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The Economy of Forgiveness Trades in the Currency of Mercy

‘We will build a better South Africa through radical economic transformation’
(President Jacob Zuma on Heritage Day, 24 September, 2017)

Introduction: Justice and Love

The economy of forgiveness trades in the currency of mercy, not in justice.  This in no way diminishes the importance of justice, but it locates the concerns of justice correctly.  If we make justice the chief virtue, we withhold forgiveness until it is satisfied.  Mercy does not wait at the fire while justice and injustice negotiate in the kraal.  Justice, rather, awaits the response of injustice to mercy.  Attaching the economy of forgiveness to restitution for wrong seems very sensible: it is, after all, just.  Yet Jesus repeatedly overturned this logic in his Kingdom economy, which trades rather in the currency of mercy.

To understand the difference, consider the four cardinal virtues of the Greeks and Romans: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice.  Justice was the scales on which the virtues were held in right balance.  So goes many a theory of social justice: it is the chief virtue by which other virtues are measured and balanced.  Yet even the casual reader of the New Testament finds that the early Church held a different view, based on Jesus’ own interpretation of the Law.  Jesus said that the chief law was love:

Matthew 22:36-40 "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?"  37 And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  38 This is the great and first commandment.  39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."

With love, not justice, as the key virtue, our understanding of all the virtues shifts.  This is not to remove justice from a list of the virtues.  It is to replace it as the chief virtue.  (Had Plato elevated love above justice, his ideal Republic would have looked very different.)  The Christian virtue of love interprets other virtues and draws other virtues out of the shadows and into the light of the Christian community:

Colossians 3:12-14 Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,  13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Labour is Not a Right but a Mercy in God’s Kingdom

In Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 22.1-16), labour and remuneration are not rights but mercies.  This seems profoundly unjust—and that is just the point.  The day labourers are hired from the marketplace: they have no steady job.  They have no grounds to insist on labour from the owner of the vineyard, and any labour that they are offered is itself a matter of mercy.  The parable focusses on the fact that the labourers were hired to work at different times, and so some worked all day in the sun whereas others worked shorter periods of time.  At the end of the day, all the labourers were paid the same amount.  In an economy focussed on justice, this is unfair: equal pay for equal labour would suggest different pay for different labour.  However, in an economy focussed on mercy, there is no basis on which to argue for wages commensurate with hours worked.  Employment and remuneration are acts of mercy.  Mercy turns justice on its head.

The Relation between the Faithful Exercise of Responsibility and Having Unequal Resources in God’s Kingdom

In Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25.14-30; Luke 19.11-27), the faithful exercise of responsibility for work in the Kingdom is laid on all.  Fairness is not based on the equitable distribution of resources.  Some people are better at business than others and are, therefore, given more or less oversight of resources.  All, however, are to exercise their responsibilities faithfully.

The Kingdom does not, in this parable, involve equalizing resources but increasing them for those who prove themselves responsible in their management.  The thrust of the parable involves emphasizing that even the person with the least resources has obligations to use them in God’s Kingdom.  In an economy that understands justice to be the equitable distribution of resources, this is unjust.  In a Kingdom economy, the faithful exercise of responsibility is rewarded with more responsibility for more resources.  The resources are not one’s own, to be used for self-gratification; they belong to the King and are to be used for His purposes.  The question is not, ‘How do we distribute resources equitably,’ but ‘Is the person with resources multiplying them in a way pleasing to God?’

The Value of Resources

On one occasion, Jesus observed a widow giving her two copper coins (KJV: ‘mites’) in the collection at the Temple.  His response was not to say that she should be excluded from giving because of her meagre resources.  Instead, he commented on the relative amount she gave from her resources: ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.  For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on’ (Luke 21.3-4).  The story is irrelevant to the lives of others: her offering amounts to nothing.  It is not irrelevant to God, however, who sees things from a different perspective.  Like the Parable of the Talents, God is aware of how we have used our resources.  While the point is made in regard to money, this is only illustrative of the use of resources of all kinds for God.

In Luke 16.1-15, Jesus says further things about the use of resources.  The Parable of the Shrewd Manager is not as straight-forward as other parables, but the added comments after the parable can help us to understand its point.  An unjust manager who is to be terminated from his employment quickly reduces the debts of creditors in order to make friends with them.  The parable is about assessing one’s resources and using them for good.  The manager quickly realised that he lacked the resource of physical labour and could not see himself being turned out onto the street to beg.  So, he used the only resource he had: his position as manager before his termination to reduce the debts of creditors.  The master in the parable commends his manager for his shrewdness, even though it was to his own loss. 

