The Unmerciful Servant: "What if the Messiah Came and Nothing Changed?"

The parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:23-34) is about a king who forgives an astronomical debt only to revoke his decision in a fury. He waves the incredible amount of 10,000 talents (one talent equaled 6000 denarii, or 6000 days worth of work for a peasant) for a servant, but when that servant throws a fellow servant into prison for owing him only 100 denarii, the king does an about-face, furious, handing the unmerciful servant over to the torturers.

Most people understand the story as Matthew has. His concluding editorial, “So my Heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother” (18:35), illustrates the account immediately preceding the parable (18:21-22). In 18:21 Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive a sinning member of the church — “as many as seven times”? — to which Jesus replies that Peter should forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times (18:22). Then he tells the parable to illustrate this principle of forgiveness (?!). But it doesn’t do this. Taking 18:21-35 as a whole, we have a God who tells people to forgive people seventy-seven times but (as the king) nails the servant after his first failure. As with other parables in the gospels, the evangelist’s use stands in tension with the story itself.

We thus need to bracket off Matthew’s editorial at the beginning, “The kingdom of God may be compared to…” If the king is really a cipher for God, then the story is bad news. According to William Herzog, the king is an implied messiah, a royal pretender like Judas of Galilee, Simon of Perea, or Athronges of Judea, but one who has actually led a successful revolt against the Romans and Judean elite. The tip-off comes at the beginning, with the impossibly high figure of 10,000 talents:

“The opening scene of the parable depicts a messianic moment… If the largest amount of debt imaginable has been cancelled, then the messianic king has arrived and the messianic age has begun. It is the fulfillment of sabbatical and jubilee hopes condensed into a moment. But the moment is short-lived. No sooner has the new age of debt forgiveness been inaugurated than it is cancelled by the cuthroat tactics of a typical powerful bureaucrat. In light of the servant’s subsequent action, the king looks like a fool, or worse yet, like a weak and gullible ruler without power over the behavior of his subjects. Backed into a corner, the king reverts with a vengeance to business as usual, delivering the courtier to the torturers.” (Parables as Subversive Speech, p 147)

The parable’s point, says Herzog, is that reliance on a king for rescue from debt and bondage contains a hidden contradiction. Kingship involves a bureaucratic system on which it depends for survival, and such institutions are incompatible with the kingdom of God. No sooner would a messianic movement succeed in overthrowing oppressors than it would begin to take on the role of an oppressor itself. Look at Solomon. Look at Omri. Look at the king in this parable.

Contra Herzog, however, this doesn’t mean that Jesus rejected messiahship per se, only a particular kind. In his sequel-study he says:

“The parable of the Unmerciful Servant [is] a rejection of the messianic ideal, because any messiah who did ascend the throne would be caught in the systemic realities of kingship in agrarian societies and aristocratic empires. Every king is captive of kingship, including the messiah! The short history of the Hasmonean dynasty could be invoked to make the same point.” (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 239)

But what exactly is “the messianic ideal”? Jesus intended, after all, to set disciples on thrones in the kingdom (Mt 19:28/Lk 22:29-30), and his own messianic claim may have been more a viceroy title, as Ed Sanders has suggested. Messiahship was fluid in the first century: warrior-kings were one kind (if the most popular) alongside prophetic, priestly, and heavenly arch-angel paradigms (on which see John Collins’ excellent The Scepter and the Star). Jesus could have been a prophetic messiah if not a kingly one.

That Jesus rejected popular kingship is indicated from an account like Jn 6:15: “When Jesus realized that the five thousand people were about to come and make him king, he withdrew into the mountain by himself”. We can imagine that hereafter, when done healing the sick and feeding the hungry, he had the story of the Unmerciful Servant in reserve for enthusiasts who would make him another Saul or David. Jesus may have claimed to be Israel’s messiah (and against Herzog, I think he did), but he wasn’t the warrior-messiah found in examples of Judas, Simon, and Athronges — the kind most people wanted him to be.

Perhaps this parable would have been better used by John after 6:1-15 than by Matthew after 18:21-22, even if parables are out of place in the fourth gospel.


