At the Master’s feet - Week 6: Showing Mercy
Read: Matthew 18:21-35
First, I remind you of the overall structure of the story of Jesus as told by Matthew: 1.2-4.22 may be regarded as the Prologue, the beginning and anticipation of the story that will unfold. It is followed by 4.23-16.20, a major narrative unit which deals with Jesus’ Galilean ministry, in two sections. In the first, 4.23-11.30 the focus is on Jesus’ teaching, healing and performance of miracles – his work of showing how the “kingdom of heaven” comes, in other words. In the second sub-section, 12.1-16.20, this work continues but the focus comes to rest more intensively on another task, the work of preparing his disciples to follow him. In the midst of these two tasks, a third task runs like a thread, that of engaging with the Jewish leaders. The controversy and increasing hostility associated with the way Jesus performs this task is what leads him to the cross.
Thus, there are three interwoven threads in 4.23-16.20: the work of revealing how God’s loving presence transforms daily human life, the work of preparing the disciples to follow him to the cross and beyond, and the prophetic work of confronting the status quo in the life of Israel. As we move beyond Jesus’ Galilean ministry the last two threads take over from the first.
Our passage falls within the next major section, 16.21-20.34, in which Jesus brings to the fore his impending suffering and death. In this section the conflict with Judean leaders recedes into the background and Jesus’ teaching of the disciples becomes the focus more intensively. Chapter 18 itself is almost entirely concerned with the disciples.
Chapter 18 is the fourth of the five blocks of Jesus’ teaching Matthew gathers in his telling of Jesus’ story. This is one of the ways Matthew intends us to understand Jesus as the new Moses, Moses having been, traditionally, the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, to which the five blocks of Jesus’ teaching correspond.
Chapter 18 also comes early on in the section I spoke of beginning at 16.21. In this section, there has been a heavy emphasis on Jesus’ approaching death and resurrection (16.21-28; 17.22-23), including a strong focus on the way this will affect the disciples (If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me [16.24]).
Then in 18.1-5 the disciples, showing how little they’ve understood Jesus and how human they are, want to know which of them will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. To this they get a sharp retort from Jesus at 18.6-14; and then, in line with the theme that has developed of not causing people to stumble, Jesus gives instructions on how unity is to be maintained in the believing community (18.15-20).
Our passage picks up a continuation of this theme at 18.21-22 with Peter’s question about how often one is to forgive another’s sin against one. The number “seven” in the Bible is always the number of perfection or completeness, so Jesus, in line with his often-used technique of hyperbole, says that forgiveness is to be offered Not seven times, but…seventy seven times – that is, there is never a time or occasion on which the requirement to forgive is inapplicable.
Jesus then summarizes his teaching by telling the parable of the unforgiving servant at 18.23-35, the remainder of our passage. Many commentators believe that this lengthy emphasis on forgiveness reflects the fact that there were many tensions in the community for which Matthew wrote his Gospel.
However that be, remember that a parable is intended to make you think and dream, and then to act differently. As a method of teaching it doesn’t give you answers but creates situations in which you have to imagine how you would act and come up with your own answers – Jesus was a highly skilful teacher!
18.23-35: the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
The story-line is clear enough: a slave, forgiven an inconceivably great debt (Herod’s total collection in one year, according to one estimate, was nine hundred talents; a single talent represented about twenty to thirty year’s wages!), refuses to extend the same forgiveness the king has extended to him to a fellow slave who is in debt to him. As a result the king has him “tortured until he should pay back all he owed” (v.34). Jesus then explains the parable’s meaning at v.35.
Behind the story lies the practice of tax farming, by which the king granted tax collection rights to a tax collector who might sub-contract to another collector etc. The term “slave” is used to indicate the relationship created by being in debt, indebtedness being an enormous and widespread social reality and problem in the Galilee of Jesus’ day.
The king’s initial response (v.25) of ordering his debtor to be sold with his wife and children, has suggested to some commentators that the setting is in the Gentile world because Torah forbade the sale of wife and children to settle a husband’s debts. However, this is not necessarily the case: it doesn’t really matter whether the setting is Jewish or Gentile because the parable is a story told to illustrate that God demands forgiveness in our dealings with one another, whether on a personal or social level.
