Forgiving Debt and Lending Money

Q. Mt 18:23-25 That is why the kingdom from heaven may be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he had begun to settle the accounts, a person who owed him 10,000 talents was brought to him. Because he couldn’t pay, his master ordered him, his wife, his children, and everything that he owned to be sold so that payment could be made.

Lk 6:34 If you lend to those from whom you expect to get something back, what thanks do you deserve? Even sinners lend to sinners to get back what they lend.

The theme of the parable of the unforgiving servant is not about money but about forgiveness. However, on the surface, it looks look Luke is stepping on the toes of Matthew. What is your verdict on lending money or other things?

A. You are right in observing that the parable of the unmerciful servant in Mt 18:23-35 is not about money but forgiveness. Although the text mentioned “owed” and “debt”, the amount is simply too big to be considered ordinary lending.

If you read your NIV footnotes, you will see that a talent was worth about 20 years of a day laborer’s wages. He owed the king 10,000 talents. Let’s bring this to today’s terms. Assuming a round C$12/hour, 8 hours/day, 300 days a year (no work on Sabbaths & feast days), a year’s wage = C$12 X 8 X 300 = C$28,800, more if he works over 8 hours a day, say C$30,000 in round terms. So 10,000 talents = C$30,000/year X 20 years/talent X 10,000 talents = C$6,000,000,000! There is no way a king would lend his servant $6 billion! Possibly, the servant was one of the king’s officials who mismanaged the kingdom’s finances and lost this staggering sum, just like our current ministers :-).

Lk 6:34, on the other hand, is about “love your enemies” using lending as an illustration. It is real lending since “lend” is repeated 3 times in v 34-35, and “expecting to be repaid” twice. Matthew and Luke are not contradicting each other.

My verdict on lending money depends on whether I am the borrower or the lender. If I were the borrower, my guiding principles are:
Rom 13:7-8 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.

I would avoid debt if at all possible, except things that are too big for me to handle such as buying a house, in which case I would take out as small a mortgage (by using as big a down-payment I can afford) and as short an amortization as possible. It’s not that I don’t know about leverage, as I was a finance professional for over 3 decades before becoming a pastor. It’s just that I believe the Bible more when it comes to financial wisdom.

If I were the lender, my guideline would be:
Lk 6:35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

I would be judicious in discerning whether the borrower has legitimate needs, as I am also a steward of the resources God had entrusted to me. I would balance extending help to relieve the burden, while not encouraging shirking responsibility and dependence on others. If the debtor can repay me, I would accept repayment to use the funds for other worthwhile causes. If he/she cannot pay me back, that’s fine as I do not expect to get anything back. Just helping someone in need is sufficient.

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Least in the Kingdom of Heaven?

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Q. Are Mt 5:19 & 11:11 talking about different kinds of people? Who is the least in the Kingdom? What are these least commandments?

A. The kingdom of God or heaven is not a physical kingdom, but the rule of God on earth:
Lk 17:21 the kingdom of God is in your midst.
Those in the kingdom are the kingdom’s subjects.

Both Mt 5:19 & 11:11 refer to the least in the kingdom i.e. the lowest rank within the kingdom, and are talking about the same kind of people:
Mt 5:19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
• Mt 11:11 Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Also Lk 7:28)

The least in the kingdom of heaven are those who:
• annuls one of the least of the commandments, &
• teaches others to do the same.
“Annuls” translates the Greek verb “lyo” and literally means “loosens” or “relaxes”. It does not mean “breaks”, in which case the perpetrator would be transgressing the law and become a “sinner”, which would disqualify him from the kingdom. It means he complies with the commandment, but not fully, barely meeting the minimum requirements.

Which are the least commandments? The Bible did not say, but note:
Mt 23:23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.
The weightier provisions of the law, or the more important commandments, are justice, mercy, and faithfulness. In comparison, tithing, ceremonial cleansing (Mt 23:25-26), outward appearance (Mt 23:27-28) are lesser matters of the law. Whether they are the least, the Bible did not specify.

Lastly, we can also get some clues from the converse:
Mt 18:1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
• Mt 18:4 Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

The opposite of “the least” is “the greatest” in the kingdom. Who are the greatest? They are the ones who humble themselves like a child:
Mt 23:12 Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
• Lk 14:11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Also Lk 18:14)
• Jas 4:10 Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.

They are greatest because God exalts them. The value system in God’s kingdom is upside-down from the world’s!

Was Uzzah’s Punishment too Harsh? (2 of 2)

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(Continued from yesterday)

Now let’s return to Uzzah’s case. Who carried the ark, and how?
2 Sam 6:2-3 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him to Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the Name, the very name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned above the cherubim. They placed the ark of God on a new cart that they might bring it from the house of Abinadab which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were leading the new cart.

