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What the parable of the forgiven debt says about reparations

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A "Black Lives Matter" banner hangs on the fence erected around the White House to protest the death of George Floyd in Washington, D.C., on June 10, 2020. |

As I’ve been writing about reparations, I’ve had the opportunity to think deeply and consider the issue from different perspectives. I’ve appreciated the occasion to grow in my theology of the issue. I continue to maintain that enacting reparations on a federal level is both practically impossible and biblically unjust.

Practically speaking, it would be virtually impossible to enact reparations on a federal level in a way that was both organized and fair. Even lawmakers supporting the idea of reparations admit that making it happen is not likely. Which makes me wonder why it continues to be a topic of our news cycle during elections.

Biblically, there is nothing just or fair about making people that never had slaves pay restitution for the crimes and sins of people many generations ago. Such an idea violates numerous biblical principles.

But one aspect to this topic that I have not discussed is forgiveness.

In Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 18:21-25) we read the parable of the unforgiving servant. You know this one. A servant was hauled in front of the king for owing an outrageously large sum of money. The servant pleads with the king for mercy to which the king responds in mercy by forgiving the debt entirely. The servant then bumps into a fellow servant that owes him a few bucks and begins demanding he pay it back immediately. The fellow servant begs for patience and mercy but receives none. The first servant hauls his fellow servant to jail until he can repay the tiny debt he owes. When the king hears about it, he is enraged and demands the servant give account. The king reminds the unforgiving servant of the massive debt he owed and how he was shown mercy and should have been merciful to his fellow servant.

The meaning of this parable, some say, relates to the civil practices of ancient Israel and their violation of debt release laws established by God. Economist Jerry Bower writes in his book, The Maker Versus The Takers,

The fact the saying is immediately followed by a parable about debt and the parable is introduced with a ‘for this reason’ transitional statement pretty much cements the case that the sabbatical year system of debt release was in view in the entire passage, including the parable itself.” (pgs. 80-81)

The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics

This practical application of the passage is likely true. But the spiritual principle underlying the parable is still present. That spiritual principle is simple: those who have been forgiven much, should forgive others of much.

As Christians, we have been forgiven an eternally insurmountable debt. All of our sins have been washed in the blood of Christ and our redemption and atonement have been secured. Our debt was so large that no amount of works, no amount of self-atonement was possible. We were utterly hopeless. But then Jesus secured our forgiveness. How can we, who have been forgiven so much, refuse to forgive anyone else?

Do we have a right to hold a grudge against the people of our nation’s history for their past racial sins? No.

Do we have a right to refuse forgiveness to the person with different skin than our own for the racial sins of their ancestors? No.

Do we have a right to demand anyone pay for the sins of other people? No.

Reparations is a political tool used to divide entire groups of people: black and white, this Christian and that Christian, etc. In public politicians seeking to be elected (or re-elected) will talk of reparations because they know it will fire people up, people whose votes they need. But even now, the Democratic Party (the party of reparations) holds majorities in the House, Senate, and Presidency, and yet there has been no movement on reparations. They know that it is not practically possible and that they can’t even get a majority of their own party to support the measure (moderate Democrats in swing districts would lose their office quickly). So, they talk about reparations during election cycles and then ignore it until they need it again.

True racial healing cannot be achieved from government coercion or intervention; government will only exacerbate the issue. True racial healing, especially for Christians, is found in the forgiveness given to us all through Jesus Christ. As long as we hold onto the sins of the past, we pervert the grace extended to us in Christ and tell the lost world that Jesus simply isn’t enough. Because Jesus has forgiven us every sin, and mercifully extended grace to us though we are undeserving, it should be our goal to do the same. Martin Luther eloquently states the point:

“It is therefore decreed when we deal with God that we must stand free, and let goods, honor, right, wrong, and every thing go that we have; and we will not be excused when we say: I am right, therefore I will not suffer a man to do me wrong, as God requires that we should renounce all our rights and forgive our neighbor… Hence no one should be so wicked and allow himself to be so angry, as to be unable to forgive his neighbor. And, as is written, if he would even offend you seventy times seven times, that is, as often as he is able to offend you, you are to let your right and claim go, and freely give him everything. Why so? Because Christ has also done the same for you…”

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

Genuine forgiveness is a better testimony to a lost world than any government induced olive branch. And forgiveness is lasting on an individual level and the spark needed to bring the fire of social and cultural change.

Nathan Cherry is a financial advisor specializing in personal financial management and debt reduction. After more than a decade in church ministry, Nathan found a place for his talents in money management in the financial services industry working for a respected financial planning firm. Nathan also writes on social and moral issues at www.nathancherry.com.

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