In Matthew 18 we find a story about a slave who doesn’t understand the golden rule. We remember him from Jesus’ parable as “the unmerciful servant.” But his behavior makes one wonder if we shouldn’t call him “the unthinking servant” or “the conceited servant.” For he doesn’t seem to much appreciate that actions in life have consequences. Either that, or maybe he has convinced himself that he’s a very smart person.
Whether unthinking or conceited, our servant knows for himself, by painful experience, what it’s like to be condemned. When we meet him he is in major trouble for which he seems to have no one else to blame: trouble he deserves, else he would not own it all as he does. Apparently this is trouble of his own earning. Yet when he is released, it is remarkable that we find no expression of thankfulness on his part that he’s been forgiven. No one receives any hint from him that he fathoms the astonishing reality of how much he has been forgiven, or even appreciates the basic fact of being forgiven. Maybe he isn’t grateful to anyone. Maybe he’s simply unreflective about life, oblivious to the high drama of his experience.
Or maybe he does have a conscious attitude to the high drama of his own deliverance: maybe he counts it as a personal success. Jesus’ commentary elsewhere suggests this interpretation. In another story on forgiveness He exposes the spiritual callousness of the Simons and Judases of the world, whose pathetic spiritual lack prevents them from either seeing the point or standing the adoration that flows from the heart of forgiven Marys. In Luke and John, Simon and Judas are embarrassed, indignant, and revulsed at the response of a woman overwhelmed by God’s unstinting pardon that has washed over and washed clean away all the shame of her guilty soul. They find it offensive that now she feels no shame in saying “Thank You, Jesus!”1
In Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8 Jesus is heard exposing the judgmental and hypocritical arrogance that operates in the hearts of Simon and Judas, men who do not understand forgiveness and who in their conceit cannot bear to watch the consequences of gratitude that flow therefrom. Indeed, Jesus’ acceptance of the woman’s behavior is sufficient basis for Simon to dismiss His spiritual credentials, since, according to Simon: “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).
Throughout His ministry Jesus has much to say about the pros and cons of forgiveness: seeking forgiveness is part of the ideal prayer; it may mark out the path to healing; it is a basic life principle; God’s commitment to forgive is unlimited; the message of God’s forgiveness is part and parcel of gospel proclamation.2
But besides the Simon’s house episode and the parable of Matthew 18:23-35, Jesus’ ministry contains no other forgiveness narratives. Accounts of the episode at Simon’s house show the anti-forgiver’s true spiritual condition. Simon and Judas, the protesting figures, are both looked up to by those around them. Jesus alone sees the hypocritical self-righteousness of their superiority. His anti-forgiving superiority would allow Matthew’s unmerciful servant to credit himself for escaping the doom he deserved, arguing that it must have been his own ability that set him free. How he acquired his huge debt we are not told, though personal debt is no proof of either flawed integrity or poor business strategy. Everyone in debt is not there because they waste money. Everyone in debt is not guilty of slack economic living. But the promptness and direction of the servant’s initiatives is a damning depiction of his character. With regard to his initiative toward his fellow servant his drive is to punish. With regard to his initiative toward the master his instinct is to grovel.
As Jesus shows, all credit (a good word here) for addressing and taking care of the servant’s debt belongs to his master, whom the parable identifies as the country’s king. The punctuation of this verse in the King James Version builds up the weight of the royal sentence with rapid-fire short phrases compounded by commas: “His lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made” (Matt. 18:25, KJV). But then the scoundrel gets out of trouble. And to the extent that Simon’s or Judas’ conceit applies, he would be priding himself on his escape, quietly gloating on his skill as a groveling beggar. His profusion of worshipful supplication—“Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all” (verse 26, KJV)—seems to parallel the intensity of Mary’s gratitude. It is also the strongest evidence that his trouble is his own: he has neither alibi nor scapegoat.
His master cared much less about money than about the well-being of his slaves and their families.
What he does next makes sympathy for him the greatest of challenges. His king certainly gives up any such idea. And Jesus shows how mean-spirited he is by the sequence of actions connecting his pardon from the king to his mistreatment of his fellow slave.
The phrase “in process of time” (KJV) is occasionally used to show that there is a lapse of time in the sequence between two stated actions within a narrative: In Genesis 38:12 it represents the time between the death of Judah’s second son, Onan, and the growth to maturity of his third son Shelah.
In 2 Chronicles 21:19 it is a two-year period at the end of King Jehoram’s life. But no such lapse of time is indicated between the slave’s pardon by the master and his victimization of a colleague. Rather, there seems to be purposive immediacy between the reception of pardon and the launching of assault: “His lord commanded him to be sold. . . . So the slave fell to the ground,” begging. “And the lord . . . forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe’” (Matt. 18:25-28, NASB).3
We gawk at one man’s viciousness with his fellow so soon after receiving mercy. His refusal to show mercy to one who owed so little in comparison contradicted everything their master had just showed that he stood for. Jesus encountered just this unmerciful spirit in His dealings with the Pharisees, and felt compelled to remind them of their own Scriptures: “Go and learn what this means,” He told them, then quoted Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13). For the Pharisees, “Show me your company and I’ll tell you who you are” was cardinal doctrine. Jesus’ preferred company was people they distinguished from themselves by labeling them “sinners” (Matt. 9:11; Luke 15:2).
