The title of this post refers to Jesus’ parable. It sounds so harsh to us now. The lord didn’t get what he expected out of his servants, and so he sends them away to a place of darkness.
Now fundamentalists (from every church and sect) would have us believe that once you arrive in whatever the spiritual real-world version of this dark place is, there is no real hope that you will ever come out.
But Jesus says, you won’t come out until you “pay the last farthing.”
I want to point out a few things about the assumptions that we can bring to this text, as well as the assumptions underlying the text from its original context.
First, we can bring the assumption that human beings are capable of committing infinite sin. In that case, “until you pay the last farthing,” really means, “endlessly,” because you never get to the end of the payment for an infinite sin.
However, I don’t see any reason to believe that. It’s not in any biblical text. Some people say that the sin is measured, not by its own magnitude, but by the greatness of the person sinned against. Thus, every sin against an infinite God is an infinite sin. We then have the theoretical incongruity of someone suffering unbearable agony, endlessly, for one small error. I think we can leave this possibility aside.
Secondly, we can assume that the payment, the farthing, is quite simply the application of pain. One pays for wrongdoing by suffering, we believe, so we conclude that the fires of hell mentioned elsewhere are the same as this “farthing” mentioned here.
From there, we easily conclude that after death, those who don’t measure up to God’s expectations will be made to suffer endlessly for it.
Why do we assume that we can pay for our wrongdoing by suffering pain? If you think about it long enough, it starts to seem odd. It’s kind of like the child who says to his sister, “No, wait, don’t tell on me for hitting you. Look, you can hit me back, and then we’ll be even.”
But are we capable of hurting God the way we are hurt when he unleashes his terrors on us? This is seems to me like a very good question.
We might also make the assumption that we can pay for our wrongdoing by suffering, when we carry over our experience with our parents. When they became angry with us for something we had done wrong, they would say things like, “You’ll pay for that,” and then hurt us physically. When it was all over – the anger transferred from their hearts and hands and faces into our aching and traumatized bodies – then and only then would peace and reconciliation be possible.
But are we really capable of making God angry? This seems to me like another very good question.
I think that in the traditional understanding of the divine nature, we would cautiously answer no to both these questions. God may have that in his nature of which the image is our incensive power – our ability to be angry. But he does not burn with that enraged, infantile fury that we usually experience as anger. Nor can we damage God – the divine nature is not corruptible.
But I will mention that God does indeed burn against evil deeds, and more importantly even, that he does have a human heart now that he is incarnate in Christ. And the human heart can feel pain. Christ has been wounded for us, has poured out his soul to death for us.
Now let’s look briefly at the original context of the parable.
Did the parents in Bible times beat their children for wrongdoing? Well, in pre-monarchy tribal days, they certainly were allowed to, by law.
Now this in itself means nothing. Remember, Jesus said that the divorce laws allowing a man to abandon his wife for no reason whatsoever was not really God’s will, but was allowed “by Moses,” and only “because of the hardness of your hearts.” It might be the same way with beating. The Israelites had been physically abused by their Egyptian taskmasters. Probably they were already beating their sons, in private, with no restrictions, and for any offense whatsoever.
With tribal government, there was no clear distinction between the government and the family. Thus, the only juvenile justice system was your dad and his dad and the elders of your tribe. The law said that a beating had to be carried out publicly, with testimony, with limitations, and with the agreement of people other than the father.
So the idea was, if you were a young man going down a life-path that would otherwise get you killed – maybe your friends were a local band of thieves and their prostitute friends – it was thought to be the lesser of two evils for your father to take you to the tribe and have you beaten – but not to death – in order to deter you from that path. But only, of course, if he’d tried everything else and you still refused to listen.
We have no actual stories of this happening.
In the Proverbs, the reader is exhorted a few times to beat his children, and particularly his sons. The rational is the same: there is no juvenile justice system, and you may save him from eventual execution. The purpose then, is deterrence, not payment for an otherwise unforgivable offense.
Many readers mistake these proverbs for universal, timeless commandments (and sometimes apply them to tender young children making their first experiments in balk-talk) simply because they are in the imperative mood. But of course, a proverb is a type of literature that uses the imperative in an ironical manner.
Likewise, proverbs that offer predictions or outcomes for a certain behavior are not “divine promises.” They are limited and general predictions of the tendency of certain behaviors to produce certain outcomes. Divine inspiration does not turn limited and conditional statements into absolute and unconditional ones.
Moreover, we now have a juvenile justice system, and the family, much to the grievance of power-hungry types in certain religious circles, is clearly distinct from the government, not only in our day, but even in Jesus’ day.
Perhaps that is one reason why, in the New Testament, no reference to corporal punishment exists from parents to children. But I think we can gather both from history and from the parables that adults did expect corporal punishment from their lords – that is, their governors, their masters, and even their employers. Sometimes this was simply terrible prison conditions. Sometimes it was slavery or other punitive labor. Sometimes it was beating or other punishments.
We may have a hard time imagining how normal this seemed to people then, just as a little over a century ago, wife-beating seemed normal to many “salt of the earth” types.
Jesus uses this expectation in his parables. I get the sense he was saying something like, “If you expect evil results from treating your human lords shamefully, then why do you think it’s safe to test the patience of God, the greatest Lord of all men?”
The Bible does not, therefore, contain any general instructions to cause physical suffering to one’s children as a disciplinary method. Nor does it suggest physical pain as a way of paying for one’s misdeeds and paving the way for reconciliation with God. It does talk about physical punishment as a deterrent and as a human behavior that can be compared to God’s judgment.
Now we all know that comparisons only go so far. In the question of any comparison between human and divine, the question is always very important of how far and in what direction the comparison may be taken.
What is the payment that God wants from people who won’t give him his due?
