by Johnny Zokovitch
Executive Director, Pax Christi USA
Jesus’s parables, like the one we have today in Matthew’s gospel (Matt 18:21-35), lend themselves to multiple interpretations. For instance, the gospel writers themselves situate the parables into larger stories and use material surrounding the parable to give it a particular slant, a particular meaning. What we most often hear about in the “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” is what Matthew wants us to take away from it. He sandwiches the parable between Peter’s question about the need to forgive and his own interpretation of how we can expect God to treat us if we do not extend to others the same forgiveness that God has extended to us, a la the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors…” (Matt 6:12). But pull today’s parable out of Matthew’s gospel and listen to it told without his interpretation, as if we were in that original group of hearers in the Galilean countryside, listening to Jesus telling us a story. Other things are going on here and there’s more to glean.
Matthew wants us to slip into an acknowledgement that in the parable the king is a stand-in for God. But such an understanding should be circumspect almost from the beginning. What we first learn about the king is that he’s ready to not only sell his servant into slavery because of the immense (and literally unpayable) debt that the servant owes, but he’ll sell off the servant’s family as well in order to recoup (at least some of) the debt owed him. This king more greatly values the bottom-line than the people in his “employ” – not unlike CEOs of some multi-billion dollar companies of our own time.
The twist in the passage is that when confronted with his servant’s “flattery” or “worship”, the king rescinds his order and does something surprising: he forgives the debt.
The expectation of those hearing such an unlikely scenario (first century peasants in Galilee would have had some experience in how the world actually worked for those who couldn’t pay off their debts) has been upended and, when this first servant finds another servant that owes him a much smaller (and payable) amount of money, our expectation is that the forgiven servant will extend that same forgiveness he has received. But alas, he does not. Despite his first-hand experience of unexpected grace, the scenario plays out in a way that would have been all too familiar to the people listening to the story: the person with privilege and greater power exercises that privilege and power over another to his own benefit and to the dehumanization of a more vulnerable person. This is, after all, the way things typically work. Such is the system. And despite his own individual experience, the system of haves and have-nots, the system that benefits those with wealth and power over the impoverished and marginalized remains intact. If we have any doubts of that, we need only read on.
In the third scene those servants who witnessed this turn in the first servant to the king, who then rescinds his own forgiveness – goes back on his word – and offers this servant up to be tortured. The king’s action thus makes the group of servants complicit in the punishment of their fellow servant, even if they were acting for the benefit of the servant who the first servant had had imprisoned. No mention is made of the king seeking the release of that imprisoned servant. What is mentioned is how business-as-usual — despite the king’s earlier overture of forgiveness — snaps back into place: a rich king punishes his servant over economic failures; a lower servant languishes in prison because the servant set over him calls the authorities to arrest and imprison him; and their fellow servants are left with the specter of what happens to them if they step out of line or fail to benefit those set above them.
Matthew starts this passage off by referencing the kingdom of heaven, that alternate reality which Jesus pointed to which stands as a critique of the political, economic and even religious systems of our world. What this parable is for us is this: it is a warning. First that we not confuse systems which dehumanize and subjugate as being ordained by God. Second, if we are to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven, individual acts of mercy or kindness – like the king’s act of forgiveness – are not enough to overturn, as Dorothy Day called it, “this filthy rotten system”. Systems have a power all their own and seek their own survival – like the systemic racism that exists in our own country, or the policing culture that resists even genuine efforts at reform. Jesus’s parable reminds us of this reality. And understanding what we are up against might hold the key for us to marshal the resources to ultimately dismantle such systems, to imagine something radically new. In such imagining, may we start to glimpse the kingdom of heaven.