Klyne Snodgrass gives The Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:23-35) pride of place in his new comprehensive book on the parables, claiming it to be “the most revealing and compelling” story which illustrates “the nature of the parables and the essence of Jesus’ kingdom message” more than others (p 61). That message is one of grace and responsibility, according to Snodgrass, a rather traditional reading which dodges some hard questions.
I gave my own take on The Unmerciful Servant in “What if the Messiah Came and Nothing Changed?”, following William Herzog’s argument that the parable is really about an unmerciful king. The story is a critique of messiahship, suggesting that while messiahs can start out benign, they quickly and inevitably become captives of their own kingship. Let’s see if we now have to give up this reading in light of Snodgrass’ critique.
(1) Regarding the behavior of the king. Against Herzog, Snodgrass objects that if the king is a ruthless figure, why should he even care if the second servant is mistreated (p 70)? The answer is obvious: because it makes him look like a fool. The behavior of subordinates always reflect on superiors, and public perception is everything. The point is that though the messiah has initiated a reign of unlimited forgiveness, it’s canceled right away by the cutthroat tactics a typical bureaucratic retainer, which in turn causes the king, backed into a corner, to revert to “ruthlessness as usual”.
(2) Regarding the criterion of coherence. Snodgrass repeatedly reminds us — and rightly so — that “if you cannot validate the teaching you think is in the parable from nonparabolic material elsewhere in the Gospels, you are almost certainly wrong” (p 30). That’s important, because parables have been made to say almost anything interpreters want on account of their open-ended nature. But in this case, Herzog’s reading squares with plenty of gospel data, and not just synoptic. Think about Jn 6:15 and all the places where Jesus implicitly avoids roles of (political) kingship, not to mention turning the cheek in the face of violence. I like to imagine that he had this parable in reserve for those who would have made him another Saul or David. If John had been a friend of the parable genre, the story would have been much better placed after his 6:15 than Matthew’s 18:21-22. Speaking of which…
(3) Regarding the tension between Mt 18:21-22 and 18:23-35. Let me preface this one by agreeing with Snodgrass that there’s nothing incredible about the standard Jewish belief that God punishes as much as he forgives — or even the general dictum of Mt 6:14-15 which says that God forgives people only on the condition that they forgive each other. But there is something seriously wrong with a parable that tries to illustrate limitless forgiveness (Mt 18:21-22) with a God that punishes so vengefully after a single screw-up. Snodgrass sort of acknowledges this: the story doesn’t illustrate limitless forgiveness as Matthew wants it to (p 67), but it nonetheless illustrates limitless grace, though in conjunction with limitless demand (p 72). But that’s a greasy apologetic, because the imagery remains too harsh. God doesn’t use torturers (as Snodgrass admits, p 73), and while parables aren’t strict equations (p 71), their imagery has to be reasonable. Hyperbole has its own bounds. And this isn’t about modern political correctness — to his credit, Snodgrass avoids that accusation and points out that even medievalists had a hard time wrapping their heads around the king’s behavior (p 70) — just a realization that the king’s retaliative measures don’t fit the character of the Jewish God in a context of either limitless forgiveness or grace.
So I think Herzog remains on solid ground. The Unmerciful Servant is really about an unmerciful king who was not a cipher for God. This wasn’t a kingdom parable from the lips of Jesus. It was about the futility of armed revolts and popular kingship, a message which fully coheres with Jesus’ teachings elsewhere. Herzog may be wrong in claiming that Jesus made no claims to messiahship at all (and I think he probably is), but he at least has the right idea. Whatever messianic role Jesus ultimately accepted, it wasn’t the kind for Judas of Galilee, Simon of Perea, or Athronges of Judea — and when people tried thrusting the role on him, he shunned it (Jn 6:15). This parable may well have been held in reserve for such occasions.