Collins, John J: The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, Doubleday, 1995.

Herzog, William: Parables as Subversive Speech and Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, Westminster John Knox (both), 1994 and 2000 respectively.

Horsley, Richard: Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus, Trinity Press, 1985.

The complete series

The Prodigal Son
The Unmerciful Servant
The Mustard Seed
The Talents
The Dishonest Steward

3 thoughts on “The Unmerciful Servant: "What if the Messiah Came and Nothing Changed?"

  1. Yeah, what Stephen said! I must confess a general (though not universal) favor for interpretations of parables that offer an eschatological, rather than soteriological, significance, so maybe I’m biased. But a nice post in my biased opinion nonetheless.

  2. Hi Loren,I’m glad to see you mention the Farrer theory in your latest blog post on the parables. I wonder, though, if you’re familiar with the work done on the parables by those who actually hold that theory, like John Drury, The Parables in the Gospels (1985), or M. D. Goulder, “Characteristics of the Parables in the Several Gospels,” Journal of Theological Studies n.s. 19 (1968) 51-69; Midrash and Lection in Matthew (1974), and Luke: A New Paradigm (1989)? If so, it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on you.I know we’ve discussed William Herzog’s interpretation of the parables before (on the Wicked Tenants, if I remember correctly). I still have two major problems with what he’s doing, both of which appear in his (or perhaps your; I haven’t read Herzog) treatment of the Unmerciful Servant. The first has to do with his source critical assumptions. He sees an internal tension in a god who wants people to forgive their fellows many times over but then condemns this man for a first offence and thus concludes that the evangelist’s use of the story stands in tension with the story itself; “If the king is a cipher for god, then the story is bad news.”The story may be “bad news” and there may be “tension” there, but this is not sufficient to show two different hands at work in telling the parable because the bad news and the tension are characteristic of Matthew. The parable may make god seem harsh and arbitrary. So do the other Matthean parables, such as the Workers in the Vineyard (20.1-16), in which God tells the laborers who complain that they’re not being fairly compensated that he can do what he likes with what is his own; the Wedding Banquet (Mt. 22.1-14), where a man pulled in off the street is thrown into the outer darkness for not wearing a wedding robe; or the Talents (25.14-30), in which god is a harsh man who reaps where he does not sow and has a servant thrown into the outer darkness for only returning him what he was given rather than more. It’s also worth pointing out that it is not the servant’s “first offense” in the Unmerciful Servant; god has already forgiven him 10,000 Talents. That god will forgive men their trespasses against him ONLY IF they forgive their fellow man’s trespasses against them is clearly stated in Mt. 6.14-15.The second problem has to do with context. The “King” in Jewish parables almost always represents god. In this case, the identification is strengthened by Matthew’s explicit use of the parable to illustrate the kingdom of God, which Herzog wants to edit out of the “original” parable. Further, the word debts is a frequently used Jewish idiom for sins, and that is the meaning it has whenever it occurs elsewhere in the gospels (i.e., the Matthean version of the Lord’s prayer and Lk. 13.14). The one who forgives debts (=sins) is, of course, god. Herzog takes the gigantic sum of 10,000 talents as evidence that the story takes place in the Messianice age. He neglects to note that the word talents appears elsewhere in the NT in the Matthean Parable of the Talents, where Luke has “pounds” or “minas” in his parallel. I find that Herzog has no realistic basis for separating the alleged Matthean additions from the rest of the parable and that the “original” audience is likely to have understood the parable as Matthew and “most people” have. The king is god and the debts are sins. Herzog does not like the message of Matthew’s parable, so he has re-written and re-interpreted it to mean “come meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” I think he is simply projecting the values of some types of later 20th century liberalism onto the parable. Parenthetically, I think Luke was also concerned about the arbitrary and harsh portrayal of god in Matthew’s parable, which is why he rewrote it heavily as the Unjust Manager in Lk. 16.1-13. As in other places in their gospels both Matthew and Luke talk about repentance and judgment, but in Matthew the emphasis is on the judgment and punishment and in Luke it is on the repentance and forgiveness.

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