Mt 18,23-35 – Parable of the Unforgiving Servant or the Merciful King?
Why did Jesus use parables in his teachings? It is to help people understand who God is and what his reign or kingdom is like. To Jesus, such parables were the preferred means for communicating the message of the reign of God and its values. So, the parable would begin with, “For this reason, the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” Synoptic Gospels contain many parables of God’s mercy that invite the hearers and readers to be merciful like the Father. One such example is Mt 18,23-35 that focuses on how we must show mercy to our fellow human being. Though the original story ends by v.34, the Matthean addition in v.35 transforms this parable into a story on ‘forgiveness’. Moreover, in the context, the parable is preceeded by Peter’s famous question about the limits of forgiveness. Applying this message to his community, the evangelist has beautifully crafted the story on the ‘reciprocity of mercy’ told by Jesus and placed it in the ecclesial context (Community Discourse 18,1-35) to focus on the need for forgiveness in the community.
Structurally, after the introductory setting of the Parable (v.23), we find the first encounter between the king and his servant (vv.24-27); the servant and his fellow servant(s) (vv.28-31); the last encounter between the king and the servant (vv.32-34); and the conclusion (v.35)—a message to be drawn from the story in the ecclesial context. Though the story is commonly titled as ‘the parable of the unforgiving servant’, the change of the title as ‘the parable of the merciful king’ can help us see its beauty that the parable deserves to be seen from the eyes of ‘mercy’. Let us focus on some of the significant elements!
1. Enormity of the Debt!
In the parable, the first servant owed ten thousand talents to the king. In Jesus’ time, one talent was the equivalent of three hundred thousand denarii or in other words, it was worth more than thirty years’ wages of a laborer. Certainly, it was a very high measure of money. Unfortunately, the parable does not tell us, why the servant borrowed such an enormous amount from the king. In contrast, the second servant owed the first servant only a hundred denarii. A denarius was the usual day’s wage for a laborer. Therefore, a hundred denarii would represent about four month’s worth of work in comparison to fifteen years’ of work owed by the first servant to the king. Needless to say, the parable clearly indicates the disproportionate nature of the servants’ debts. In simple terms, the second servant could be freed of his debt, if he showed patience and four months of hard work for repayment, while the first servant could never repay his debt, even if he were to work his entire lifetime. In this way, the incalculable, the impossible and the enormous debt of the first servant, remitted by the king sets the tone for understanding the incalculable mercy that the king treats his servant with!
2. Mercy Wasted!
The terms ‘pity’, ‘patience’, ‘mercy’ and ‘forgiveness’ qualify the actions and attitude of the merciful king. When the first servant fell on his knees and pleaded for patience, the king showed pity on him and had him released and the debt forgiven. Since the repayment was impossible, the mercy that the king showed could alone cancel his debt. Moreover, it gave a new lease of life not only to him, but also to his wife and children, whom the king had ordered to be sold together with the servant and all his possessions (v.25). In contrast, the terms ‘seizing him by the throat’, ‘began to choke him’, ‘refused’, and ‘threw him into prison’ characterize the actions and attitude of the unforgiving servant towards his fellow servant. One who experienced his lord’s mercy failed to extend it to others. He did not have to run around looking for someone to show mercy, but the opportunity came knocking at his door! And he turned out to be a wicked servant! Had he been more sensitive and attentive to the cry of his fellow servant, the mercy he received from his lord would not have gone wasted!
3. Reciprocity of Mercy
What one freely receives, he must freely give! The only words of the king in the entire parable, addressed to admonish his wicked servant underline the focus of the parable, i.e., the reciprocity of mercy. He said, “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?” (vv.32-33). The servant was forgiven an impossible debt by the merciful king. He, who was forgiven more, should have been more forgiving and merciful! As a result, the stern words are followed by the rigorous actions by the king, “And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers until he should pay his entire debt” (v.34). The wicked servant learnt nothing from the mercy shown to him by the merciful king. Perhaps, he had to learn the hard way!
“So also my heavenly Father will do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (v.35). The parable of the merciful king unravels the Jewish understanding of divine mercy and divine justice during Jesus’ time. By adding the final verse on the need for forgiveness, the evangelist intends to show that God is willing to show mercy and forgiveness to the sinners and to the wrongdoers, provided they must also be prepared to show mercy to others. Thus, the parable invites and challenges us for the reciprocal mercy.
What does this parable teach us? Firstly, God has no limits for showing mercy. Not even an enormous debt can withhold his mercy. So, if God places no limits, why should the humans place a limit on forgiving and showing mercy to others? Consequently, those who place limits on forgiving others and refuse mercy will have limits placed on their forgiveness by God. There will be divine justice in this regard. Secondly, be reciprocal! Give what you have received and give it freely! However, in human situations, the hardest thing is to give without expecting anything in return. So, if you wish to receive mercy from God, be merciful to others. If you exact justice from others, you can also expect the same from God. Finally, the parable shows us that a merciful person is a forgiving person. Various parables of mercy reveal the different faces of God’s mercy. Mercy as the forgiveness of an impossible debt incurred by humans is at the core of this story. Seen from this perspective, mercy generates forgiveness, not to be withheld, but to be shared and to be given freely!
Let us remember the beatitude of mercy, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt 5,7).
Fr. Naveen, SVD.