But Jesus’ standard defense of His behavior and social preferences could not be more damning to His critics: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:13). His reply showed the Pharisees that their vocabulary choices and definitions eliminated them from the possibility of His help. The conceit that declared them better declared them doomed. Their view of themselves as enjoying spiritual health was the blindness that proved them hopeless: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (verse 12).
The parable of the unmerciful servant is not what usually comes to mind when we think of enemy stories. But unconventional is not synonymous with illegal. And now that we have considered the story on its own terms it seems less odd to consider it in relation to the question of enemies. We usually know who “enemies” are: they hate us; wish us harm; don’t want us to succeed or be safe or happy. Who would our unmerciful servant think of as his enemy?
His master, perhaps. We can acknowledge his frustration through the long seasons of his deep and deeper indebtedness—days of futility and nights of tossing and turning, casting about for some strategy for escaping the horrible doom that would totally destroy him the day his boss called him to account. In his moments of most imaginative perversity what events did he conjure up that might bring some ill to the man? Not murderous schemes, but a single, momentarily incapacitating mishap, if only because it might bring him temporary reprieve while his creditor focused on recovering his health.
But then, in one short exchange, he discovers that although he has lived in interminable dread of the man, his boss is not his enemy: his boss does not wish him harm; has no desire to see him destroyed; is as blithe about debt collection as he, the slave, is desperate about it. His master is not his enemy.
What of his fellow servant, then? After all, the man owed him money that he wouldn’t pay. He reasoned with himself in irrational spite: If “fellow servant” had paid me my money things would have been better for me right now. He knows full well that 100 denarii (pennies) is standard wage for 100 days of labor, while 10,000 talents works out to 5,000 lifetimes of labor.
But there is no equilibrium to his thinking, and no objective voice to draw him back to reality. There’s only his conscience, seared through years of serving self and scorning the other: “fellow servant” must be his enemy. Convinced of this, servant 1 launches a vigorous counterattack upon the unsuspecting man, seeking him out and hurling upon him everything the master has so recently delivered him from.
“Fellow servant” begs and pleads to no avail, using the very words he himself used first in his groveling before the master. But servant 1 cannot recognize himself in his fellow servant. Truth is, servant 1 does not know himself. So that were he to see himself somewhere he would be unable to recognize himself. In a spirit of unenlightened vengeance, he gives “fellow servant” what he deserves and feels better about himself for several seconds.
But only for seconds. For there are other slaves around. Remember, the boss here is no bit player: he is the king. No small business operator would ever be able to sustain an enterprise with accounts receivable from a single purchaser of their product that amounted to 5,000 lifetimes worth of work. This master’s hacienda is an entire nation that roars with round-the-clock life, that flows with myriad machines of providence purring along at perfect pace to supply a world of customers with whatever each may need just before they realize they do. Through these willing servants he supplies all of everyone’s needs in accordance with his spirit of integrity and fairness. The servants see what servant 1 has done and know it contradicts their master’s modus operandi. They do not report it because they are his enemies. They do not mean him ill. But they cherish and strive to maintain the sense of fairness and justice the master has instilled in them.
God, the Master of earth’s hacienda, whose ways are “just and true” (Rev. 15:3), has “set eternity in the human heart” (Eccl. 3:11). We are surely not independently capable of all we long for; we are surely not always innocent of what we condemn in others. But our sense of justice, even when our own conscience rebukes us, is because the fall from Eden’s idyll has not entirely undone the human consciousness of God’s eternal norms. Our consciousness of those norms is our consciousness that we can never attain them on our own, and that all that preserves us from the condemnation and destruction we deserve is the Master’s mercy.
Mercy is big with Him, belonging to “the weightier matters of [His] law” (Matt. 23:23, KJV). Missing mercy is the same as self-destruction because it is the Master’s mercies that keep us alive, “because his compassions fail not” (Lam. 3:22, KJV). We survive every day because He never shifts from His graciousness to us (Mal. 3:6), renewing His mercies toward us every morning. Servant 1 missed that. There is no forgiveness in his gospel proclamation, if he has any. And, absent mercy, he destroys himself: lacking compassion, failing to understand mercy, failing to recognize that his survival depended exclusively on the master’s mercy made him his own worst enemy.
If he had cared enough about himself to listen to the Spirit and think straight, he would have known that his hope came from the Lord (Ps. 121:2); he would have grasped that the mercy of forgiveness is a gift from heaven (Acts 5:31). It was not found in his groveling: it was the master’s grace. It was not in his penance: it was in the master’s mercy. His master cared much less about money than about the well-being of his slaves and their families.
Servant 1 didn’t need an enemy. None of us does. If we only knew where to begin counting the days of our lives—with the mercy of God, we would find it very difficult to have any enemies. If we knew our own condition, owing and forgiven unconditionally our 5,000 lifetimes of debt, there would be no time left for us to abuse or extort anyone else for pennies: we would spend all our time in shameless gratitude.
Lynette Frantzen is assistant professor of psychology at Southwestern Adventist University, and a licensed professional counselor-supervisor.
Lael Caesar contemplates God’s mercy every new day he awakens to continue working as associate editor of the Adventist Review.