Matthew 18:21-35 through the Filter of Three Books

Summary of the Bible Passage:

A rich guy owned a number of slaves. Slave #1 owed the rich guy the equivalent of about $16 million in silver but didn’t have it to pay back. The rich guy decided to recoup what he could by selling the slave and his family and all their possessions, but Slave #1 pleaded and asked for mercy and the rich guy gave it – he decided to cancel the debt and not sell the slave. Slave #1 was very pleased.

Slave #2 owed about $600 to Slave #1 and he couldn’t pay and he asked for mercy. Slave #1 did not grant it and threw him in jail until he could pay. The other slaves were upset about this treatment and told the rich guy. The rich guy summoned Slave #1, reinstated the huge debt and had him tortured as punishment for treating Slave #2 so poorly.

What Jesus’ audience was supposed to understand about this parable:

  1. The rich guy represents God,
  2. God has done so much for people (represented by Slave #1) that they could never pay Him back,
  3. God wants us to treat our fellow human beings (represented by Slave #2) with respect and fairness, and share some of God’s gifts with them,
  4. If we act selfishly, God will get pissed and punish us (Jesus’ message was about the Kingdom of God, or what Christians today call heaven).

The Three “Filter” Books:

  1. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (2012),
  2. Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari (2015), and
  3. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (2016).

I am writing this as a privileged, middle-aged (if I live to be 110) white male American. My wife & I grew up in small rural towns in lower middle-class to middle-class families. Due to innate abilities, good timing, some excellent choices and the opportunities the United States offers its citizens, we have jumped up the economic ladder.

Still, we have that experience of struggling with money – both in our early years together and as children in our parents’ homes. We had to weigh the cost of childcare versus the advantages of stay-at-home parenthood, for example, and for a few years, we had to juggle one car and – this is really hard to believe now – we kept the thermostat at 62F (17C) in winter.

Those struggles give me insight into how political decisions affect more than just those in my current socioeconomic class. I fear most of our elected officials on the state and federal level are unable to make the same connections because they may always have been in the privileged classes.

As a result, we get policies and legislation based on beliefs which may not be based in fact. The prime example is tax policy. Many politicians state emphatically that cutting taxes on the rich stimulates the economy. There is definitive evidence that counters that claim (“Tax Cuts for Whom” by Dr. Owen M. Zidar). When taxes are cut for the wealthy, the windfall is most often saved or invested in ways that do not stimulate the economy, especially in a downturn. Over the two years following a tax cut, there is no localized job growth that results from spending by the wealthy.

Now for the bible passage.

Why is it that Christians in the United States are more likely than non-Christians to consider a homeless person to be lazy? Part of the answer may lie with how many white Christians relate to Mathew 18:21-35.

We privileged white people have produced a system in the United States which makes it much easier for us to succeed and for black and Hispanic people to fail. It began with slavery, continued on through Jim Crow laws and segregated schools, and graduated into immigration policy and mass incarceration. The resulting environment of concentrated non-white communities with high incidences of felonies form a virtual wall to prevent the potentially successful person of color from escaping.

We privileged whites have the means to move to neighborhoods with good schools – self-segregation to benefit our children with more educational opportunities. We aren’t geographically restricted because commuting options abound where there’s money. We are also more likely to save for college and as a result, white college graduates typically have much less student loan debt than black and Hispanic graduates. Less debt translates into higher credit scores and more job and housing opportunities.

This healthy financial start works its way through and builds generation after generation until we end up with the rich guy from the Matthew passage. (Yes, I know that a man living 2,000 years ago in the Middle East wouldn’t be white, but it’s the ‘rich’ part that matters for this analysis.)

Today’s wealthy people own many of the businesses that thrive off the needs of those less fortunate, and in the United States, the less fortunate are more likely to be black and Hispanic. The rich own the rental houses and apartments, the fast food restaurants, the high-interest lending establishments, and the tax preparation franchises.

The people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder may have monetary debt or just a huge barrier to advancement because it takes money to make a step up the ladder. They can’t move to an apartment in a district with better schools because they will need capital for the security deposit and moving costs.  For many people, there is no money left over from the paycheck to save for such a move. They are in debt – one way or another.

So back to the Matthew parable. Wealthy people own the property and own poorer people’s debt. The system means that poor people owe the rich money or services, but once they break the rules, all bets are off. If they can’t make it to work because their car broke down, they can be fired. If they can’t pay rent because they lost their job, they can be evicted. If they are begging on the street because they are homeless, they should get a job and stop being a burden on society.

With respect to mass incarceration, if they possess or sell drugs – one of the few ways to make money in some neighborhoods – they should be labeled felons and sent to prison. It’s a vicious cycle for the poor.

So privileged white people are the rich man from the parable, right? That’s not what Jesus was teaching – God is the rich man.

The privileged white people are Slave #1. According to what Jesus was teaching his Jewish followers and what most Christians believe today, God has done so much for His people that we can never repay Him. God has forgiven us this debt – we don’t have to pay it back.

The disadvantaged in the United States are represented by Slave #2. He owes a debt to those better off. It’s a burden, but may eventually be paid off if they can go long enough without another problem cropping up. We, however, are on the lookout for broken rules – and there are many, many rules. We want them to be fiscally responsible even as we squeeze them financially and make that difficult. We want them to use the products we sell or rent, but punish them if they don’t pay on time. We want them to support themselves and their families, but go out of our way to ensure that higher pay and benefits are not written into law. We will throw them in prison if they don’t follow our rules just like Slave #1 does to Slave #2.

You would think that Christians would have a problem with how they treat the less fortunate if they believe this parable told by Jesus. God is going to be pissed at us privileged white people and we’re going to be punished. Shouldn’t that modify our behavior? Wouldn’t that mean we would be more compassionate to those less fortunate than we are?

Only if we think of ourselves as Slave #1.

If we relate more to the rich man, the formula changes. The rich man shows both compassion and retribution just as we may rally around a black inner-city student who defies the odds and gets accepted to Harvard, but throw a 14 year-old in jail for selling pot. The rich man will honor those who guard our freedom and safety (the military and police), regardless of race, but will harshly punish those we perceive as threats (immigrants, black youths wearing hoodies in their own neighborhoods, black drivers). They look at the Slave #1/Slave #2 relationship and think of black-on-black violence and muse, “Why can’t they behave more like us?”

I suspect that when most white Christians read Matthew 18:21-35, they think they are the rich man. Just like him, they have the money and power, they want the rules followed, and they can be charitable when the situation warrants it.

That’s not what Jesus was trying to teach, but then again, it may be hard for many modern white Christians to relate to the 2,000 year old message. After all, Jesus spent a lot of time talking about how corrupt those in power were – a difficult concept for the privileged white class to wrap their heads around.

About tonyj126

I'm a 50+ married man who always seems to have a large backlog of work to do, but also a lot of flexibility in my schedule. Much of the work I do is volunteer or taking care of extended family members. I suffer from, as my priest calls it, "the sin of self-sufficiency," which means I can figure out how to do most things myself, and consequently, reduce the need for community to solve problems. As a logical extention (at least to me), I find myself called to comtemplate the country's and the world's woes and offer my observations. I hope someone out there will find them useful.
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