The interpretation of the parable involves seeing that finances are not eternal, and therefore they are expendable.  Thus, the parable teaches that money should be used not for temporal but eternal purposes.  Jesus further says, ‘And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings’ (Luke 16.9).  He later adds, ‘No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money’ (Luke 16.13).

Wealth is not seen as a blessing in the Parable of the Talents, the story of the widow’s copper coins, and the Parable of the Shrewd Manager.  Nor does Jesus put forward the idea that there should be economic equality.  Rather, he upturns the whole discussion.  First, he attaches resources to responsibility: to the one who is given much, much is required (Luke 12.48).  Second, he offers a different ‘exchange’ for wealth in the Kingdom.  Earthly wealth loses its value on the Kingdom market exchange.  God sees what one does with one’s wealth (whatever one’s resources, gifts, talents, position, education, etc.) relative to what one has and to the purposes of His eternal Kingdom.

If this is so, then Kingdom economic is not a matter of equality, even if great wrong can be done when the wealthy accumulate more and more money at the expense of their employees.  Yet the solution to economic injustice has more to do with teaching everyone to be responsible with their resources and to do with understanding this responsibility in terms of life in God’s Kingdom.  The poor person does not stand with a hand out to the wealthy person, but both stand before God to give an account of their use of the resources they were given.  The wealthy person has greater responsibility, but both are responsible.  This changes the dialogue of economic justice.  Instead of seeing the matter in terms of the spreading of wealth, it focusses the conversation on the responsible use of wealth.  And what might that responsibility look like?  James writes,

James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world…. James 5:1-6 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.  2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten.  3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.  4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.  5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.  6 You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

An Ethic from the Heart Crosses the Boundaries of Justice

The ‘Kingdom’ is not to be understood only in terms of spiritual salvation.  Clearly, it is that, but it is more.  The Kingdom of God has to do with every aspect of life before God, with living under His rule.  Repentance, forgiveness, and entry into the Kingdom are the beginning; life in the Kingdom is the goal.  This entails an ethic from the heart, which presses ordinary measures of justice to a new level of righteousness.  It crosses the boundaries of justice.

Instead of laws on murder, Kingdom ethics asks about anger in the heart.  Instead of laws on divorce and remarriage, Kingdom ethics addresses lust.  Instead of rules about keeping one’s word, Jesus calls for an entire life of honesty.  Instead of retributive justice—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth—Jesus calls for non-retaliation and even giving generously to oppressors.  Instead of loving one’s neighbours and hating one’s enemies, Jesus calls for an ethic of the heart that prays for enemies (Matthew 5.20-48).

This ethic of the heart will include how one treats the poor and uses wealth.  Thus, for example, Jesus on one occasion challenged the attachment a young man had to his wealth instead of the responsibility he should have felt for the poor.  He says, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’ (Matthew 19.21).  Laying up treasures in heaven instead of on earth (Matthew 6.19-21) does not mean spiritual piety without regard for the use of wealth.  It means having a heart that values what is valuable in the Kingdom of Heaven rather than what is deemed valuable on earth.  Instead of accumulating possessions for a momentary enjoyment, our focus should be on the values of the Kingdom.  Certainly, one of the great values of the Kingdom is the care for the poor, widows, and orphans (Psalm 68.5; Isaiah 10.2; 1 Timothy 5.3; James 1.27).  It is also concern for the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom to all nations, converting the lost, and teaching Jesus’ commandments (Matthew 28.18-20).

Thus ‘righteousness’ is not interpreted in terms of equity in social or economic terms.  It is not simply a matter of justice in society.  It goes deeper, addressing the change needed in the heart.  This is, after all, the prophetic understanding of the coming new covenant, which Jesus brought.  Jeremiah said,

Jeremiah 31:33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Voluntary Wealth Redistribution and Responsibilities in Community

In the early Jerusalem church, believers practiced the equal distribution of resources.  This went beyond a generous reparation, as when Zacchaeus said he would repay any from whom he had unjustly stolen as a tax collector with additional compensation (Luke 19.1-10).  Of the early Church, we read that

There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold  35 and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4.34-35).

Yet this was voluntary (Acts 5.4).  Some form of economic justice might require the redistribution of wealth or the availability of resources for all in the community.  If, however, ethics is a matter of the heart, any understanding of justice has to go deeper, to righteousness.  Matters of the heart are voluntary, not coerced.  People in the Kingdom should feel the pressure of responsibility to the needy in their midst, not the pressure of obedience to some outward standard that does not touch the heart.

