The Uniform Series or “common text” for Sunday, July 1 is Matthew 18:21-35, “the parable of the unforgiving servant.” Here are some notes on the text:
First Impressions, Background, and Context
This is a very strange text, and the more we look into it, the stranger it seems. It says it is about forgiveness – or, “forgiveness.” But what does that mean?
We are once again in the gospel of Matthew, with all that implies about interspersed teaching and narrative passages, emphasis on Jesus’ messianic relationship to Israel, and use of wisdom themes and prophetic fulfillment.
This parable figures in a part of the gospel that reads like a teaching passage, with a focus on the church and the life of the church. Right away, then, we might ask questions about how much this material might reflect the intervening experience of the early church, because how much did Jesus actually have “the church” on his mind during his life? Maybe much of what has been handed down to us as evidence of that is “in retrospect” interpretation of things members of the early church remember Jesus having said (at best) or churchly invention (if we are being cynical).
Matthew, anyway, seems to want us to relate Jesus’ words here to the church and our life as part of the church. In other words, we need to see this parable as a conclusion of a longer instruction that begins with telling the disciples to value children, not to cause them to stumble, not to despise them or allow them to be lost (like sheep), and then what that means for resolving disputes with “your brother,” which according to the NRSV is best translated “another member of the church.” Again, this makes sense if we have decided to read all of this as instructions to the church. Which hasn’t technically been invented yet. Unless we are thinking Reformed theologically, in which case of course the church has been invented already, since it is all the faithful of every time and place all the way back to Adam and Eve. Which is just to say that already this text is taking us to unexpected and peculiar places.
The text is a parable. Everything we know about parables applies: they have some relation to the real world, but they are not necessarily “true stories;” they are meant to make us think; maybe they make things clearer, unless they make things obscure (see Matthew 13:10-17). Moreover, it is a parable of the “kingdom of heaven” – so, in the same category as the parable of the weeds in the wheat, the mustard seed, the leaven in the flour.
Specifically, the longer story appears as an answer to Peter’s question in v21, “if my brother/another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? SEVEN TIMES?” That question itself arises from the instructions on what to do in the first place if your brother/another member of the church sins/sins against you, and the ensuing reminder that, in the midst of all these contentious and consensual relationships, Jesus is present (Matthew 18:15-20). Jesus says, more or less, “way more than that,” perhaps 11 times more, perhaps seventy times more; then he tells this story.
The problem of ancient currency arises: how many denarii in a talent, and how much is 10,000 of those in terms we can understand? According to the footnotes in the Access Bible, “A talent was worth more than fifteen years’ wages of a laborer,” while a denarius, which comes up in v28, was the usual daily wage. The relation of a talent to a denarius was something like 6,000 to 1. Depending on how we do the arithmetic around “daily wage,” we can come up with different numbers for the debt owed by this deeply indebted servant, and by his less deeply indebted fellow servant. (See, for instance, Phillip Massey’s helpful calculation here and Timidity’s somewhat different calculation here.) The main point seems to be that the 10,000 talent sum is impossibly, almost unimaginably huge. Maybe not AIG collapse huge, maybe more like Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt huge, but definitely not defaulting on your home mortgage, getting in over your head with credit cards, or even racking up big gambling debts huge. It’s the kind of money we are more likely to associate with corporations than with individuals, unless by “individuals” we mean the .01%.
One of the strangest features of the story – namely, this unimaginably massive debt owed by the slave to the king – seems to make sense only in light of the Roman institution of the peculium. This was
… the objects, live stock, money, houses, fields, other slaves, etc., which it had been customary for Roman proprietors to leave to the free administration of trusted slaves, and which, while at law recoverable by the master at any moment, came in fact to have a distinct character.
The understanding that a slave might conceivably have been entrusted with a vast estate or enterprise, and might technically, though seldom actually, at any moment be called in to give an accounting of the property involved, brings some of the more outrageous aspects of that unimaginable 10,000 talent debt into line with some kind of reality. Otherwise, the reader might well be thinking “Why did this king loan this guy all this money in the first place? What kind of loan procedures would have authorized an unrepayable loan of this kind? How much can this king possibly care about money in the first place, if he’s this careless about vetting his borrowers? And why bring the wife and kids into the picture? How is that fair?” etc. etc. The institution of the peculium makes the whole situation more intelligible – though still extreme.
Because the situation Jesus describes starting in v23 is outrageous! “A person, a king” wants to “settle accounts with his slaves.” Or, perhaps his servants. The distinction probably makes more of a difference to us than it did to Peter (Jesus’ first century audience), and the word here could be translated either way. Whatever it means, it is used nine times in the story (vv23, 26, 27, 28 – twice, 39, 31, 32, 33). That means we won’t easily fail to notice that this story concerns slaves/servants of that “person, king.”
