What Goes Around Comes Around
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. . So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:24-35
In Florida there is a retirement community. It’s not in the nicest part of Florida, perhaps, but it is peaceful and everyone in the community of 99 people was given a small house to stay in, a central community hall which served at least one meal a day and social and health workers which checked in on folks, but weren’t too invasive. In such an ideal spot you’d think that everyone worked together, right? Well, most people did. There was a large group of people who were really nice to each other and did what they could to check in on each other and support each other. We’ll call these folks the saints. But there were others who were out to cheat others of their life savings. They would play all nice and then once they were allowed the opportunity, they would cheat anyone they could. We will call these the con artists.
This community of saints and con artists lived together for a while until the con artists had most of the saints’ money. And that is the world many people think we live in today. Good people and bad, and if the good people are too naive then they get taken advantage of by the bad people.
But let’s say there was a third group of people involved. We’ll call these shrewd folks. They would also play nice, but if one person tried to deceive them or take advantage of them, they would do right back to them. If these shrewd people met a saint, they’d be as kind and generous as anyone. But every time they met someone who schemed on them, they would scheme right back. If they betrayed them, they would betray in return.
Believe it or not, someone ran a simulation on a computer in which these three kinds of people all mixed to see who would come out ahead. A set of altruistic programs were pitted against selfish programs which were pitted against these programs that gave back whatever they got. According to this simulation, the shrewd, or ‘tit for tat’ program won.
According to the social science mathematicians running this game, this means that the best moral theory is reciprocity.
What is reciprocity? We know it very well. It is “you reap what you sow”, “an eye for an eye”, “what goes around comes around,” some call it justice or karma. And for some, this is what is called “pure ethics.”
And this is how some people see the world: that there are three kinds of people. The altruistic, or the naive, those who get taken advantage of, the mark. The selfish, or the bad people, the criminals. And the justice-makers, the cops, the good politicians, the people to bring balance to society. And that group should have the most reward. This is the scenario of every crime drama and police procedural.
Jesus sees the world a little differently.
First, Jesus sees that we live in a world of God’s grace, surrounded by God’s unconditional love.
God gives the blessing of life to everyone.
God grants every human being the power to rule over creation, without exception.
God pours out an abundance of food throughout the world.
God doesn’t judge or make determinations by favoritism-- by a persons nationality, race, or family. God only judges by what one does. In other words, God is completely fair and doesn’t clump us into groups.
God provides the opportunity of forgiveness for everyone.
God also provides the Spirit to each and every person, without exception.
It doesn’t matter whether a person deserves it or not, this is just what God provides. That’s grace. Grace is adding up everything that we get when we didn’t deserve it and yet we got it anyway. God gives all this, every day, to every person. That is God’s unconditional love.
2. The Scale of Reciprocity
However, God put a meter in our minds to measure things according to a scale. We want to make sure that everyone gets what is fair. So if someone receives something, they have to pay back an equal amount. And if someone gives something, they get back a similar amount.
Here is one way we see this work. Advertisers and pollsters need information so they want us to take surveys. However, why would we spend the time to take the survey? It is using up our time for what? We are giving, but we don’t get anything out of it. That isn’t fair and we don’t want to do it.
But these advertisers knew how to trigger our scale of reciprocity in their favor. They would send us a survey or a link to a survey, and with it include a crisp, brand new dollar bill. Now we have received something. Mind you, we haven’t received very much. An hour of our time for a dollar? But that’s not how we think of it. We think that we have received grace, something we didn’t deserve, so we needed to earn it. So we will, even if we are giving back more in time than they gave us in money. Just so that our inner scale is balanced.
This works for almost everyone, to give and then to ask in return and someone gladly gives.
But it is tougher with parents. All of us received more from our parents than we can pay back. We received life, most of us received a decent education, room and board for the first quarter of our lives, and a lot more. In the 70s the comic strip Doonesbury had a set in which the character Mark received a bill from his father for all the costs he incurred, from the birth to college. How could we ever pay that back? Perhaps a parent gets Alzheimers and we pay back some of that. But we can’t pay back life.
3. The condition of Grace
And that is where we are at with God. Our debt to God is so massive, we can’t consider how we would pay them back. Our debt is just so massive! Not our debt of sin, per se. Actually, for some the debt of sin is small enough that a regular prayer regime would cover it. But how do we pay back the gift of life? Of authority? Of forgiveness? Or all the food, water, land we’ve ever used?
Well, God doesn’t want us to pay them back. God wants-- actually demands-- that we pay grace forward.
God wants to continue to forgive us for this huge debt. And they will-- if we forgive others.
God wants to continue to give us food and sustenance, and they will-- if we give to others.
God wants to give us a good determination of our life and keep giving us life-- if we do the same for others.
God will love and care and sustain and give us everything we need, including eternal life, but only if we pass what we have received on to those in greater need than we.
So God says, “I’ll forgive your debt, if you forgive others debts, or else I will take it back.”
I will give and give and give to you, but only if you give to those who need more.
I will grant you a utopia of life with everyone who is kind and merciful, if you are kind and merciful.
“Judge not, and you will not be judged. Condemn not, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be returned to you a thousand fold.”
This is a kind a reciprocity. A tit-for-tat, a reap what you sow. But rather than getting back the bad we visit on others, Jesus wants to focus on the good we will receive if we do good to others.
To the people in the computer-simulated retirement village, Jesus would say this:
Remember that you are in a world of grace. You receive your room and board and many other things without having to pay anything. That is the Creator granting all of that to you.
The only thing the Creator wants back for the generosity, is for you all to be generous to one another. Whether a person deserves it or not. The Creator granted all of you this place, whether you deserve it or not. So be generous like the Creator is generous to you.
If you are not generous, the Creator will not allow you to stay in the village. You will have to leave. And it won’t matter what excuses you have. You may think, “Well, they were so gullible, they were asking me to take their money.” Or you may think, “This is a bad person, so they deserve to be cheated, that’s only right.”
The Creator wants to remind you-- your rent in this village is generosity. It doesn’t matter what your fellow villagers do. Because your contract is not with them, but with the Creator. To remain here, in this kingdom, you have to continue to be generous, even to those who don’t deserve it.”
And in that scenario, in which all who are not generous are forced to leave, then all the naive merciful people win. That’s the only scenario in which they do.