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.
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