“Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.”
Jesus hints at something here that He hints at again in the parable of the Shrewd Steward, that those we’ve wronged will have some say in our judgment. In the parable of the Shrewd Steward (coming up soon), the message seems to be, “Be merciful to debtors, because they will receive you into their eternal home on the day of your judgment.” Huh?
But in Jesus’ teaching here, a similar dynamic seems to be set up. Evidently we’re dealing with someone who has abused a brother. He’s been angry at him, accusing him of wrongdoing, calling him names, even possibly accusing him of being unworthy of God (“fool”). This is a judgment, a judgment that turns the brother into a debtor unworthy of the altar.
Jesus teaches to go and undo that error, because He has opened the altar up to all, no matter what the perceived sin was. He Himself forgives, and He wants His brethren to forgive as well.
Because, He teaches, if we don’t, that adversary will hand us over to the judge (Himself) who will then hand us over to an officer (an angel) and put us in a prison from which we can pay to get out of (???). So, presumably, if we go to the brother with forgiveness and mercy, reconciling with him, we can avoid that punishment. And we will be received into our eternal homes. Again, very similar to the Parable of the Shrewd Steward.
As to the idea that the saints will judge the earth, we have some Scriptural justification outside of these two passages, like St. Paul’s comment that…the saints will judge the earth. Or Jesus again mentions the disciples will sit on twelve thrones “judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Is Jesus teaching with this final judgment of the twelve in mind? Are the “brothers” who may have something against us, the apostolic ministers and ministers who follow in their office, who “have something against us” insofar as they represent Christ in the Church and the need for constant repentance and confession? Doesn’t the Law always “have something against us”? And don’t the ministers bear responsibility for teaching and preaching the Law? Finally, doesn’t Jesus refer to the “least of these my brethren” as representing Himself, so that what is done to them is done to Him?
If this is the case (and I’m not totally convinced it is, but it is an interesting interpretation), then Jesus is teaching confession here. Before going to the altar, confess your sins. Be reconciled to the brother you have wronged, who is ultimately Jesus, but in our context is the “brother” He sent to represent Himself in the Church. Be reconciled to him/Him. He has just declared the altar a place of reconciliation, so you know you’ll get forgiven. If you don’t, who but Jesus has the right to turn you over to the officer to be sentenced to jail til every penny is paid off?
In turn, of course, Jesus teaches the apostolic ministers too that if they don’t forgive the confessing brother, they too will be in trouble: “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” This Jesus taught after giving Peter the keys.
A picture is emerging from Jesus’ introductory words in the New Testament. Love, forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation, forgiveness are what His altar is all about, and what the brothers in His family are all about. Those who fail in this love and forgiveness, and by doing so keep others from attaining to that altar, are warned in the fiercest words, words reserved for the damned and heretical.
But yet, is there a hope implied, that perhaps the pennies can ultimately be paid off? Jesus does say, “Til you have paid the last penny.” That suggests the wrongdoer can eventually get out. Thus think the Roman Catholics, who believe this alludes to purgatory.
If so, this poses an interesting question, namely, how will the imprisoned get the money to pay his debt? What if after long repentance and prayer, the people on the outside give him the cash he needs to pay his way out? What if they, the Church, realizing the imprisoned has learned his lesson, decides to free him? Hasn’t Jesus taught the Church has this authority? And hasn’t Jesus guided the Church on how to deal with such affairs? Goodness, the Church has the darned prison keys! And the prison gates have no power over it!
Again, lots of interesting questions. At a minimum, we shouldn’t fault the church of the early middle ages too much for seeing something akin to Purgatory in such passages. In filling out the details, they mined the thoughts of Plato and Greek philosophy too much, thus getting the abused doctrine of the later Middle Ages, but the impulse toward a “prison we must pay to get out of” does arise from Jesus’ own teaching.
Here’s another thing to think about. The alternative interpretation is that the imprisoned will never get that last penny, because no one will give it to him. So Jesus is basically talking about hell. He’ll suffer forever. Wow. Is that what we Protestants want? If an earlier Church sought for ways to get the imprisoned one out of prison after sufficient suffering, is this not an act of mercy, even if it was misguided? So, again, lets not fault the early Church too much. If I end up in that prison, I guess, due to my failure to reconcile with Jesus’ brothers, I’d prefer to think I can eventually pay that last penny somehow, because someone would give me the cash. Better that than hell!
If the saints will judge the earth, and they see in Jesus’ word “until” some hope, and come up with strange doctrines that error on the side of God’s mercy for those imprisoned, there’s comfort in that. The Church must always be fighting for those crumbs, exhibiting a greater faith. The Church must be a place of debt forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, and love, and its theologians know this. To not have an impulse toward forgiveness is to invite the wrath of Christ…and be in that prison oneself!