I recently was studying Matthew chapter 18, where Jesus tells Peter and the other disciples the parable of the unmerciful servant. The parable is necessitated by Peter’s seeming lack of understanding of our obligation to forgive those that sin against us. Peter asks how many times we should forgive our brother and sister who sins against us, seven times? I think Peter was trying to impress Jesus by what he thought was a more than generous amount of forgiveness he could potentially muster. But Jesus answers no, seventy times seven, implying there is no real limit to the amount of forgiveness our hearts should offer. After all, should we expect a limit on the number of times God will forgive us when we sin? Seven times?
Jesus then went on to tell the parable of the unmerciful servant. The servant, who was in debt to his master for hundreds of bags of gold, was told by the master that he, his wife, his children, and all that they owned were to be sold to repay the debt. The servant begged the master to be patient and he would find a way to pay his debt, at which point Jesus says, “The master took pity on him, cancelled the debt, and let him go”.
The servant, freed from his unpayable debt, went and found a fellow servant that owed him a small amount. Rather than sharing the good fortune of his own debt forgiveness, he chokes his fellow servant and demands he pay him back. The fellow, indebted servant also begs for patience and time to repay his debt, but instead of being forgiving, he had the man thrown in debtor prison. When the master learned of the servant’s actions, he was furious with the servant. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” The master then turned the servant over to the jailors to be imprisoned and tortured until the original debt was repaid.
The lesson of the parable, of course, is that we all owe an unpayable debt to God, and only by his mercy are we forgiven. We should therefore be forgiving to each other, lest we be punished for not offering the grace and mercy God shows to us.
Being in the business of healthcare related debt collection, I cannot help but consider the lesson and how it applies to hospitals and their patients. And I don’t think the lesson is to say all debts should be forgiven. The world just can’t work if all should be free of payment for goods and services. If one has the means and ability to pay their debt, of course that is the right thing to do. But in the parable, the servant owed ten thousand bags of gold. Jesus offered no explanation of how the servant came to owe such an amount. But the point of the extraordinarily large sum is to say that it was simply unpayable. Though the servant begged for patience and promised to pay it all back, the master knew it was impossible to repay, no matter how much time and patience he offered. So he cancelled it.
Aren’t there patients of your hospital that owe amounts that they simply cannot repay, no matter how much time and patience you allot? But such a question equates the hospital to the master and the patient to the unmerciful servant, pleading for patience and time to repay what can never be repaid. I think the better analogy might be likening the hospital to the unmerciful servant. As non-profit tax-exempt organizations, as recipients of grants, donations, and public funding, many healthcare organizations are on the receiving end of monies that they can never repay the public. Yet when their fellow servants (their patients) owe them comparatively small amounts, do they pay forward the grace and forgiveness they themselves have been offered, or do they choke their fellow servants and demand to be paid?
Hospitals must collect from those patients that have the means to pay, but do such organizations also forgive the balances of patients that find it impossible to pay their balance? Or do they turn them over to their bad debt agencies to be figuratively tortured (aggressive and frequent collection attempts) and imprisoned (credit reporting and legal actions) for comparatively small debts? Like Peter, are organizations impressed with themselves for offering small amounts of forgiveness?
The lesson is that for those offered forgiveness of debts through grace and mercy, debt forgiveness must be graciously offered in kind to their community. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. There is an alternative to traditional bad debt. One that seeks to offer forgiveness to those who need it most, those with impossible debts to repay. It’s our biblical obligation.