Well, there’s nothing in the parable to indicate it isn’t deterrence. So it’s entirely possible that this unsatisfactory servant is like the boy represented in the O.T. law who wouldn’t listen to his dad. Rather than see his son’s carcass lying on the desert floor getting its eyes picked out by vultures (what a barbaric age!) he would prefer to have him beaten.
So, God, rather than see someone’s name snuffed out of the book of life, would rather see him suffer in the afterlife for a time, in order that the spark of life within him can be preserved through repentance.
There’s one great big problem with this. Physical pain may deter in a purely behavioral sense, but it invariably alienates emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. I cannot conclude that physical torture in the afterlife is something that God uses to pave the way for reconciliation with the sinner. People’s feelings don’t work that way. As Kalormiros pointed out, you can’t love your torturer.
What, then is the last farthing? What does God want from us when we have sinned?
I think that we, perhaps, are ready for the inner truth hidden in Jesus’ rather scathing parable. This inner truth is spoken of in other places of the scriptures, but hardened sinners tend to make sport of it.
First, read this short article. Read about a girl who responded to corporal punishment by cutting herself and plunging into a deep depression. Read about how she was able to start healing, but only when her parents finally said, “I’m sorry.”
It’s not the mere act of saying sorry, of course. We know that when someone is hurting us, we can say sorry just to make it stop. And no one who needs to hear “sorry,” from someone who has hurt them wants to guilt or coerce them into saying it. Why? Because it matters to us what is in the heart of the person saying it. What hurt us was their betrayal of love – of the sharing of two hearts. What can heal is the reversal of that betrayal, and that alone.
That matters to God, too. He, far more than we do, looks on the heart. He is humble and gentle and forgiving and meets more than halfway the person with the “broken and contrite heart.” Does this mean God wants to break us in order to find us acceptable? Not at all – that would be to import our deeply flawed experience and our resulting assumptions into the text.
So again, what is it that God wants?
I think it is the same thing that any of us wants when we loved someone who wounded us. It is that treasure brought out of the heart. The heart of the sinner is broken in the sense that it is open, like a treasure box. Grief and love have burst open (or eased open) what was wrongfully closed.
What we want and need is the person who grieved us finally coming around and grieving with us, grieving that we are sad, grieving that they are the ones who caused the sadness.
Only then can we believe they love us. Because anyone who did love us would do that for us, when they understood they had hurt us.
God is not stupid – he knows that he cannot coerce that kind of thing by retributive torture.
One Orthodox afterlife tradition has it that all souls are taken to Heaven shortly after death, and allowed to see the holy ones and Christ himself. Then they are shown the regions of the shadow of death, and all the differing habitations of the spiritual world. Only after the full forty-day tour is that soul told where it will reside until the final judgment. I don’t know how authoritative in a literal sense this tradition is, but I tend to use such things in a literary fashion anyhow.
Why would someone who is about to be sent to an afterlife of unending, no-appeals suffering need to be shown God?
This tradition suggests to me that it is the very sight of Christ’s face that begins the process of afterlife reconciliation. The sight of his face ignites the divine flame in the soul. The sight of his face reorients the soul and interprets the actions of life to that soul.
Other flames, of course, are already burning there – the flames of those torments we have already begun to suffer in this life – the flames of arrogance, rage, and refusal to accept reality.
Which flame will win?
And which flame is the farthing?
God doesn’t desire us to burn in arrogance, rage, and refusal. Those dark flames may have to burn themselves out in the soul, and while they do the Lord may exile us from the presence of the souls at rest in the light of his countenance. But they are not the “last farthing” that God wants from us.
It is love God wants, the peaceable, humble grief of love that says, “O my beloved, I have wounded you in your side, in your hands and feet, in your head, and in your Great Heart. How can it be right for me to blithely sing and make merry in the lands of the blessed when I see your beautiful, all-loved face and feel the dissonance between your love for me and my treatment of you and others? Let me sit here and grieve with you, even if it is too late. I’m so sorry.”
Of course, we can begin to do that in this life – and that is what being a Christian means. Many people think that being a Christian means thinking you are the only ones that God loves and will forgive, the only ones who will make it to Heaven. Actually, there are a few Bible verses to that effect, but I choose to interpret them to mean that Christians are seeking salvation through Christ in this life, and by so doing, we are initiating the salvation of the whole world. I don’t think it means that we have no hope for anyone else, although many Orthodox theologians would disagree with me.
What I am talking about is the reality of Persons in relation to persons. It is the reality of love and the dynamic of forgiveness. It is not God looking for narcissistic supply, so I hope I haven’t made it sound that way. It is, rather, God being in genuine relation to us and therefore caring how we relate back to Him. It is God insisting on behaving toward us as toward free, rational daughters and sons, and giving us the full opportunity, in an eternity-oriented setting, to behave toward him as toward our true father, our true beloved, our true Sabbath. And it is the “natural law” of the spiritual world – the law that we are only alive in spirit when our hearts are joined to God, and they are only joined to God when we are exchanging love, trust, and honesty with him. Love is substantive in the spiritual world. It is the very stuff of it. God is love, and God is our true home.
Clearly this life alone does not give us that full opportunity, because nearly all of us experience too much ignorance of our spiritual nature, of God, and of the conditions of the afterlife, for this life to be a complete test of our inclination.
I know that much smarter people than I am have worked on this problem a lot over the years. I feel what I have said is true because of the nature of things, and not because of endless rigorous study, although I’ve done some studying, as well. Hopefully it will be taken in that manner – one person submitting her insight to the judgment of others.
I owe a lot to Fr. Kimmel’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy, as well as to reading George MacDonald, whose rejection of retributive substitutionary atonement, and his arguments for his position on that subject, paved the way for my understanding of this one.