy. The recipients of God’s mercy must respond in a particular way and shape their life accordingly. "You shall have no other God beside me". You should respect the rights of your fellow human beings and show mercy as I have shown mercy.
There is a beautiful story about Gautama Buddha. One fine morning Buddha was walking on the edge of a lotus pond in paradise. Though the lotus leaves covered the pond, Buddha could see hell deep below, all blood and fire and thousands crying and cursing. Among them Buddha recognized a person whose name was Kandata -- a bandit who murdered people while on earth. But Buddha remembered that Kandata did one good thing.
One day as Kandata was walking, he saw a small spider creeping on his way. He lifted his leg intending to kill it, but he did not. He thought that, though the spider was small, it was endowed with life, and so he spared it. Buddha while watching remembered this good deed of Kandata and thought of helping him. Then Buddha saw a spider making a web with its silver thread on a lotus leaf. He picked up the spider thread with his hand and let it down to Kandata. Kandata took the end of the thread and started to climb up. He felt the thread strong and almost reached paradise. Then he looked down and saw many others taking the spider thread and climbing up. Kandata was angry and called out, This thread is mine, you sinners get down, otherwise the thread will break. Then the thread broke and all went down including Kandata.
The thread was Buddha’s compassion. The thread of Buddha’s compassion could bear the burden of all creatures in suffering, but it could not bear the burden of one person trying to save himself at the expense of others. Buddha was very sad that day. Where compassion is lost, where forgiveness is lost, there is no God. "So also my heavenly Father will do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."