Following the law of “end stress,” Matthew’s sermon on church life concludes with a dramatic parable that shapes the interpretation of the whole chapter. Peter provides the foil for Jesus’ teaching by asking how often he must forgive a sinning brother or sister, suggesting a limit of seven times. Jesus counters with a call for limitless forgiveness and then tells him a parable that does not really answer Peter’s question about the quantity of forgiveness but images its precondition. The parable falls into three acts.
Act One: The narrative begins somewhat ominously with a king “auditing the books” and then summoning one of his debtors for an accounting. This evokes much the same reaction as a dinnertime message today, “Honey, there is a man from the I.R.S. on the phone.” The debtor in the parable owes 10,000 talents. (The translation’s description, “huge debt,” falls short. The amount was more than the yearly income of the Roman province of Asia. Before Enron and WorldCom, I considered the idea of such an immense debt utterly unrealistic.) When the debt could not be repaid, the king orders the man and his family sold into slavery. In a last-ditch effort, the debtor begs the king to give him time to repay the loan. Surprisingly, the king forgives the debt “out of compassion.” If the parable ended here, it would be a wonderful story of God’s limitless compassion and forgiveness.
Act Two: The forgiven debtor rushes out to tell his family of the good news, only to run into “a fellow servant,” who owed him “a much smaller amount” (literally, 100 denarii, roughly a third of a year’s wage). Matthew’s readers, recalling Jesus’ response to Peter’s question, might expect the first servant to cancel his fellow debtor’s debt and embrace him. Instead he grabs him by the throat and throws him into debtor’s prison.
Act Three: At this point the sympathy of the hearer shifts from rejoicing with the first servant to seeing him as a moral monster in his treatment of a fellow debtor. Other servants, who are “greatly disturbed,” go immediately to the king and report the gross injustice. The king, who was initially a model of compassion, now exercises justice for the sake of the powerless victim. His words are the key to the parable, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you?” (the Lectionary’s translation, “pity” instead of “mercy,” is poor).
The original debtor’s actions seem totally incomprehensible and ultimately self-destructive. How could he act this way? His original request is a clue. He is faced with an unpayable debt, but does not ask that it be forgiven. He prays only, “Be patient with me, and I will pay what I owe.” The king does not grant his request; he forgives the debt. The debtor wants to restore the order of strict justice, but receives mercy instead. When he meets his fellow servant, the servant addresses to him the same words the debtor used to the king, “Be patient with me and I will pay you back.” It is as if his old world of rights and duties comes screaming back. The mercy and forgiveness that he received were something that simply “happened” to him, not something that changed his way of viewing the world.
Jesus applies the parable to Peter’s question, saying, “So my heavenly father will do to you unless each of you forgives his brother [or sister] from his heart.” What is called for is a totally new way of viewing the world, metanoia (Mt. 4:17), a change of heart. The God who comes to expression in Matthew’s parables desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6, see Mt. 9:13; 12:7) and summons people to be forgiving because they have experienced forgiveness. This parable cautions against a legalistic or closed way of experiencing life, which filters the unexpected through the narrow categories of rights and duties.
At the conclusion to Jesus’ Sermon on the Church and in response to Peter’s questions, the parable states that all church order is subject to the law of mercy and forgiveness. Only those who have experienced mercy and forgiveness can mediate this to others. The power of “binding and loosening” can be exercised only by those who have experienced God’s compassionate and undeserved mercy and have learned to forgive a brother or sister from their hearts.