Forgiveness, Mercy, and Love

This brings us to a deeper understanding of forgiveness as well.  Jesus’ Kingdom economy, as we have seen, upsets the logic of justice.  It is based on mercy and love.  Forgiveness is not something to be given when equitable justice has been mandated and carried out.  A Biblical understanding of forgiveness has to do with forgiving the person who does not deserve forgiveness.  It is based on God’s forgiving us, and God does not forgive us because we are good enough or worthy but because we are unworthy. 

Thus, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Matthew 6.12).  No one can pay the immense debt owed to God, but He mercifully forgives us (Matthew 18.23-35).  Forgiven, we forgive; forgiving, we are forgiven.

An argument that forgiveness is not possible until due contrition and restitution have first been made fails to understand Christian forgiveness.  God’s final judgement on sinners will not be the result of His being unable to forgive sinners but the result of forgiven sinners for whom Christ died not turning to Him in obedience, thanksgiving, and praise.  Forgiveness is not linked to justice but love.  This is why Jesus can say,

Matthew 5:44-47 Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

Love will, assuredly, call for social justice.  But social justice is not the condition of a love that forgives.  This is John’s point when he reminds us that God is love:

1 John 4:7-11 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.  9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

The table of grace during the Eucharist calls every believer in Jesus Christ to come receive his body and blood, for he died for all our sins.  While some sins are worse than others, there is no exception: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23).  Jesus warns against comparative self-justification for having lesser sins and shifts the focus to sincere repentance in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:

Luke 18:11-14 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.'  13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'  14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

This parable requires us to see the relationship between forgiveness—justification—to sincere repentance.  It requires us to give up the idea that we might be justified because our own sins are not as bad as others.  It may be true that our own sins are not as bad as others, but that does not make us acceptable before God.  We are all sinners, and God requires of all of us true repentance for our sins.  Anyone who withholds forgiveness to another because he or she believes the other’s restitution for wrong is not yet sufficient becomes the Pharisee in this parable.  Anyone who focusses on his or her own sins and is truly repentant before God becomes the tax collector in this parable.  Let the one who withholds forgiveness until restitution is complete ask, ‘For whose sins did Jesus die?’  Jesus died for us all, for all our sins.  He died for me, even for my sins.

To withhold forgiveness from someone who has sinned against us when God has forgiven us so much more does not establish justice; worse, it rejects mercy.  When Jesus answers Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive someone who has sinned against him, Jesus tells the Parable of the Debtor (Matthew 18.21-35).  In this parable, a king settles accounts with his servants and mercifully forgives one servant an enormous debt.  The same servant then refuses to forgive another person a small debt, throwing him into jail until he repays the debt.  The king is informed, and he summons the servant.  He says to him, ‘Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ (Matthew 18.33).  Restitution is not the basis for our forgiveness; a profound gratitude for God’s mercy is the basis on which we forgive others.


We have examined aspects of the economy of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching.  We have seen that forgiveness trades in the currency of mercy.  This is different from an economy focussed on justice.  It is a more radical economic model.  The Church’s mission in the world is to show the world a more radical possibility than its best efforts at justice offer.  What the Church offers is not an unattainable ideal but a living out of a reality established in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: the reality of God’s mercy towards sinners.  Justice would have us withhold forgiveness until right restitution is made.  Quite practically, this is never possible for a host of reasons.  We might attain some measure of this sort of justice from time to time, but justice is never satisfied.  When is repentance enough?  When has restitution been sufficient?  When are people sufficiently served equal rights?  This economy, while it might accomplish great things, remains tied to a vicious cycle of righting wrongs and balancing rights.

The Kingdom economy upends justice by focussing on mercy.  It is based not on an ideal but on the reality of God’s forgiving us.  This enables us to go beyond matters of justice in order to right wrongs.  It sets the example of mercy and love before us.  It reduces us all to equality in our sinfulness before God rather than trying to establish an equality in our rights.  As Paul asks the Corinthian church, ‘What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?’ (1 Corinthians 4.7).  This perspective allows him to say to those seeking justice in the community before courts of law a little later in the epistle, To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?’ (1 Corinthians 6.7).  Paul first offers a system of justice based on the Old Testament for the Corinthians (vv. 1-6), but he eclipses this with his radical call to suffer wrong.  Behind this, certainly, stands a Kingdom ethic of the cross.

Peter, too, confounds justice with the economy of the cross of Jesus Christ:

1 Peter 2:18-25 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.  19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.  20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.  21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.  22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.  23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.  24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.  25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

This Christian economy is not an endorsement of injustice—there is plenty in Scripture that calls for justice and warns of judgement for injustice.  Justice has neither become irrelevant nor a vice!  It is, however, a weaker currency in a sinful world’s economic depression.  We need the gold standard of mercy.