Some assumed that Uzzah was a Levite, based on Josephus (Ant. 6.1, section 4), but the Bible does not state this explicitly. There is no biblical genealogy to prove this. He lived in Baale-judah, another name for Kiriath-jearim (see NASB footnote), also called Baalah (Josh 15:9, 1 Chron 13:6):
1 Chron 13:6 David and all Israel went up to Baalah, that is, to Kiriath-jearim, which belongs to Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, the LORD who is enthroned above the cherubim, where His name is called.
Kiriath-jearim was in Judah (Judg 18:12, 1 Chron 13:6), but was not one of the 23 cities (Josh 21:4-5) given to the Kohathites by the other tribes (Josh 21:9-26; 1 Chron 6:54-61, 66-70). It is possible that Uzzah was a Kohathite not living in a city given to them, but there is no evidence to support this claim. If he was not a Kohathite at all, then he had no business escorting the ark.

Furthermore, they placed the ark on a new cart drawn by oxen, which is definitely against God’s instructions. God’s work must be done God’s way.
1 Chron 13:7, 9-10 They carried the ark of God on a new cart from the house of Abinadab, and Uzza and Ahio drove the cart. … When they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzza put out his hand to hold the ark, because the oxen nearly upset it. The anger of the LORD burned against Uzza, so He struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark; and he died there before God.

Some believe that Uzzah (Uzza) reached out his hand to steady the ark as a natural reflex, but that’s an assumption, eisegesis and not exegesis. The text said God struck him down for his irreverence (2 Sam 6:7). A more likely explanation is that the ark remained at Abinadab’s house for twenty years, and familiarity breeds contempt:

1 Sam 7:1-2 And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took the ark of the LORD and brought it into the house of Abinadab on the hill, and consecrated Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the LORD. From the day that the ark remained at Kiriath-jearim, the time was long, for it was twenty years; and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.

Uzzah no longer considered the ark as the most holy object, and treated it as common. The ark was only nearly upset. Uzzah probably thought if it fell, it might be damaged or soiled by the ground, but did not realize the hand of a disrespectful sinner was more defiling than the dirt, and God struck him down for his irreverence. This punishment was clearly spelled out and had overwhelming precedents. He had no one to blame but himself.

One last point is the distinction between justice and mercy. God was just in punishing Uzzah for what he deserved. The punishment fits the crime. We don’t know Uzzah’s heart, expected God to show mercy, and are dismayed when He did not. But mercy is always voluntary and cannot be expected:
Rom 9:15 I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.
God saw Uzzah’s heart and judged it to be irreverence. He had not treated God as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel (Num 21:12), therefore God gave him justice. Never complain to God “that’s not fair! I want justice!” If God had dealt justly with us we would have died many times over, because the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Beg for His mercy, which we don’t deserve. Never stand in judgment of God.

Was Uzzah’s Punishment too Harsh? (1 of 2)

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Q. Was God’s punishment of Uzzah too severe for the crime?

A. Uzzah’s incident is in 2 Sam 6:6-7:

But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out toward the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen nearly upset it. And the anger of the LORD burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God.

Some felt this was grossly unfair. The oxen nearly upset the ark of the covenant and Uzzah out of the goodness of his heart tried to steady it, yet God immediately struck him dead. Didn’t God over-react? What’s the big deal? He was only trying to help. Why kill a man for such a small thing? Before you decide a case based on your feelings, let’s review what the law says.

First, who should carry the ark?
Deut 10:8 At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to serve Him and to bless in His name until this day.
• Num 4:4 This is the work of the descendants of Kohath in the tent of meeting, concerning the most holy things.
• Num 4:15 When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy objects and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is to set out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them, so that they will not touch the holy objects and die. These are the things in the tent of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry.
• Num 4:18-20 Do not let the tribe of the families of the Kohathites be cut off from among the Levites. But do this to them that they may live and not die when they approach the most holy objects: Aaron and his sons shall go in and assign each of them to his work and to his load; but they shall not go in to see the holy objects even for a moment, or they will die.

God had chosen the tribe of Levi, in particular the families of Kohathites, to carry the ark of the covenant, the most holy object in the most holy place (holy of holies). No one unauthorized may look at the objects and live.

Second, how should the ark be carried?
Ex 25:14 You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark with them.
• Ex 37:5 He put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry it.

The ark should be carried by poles through the rings on its sides, on the shoulders of the Kohathites.

Third, are there any precedents of what happens when the rules are violated? Yes:
1 Sam 6:19 He struck down some of the men of Beth-shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck down of all the people, 50,070 men, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter.
Beth-shemesh was at the Judah-Philistines border. The men of Beth-shemesh were Israelites. God struck down 50,070 of them for looking into the ark. He meant what He said.

(To be continued)