Julius Caesar is perhaps the most well-known of the ancient Roman caesars.
(Is it because we all had to read Shakespeare’s play in high school–“et tu, Brute?”?)
Well, his was, of course, a fascinating life. While reading The Twelve Caesars by a first-century Roman historian (a dude by the name of Suetonius), I came across the following fascinating account.
To set the scene: he had basically conquered all of Gaul (roughly modern day France) and had governed it for almost a decade, milking the region for all it was worth, when he returned to Rome. His relationship with Pompey, another political/military force-to-be-reckoned-with, needed mending. Suetonius describes how Caesar “mended” the relationship by means of his incredible resources.
And it’s in this description that we find a more general comment about Caesar’s ability to forgive debts. Suetonius writes that Caesar won over Pompey’s friends and the most of the Senate…
“…by giving them loans at a lower interest rate or even interest free… Caesar also endeared himself to persons of less distinction too by handing out valuable presents, whether or not they asked him for them. His beneficiaries included even the favorite slaves and freedmen of prominent men. Caesar thus became the one reliable source of help to all who were in legal difficulties, or in debt, or living beyond their means, and he refused to help only those whose criminal record was so black, or whose purse was so empty, or whose tastes so expensive, that even he could do nothing for them. He frankly told such people, ‘What you need is a civil war.’”
This is a man with serious resources–that’s quite a line: He “thus became the one reliable source of help to all who were in legal difficulties, or in debt, or living beyond their means.”
But even Caesar, says Suetonius, had his limits: there were those whom “he refused to help” and those for whom “even he could do nothing.”
Caesar’s vast resources, gained often at others’ expense, enabled him to forgive brings to mind Jesus’ famous (so-called) parable of the unmerciful servant, which begins, incredulously:
“…the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this 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.”
“Ten thousand talents” is an absurdly large sum–the equivalent of 300 tons of silver, according to one scholar.
But it is not simply the amount of the debt that strikes the listener. It is the matter-of-factness of the king. Jesus says, altogether prosaically (almost with a yawn): “The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”
This king, Jesus later says, represents the Father, who has the resources to forgive such an absurd amount, and he can do so without hesitation or reservation.
Unlike Caesar, there is no indication that there were those for whom “even he could do nothing.”
But are there those whom he refuses to help? Well, yes. And this is really the entire point of the parable: He refuses to forgive those who refuse to forgive. Having been forgiven so much, it is simply unthinkable that we could not forgive others.
My favorite part is Caesar’s response to those whom he could not help: “What you need is a civil war.”
Of course, Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God more subversive than any civil war. In a sense this is why Jesus can help those whom Caesar could not–viz., “those whose criminal record was so black, or whose purse was so empty, or whose tastes so expensive.” How so?
For those who participate in the kingdom of God, even the blackest criminal records will be destroyed, and both the impoverished and the extravagant will come from the east and west and take their place at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. As Paul tells the Corinthians: “all things are yours.”
And whereas Caesar found resources in the subjugation and exploitation of unnamed and unwilling outsiders, the Father finds resources in the willing obedience of his only Son: “Not my will, but your will be done.”
This is love: a Son who sacrifices and a Father who forgives, who together send a Spirit who is a seal of our inheritance in a new heavens and a new earth.
This is our faith.