We Americans live in a meritocratic society, and in many ways this is a good thing.
Fifty years ago, the laws of several states segregated children into allegedly “separate, but equal” schools. (Definitely separate, hardly equal!) America’s Ivy League universities accepted “legacy” students, whose parents had attended before them, but put strict quotas on the number of incoming Jewish students. And Southern lunch counters were off limits to paying customers, at least if they were black.
Today, of course, those legal barriers to equality have been removed. The law judges people on the basis of “the content of their character,” not “the color of their skin,” in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. It judges them on the basis of merit, in other words—what they deserve, rather than the accidental qualities of race or religion.
As I said, this meritocracy is a good thing.
And yet, as just and beneficial as meritocracy is socially and politically, it can be very unhealthy spiritually. What, after all, do you and I deserve from God? We like to think that we deserve the best from God, but the truth is exactly the opposite. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6.23). A spiritual meritocracy would land us all in hell. Happily for us, God does not judge us on the basis of merit. Instead, he gives us mercy. Then, he expects us to pass it along. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt. 5.7)
Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 18.21–35 that drives home both points, that God is merciful and that we should be too. It begins with a question from Peter: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” In response, Jesus said, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (or perhaps, seventy times seven). The rabbis held that a man need only forgive a brother three times. Peter offer of a sevenfold forgiveness was quite generous. Jesus’ demand, however, takes your breath away. To help Peter (and us) understand his answer, Jesus tells the aforementioned parable.
It seems that a servant of a king ran up a debt of 10,000 talents. A talent is approximately a years’ wages. The man’s debt was simply unpayable. The king ordered that the man and his family be sold into slavery as partial payment of the debt. “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”
We’ll consider the second half of the parable tomorrow, but for now, simply consider what has happened. Mercy has triumphed over meritocracy. The man deserved to be sold off. He wasn’t. He asked for more time to pay off the debt. He was refused. Instead, the entire debt was canceled. This is a parable of God and us, of how he deals with our sins, not by judging us, nor by requiring us to work them off in Purgatory, but by forgiving them outright.
As I said at the outside, meritocracy is in many ways a good thing. But when it comes to our sins, thank God heaven is not a meritocracy.