In addition, the just action of the king, as we’ll see, means that in the world of this parable we are in “the kingdom of heaven” rather than in the actual world of Roman rule. This is emphasized also by the phrase, “because of this” which reminds us of 18.21-22 and indicates that the king rules by grace rather than by law (in the sense of the way in which he was legally entitlted to act). That we are in this realm is further indicated in the parable itself by the fact that the king responds to the slave’s absurd offer to repay this inconceivably large debt (v.26), an offer that can’t be sincere given the size of the debt. There is a double forgiveness here, in other words, in that not only does the king forgive the debt itself, but he also forgives the slave’s lying promise to repay. The king, in other words, rules by forgivness rather than by calculating profit and loss (as a good book-keeper would naturally do).
The huge amount owed by the first slave indicates that the parable lies in the realm of the fantastic, which Jesus combines with an actual economic practice. Thus Jesus cleverly uses a situation of indebtedness from which many of his audience actually suffered with the kind of exaggeration common to great story-telling.
Parables work through surprise. The first surprise in this parable is the king’s forgiveness of such an enormous debt – kings weren’t likely to forgive anything, but it is clear that this king stands for God and his forgiveness is an illustration of Jesus’ teaching at 18.21-22 and, as I’ve said already, indicates that we are in the realm of “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew’s synonym for “the kingdom of God” in Mark).
The usual attitude towards debts is indicated by the way the forgiven slave treats his debtor, which is the second surprise of the parable: given the forgiveness extended to such a vast debt the story leads us to expect that he would forgive a much smaller debt. However, and here lies the third surprise, there is a sense in which the second slave’s action restores social order, for the king’s action, if extended through society, would run the risk of making day-to-day economic life impossible. Of course, this is just the parable’s point: the king expects that his example be replicated by everyone with the result that the king would have ushered in the “Year of Jubilee” commanded in the Jewish Law for every fiftieth year (seven times seven years having passed – cf 18.22, which suggests that this is exactly what Jesus had in mind in telling the parable).
The fourth surprise – a lesser surprise perhaps – is that because this king has acted forgivingly his subjects, “fellow slaves”, also living under debt in other words, have the confidence in his just rule to appeal to him to act (v.31). Although Roman rule could be just in some ways, the justice extended by this king is the justice of God.
The final surprise is the harsh punishment the king now metes out (vv.34-35). This action is as extreme as the debt to the king at the parable’s beginning was incredibly large. Thus the parable begins and ends with the inconceivable (would God really treat us so harshly?), which is a rhetorical device used by a skilful story-teller to shock us out of the familiar, and so to disorientate us and force us to rethink our attitudes and behaviour and even what we believe about God. The harshness of the ending is particularly striking because, as the Bible as a whole makes abundantly clear and we all know ourselves if we’re honest, a major human idolatry is to reduce God to a harmless, nice old chap who would never hurt a flea. The ending emphasizes the point that it really does matter whether or not we forgive others as we have been forgiven.
The parable forces us, imaginatively, to confront the difference between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God. In the actual world, even when a king acts justly the result continues to be injustice because his subjects continue to act out of self-interest. The challenge of the parable is for every person to follow the king and for self-interest to be subordinated to the will of the king – as will be the case in God’s kingdom, the kingdom Jesus is demonstrating by his teaching and ministry.
1. With regard to the element of surprise I have highlighted as central to the parable:
a. Discuss each of the surprises I have identified.
b. Do you agree that the purpose of a parable like this one is to jolt us out of our familiar and comfortable ways of thinking and acting – think of the role of this kind of teaching technique in our spiritual growth
2. Why do we find forgiving so difficult?
3. Are there legitimate limits to forgiveness? In his commentary on this Gospel John Proctor suggests three possible limits which I offer for your discussion:
a. If the person who has hurt you is unrepentant?
b. If you have been the victim of a crime. Proctor suggests that in some instances there may be no possibility of continuing to live, work or worship together?
c. Proctor suggests that avoidance may be a permissable strategy – he argues that Jesus avoided Herod Antipas, as far as we know, so it is permissable for us to avoid those we know are going to hurt us?
Tim Long, 10/02/2014