Today’s Gospel is about mercy and forgiveness. Using the parable of the unforgiving slave, Matthew teaches some principles that are relevant today. The parable itself, however, is problematic, even if insights can be gleaned from it.
The Gospel begins with Peter asking Jesus how often he should forgive people in his community, as if there could be a numerical answer. Peter suggests seven times, but Jesus insists on 77 times, suggesting there is no limit on forgiveness. Jesus’ response shows the importance of continuous mercy, and he tells a parable to illustrate this point.
‘How often must I forgive?’ (Mt 18:21)
Do you ask for forgiveness from others?
Do you forgive people who have wronged you?
What helps you understand and interpret Scripture?
The parable, however, begins with a problematic image. The kingdom of heaven is likened to a king’s relationships with his slaves who owe him money. God is imagined as a royal overlord, and humans are indebted servants. The parable reflects social reality of Matthew’s time, in which slavery and debt bondage were accepted practices. Modern readers can find such parallels offensive and frustrating as a way to reflect on humanity’s relationship to God, especially since the parable is grounded on dehumanization.
When the king (God) is informed of the slave’s outstanding debts, he initially orders the man, his wife, children and possessions to be sold as slaves to obtain payment. Imagine reading this in a context in which slavery is legal. Today’s Gospel takes for granted the practice of keeping and acquiring new slaves to increase one’s wealth. Unfortunately, such biblical texts influenced European slave owners, who justified their actions based on beliefs in white supremacy and divine right.
Despite the inclination to enslave the family, the king (God) releases the slave and forgives his debt because he is moved with pity when the slave begs for leniency and patience. But when that same slave encounters another slave in a similar situation, he fails to imitate the king and has his debtor imprisoned.
Distressed, the community of slaves reports his lack of compassion to the king, who reprimands the slave, saying: “You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” The king then has the slave tortured until he can pay his debt. Jesus concludes by proclaiming that God will torture humans if they do not offer forgiveness to one another.
The image of God as eternal torturer is difficult to reckon with, although it fits Matthew’s eschatological vision, which we have seen in the parables of the past few Sundays. Another difficulty is the demand that the first slave behave in exactly the same manner as the king (God). While that would be an example of selfless love (Gk. agape), under the economic conditions presupposed in the parable, it is problematic. The assumption is that the person living in debt slavery could or should behave as the wealthy king did, failing to recognize the clear asymmetries in their economic and social statuses. While the first slave was harsh, his demand for debt repayment would surely be more pressing than the demand of the wealthy king.
Nonetheless, a careful reading of this parable yields some good insights. It teaches the importance of mercy, asking for help and granting relief to those in need. It also suggests that those with means, like the king, should be fair, just and generous because of their abundance; and it challenges those with lesser means to show kindness to those in even worse circumstances. These concepts are valuable especially when creating policies, laws and programs to help people living in poverty, particularly in economic systems that benefit from disparities and inequalities.