So the story emphasizes this relationship of servitude, or dependence, or obligation, most of the characters have with the one character of the person, who is referred to as “king” just once (v23), as “lord” more often (vv25, 27, 31, 32, 34), and finally compared to Jesus’ heavenly father (v35).
Why does the person, king want to settle these accounts? We don’t know. If he were an ancient Roman dominus, it would have been his right to ask for an accounting like this at any time. But, practically, an ancient Roman dominus probably would only have asked for it in a case of serious wrongdoing. So if we had been listening to this story along with Peter, we might already have a sense that this particular slave is in trou.ble.
Indeed, the first object of the reckoning is the “someone who was owing” “ten thousand talents” (v24).
In Greek, the word translated “reckoning” is logos. Yes, that “in the beginning was the logos” John 1:1 logos. Context is everything. But it does give a person something to think about.
How do you lose that kind of money? Through what abuse of trust? Negligence? Incompetence? Mismanagement, failure to embrace best practices, lousy customer service, ignoring consumer needs and wants or not doing enough focus groups to find out about consumer needs and wants, hide-bound corporate culture, … ? “Bad choices”?
The lord’s threatened sale of the slave, his wife, his children, and all his possessions presumably won’t touch the debt, really. It’ll be cents on the dollar.
The slave prostrates himself before the lender, and asks him to “have patience” – literally, to “put his desire far away,” and promises to pay everything back.
Considering the size of the debt, this promise to repay is worthless, nothing but a fiction, monopoly money.
By now we may have begun to suspect that the lord doesn’t really care about the money. (Or does he? What does this lord care about? What was he thinking this slave might have done, or ought to have done, with that peculium?)
The lord feels compassion for the slave (v27). Literally, the word that appears in NRSV as “pity” refers to a feeling a person has in “the innermost parts,” one’s internal organs that are the “seat of the affections.” In Greek class our teacher said it was something like feeling your guts twist.
So the lord “releases” the slave and “forgives” the debt. “Release” does not seem to mean that the slave ceases to be a slave, but that he is no longer in the position of being held or seized. That is, he’s “free to go” but is still the lord’s slave. The verb used for “forgives” here has a very wide range of meanings. It includes cancelling a debt, it can mean letting something go, in the sense of not pressing a matter, or letting something go, like abandoning it, or leaving someone or something, either alone, or by giving up on them … all of this carries the sense of not pursuing or staying with or holding on to some … one, or thing, or place. The lord just drops the whole thing.
Whew. What a relief. (Especially for the wife and children, maybe.)
But now the released slave “goes out,” “finds” a fellow-slave – i.e., roughly an equal, a peer – who is a debtor to him, to the tune of 100 denarii, that is, about four months’ wages. Finally we have a comprehensible debt, something that makes sense in everyday life human terms.
According to NRSV, the released and forgiven slave “seizes him by the throat.” The Greek suggests that he comes close to choking the life out of his fellow-slave. (Perhaps it is just a coincidence that in Hebrew, which Jesus would have known, the word for “throat,” the nephesh, is also the word for “soul,” what we are supposed to love God with all of.)
Why our slave needs this money so bad we still may not understand. It’s not like he needs it to pay back the lord, since his debt has been cancelled. Is he actually using this money for anything? Does his behavior make any sense?
Whether or not it makes sense, he demands repayment.
The next scene, which plays out before the slave, who we may assume is a person, is now strictly parallel to the scene before the person, the king. The same prostration before the lender. The same request for “patience.” But not the same gut-twisting compassion.
Instead, in the case of this debt, the lender “refused,” “went,” and “threw” the debtor into prison.
[These slaves have an awful lot of autonomy, and an awful lot of authority, in being able to jail someone who is actually someone else’s slave. It’s a tricky business, punishing someone else’s slave/servant. There is a sense in which it amounts to punishing the slave/servant’s lord, and this difficulty was evidently recognized in Roman law. The point is that the released and forgiven servant’s action is not only violent and threatening and punitive to his fellow-servant, it’s an attack on their common lord as well. It’s not just an omission of mercy, it’s a commission of ingratitude that results in “lost work time.”]
Now the other fellow-slaves get into the act (v31). They see what happens, they suffer great distress or grief or pain, they go, they report it all to their lord. This action on the part of the other fellow-slaves is critical. Today we might call it an intervention, or advocacy.
Upon the intervention of the fellow-slaves, the lord takes a revised set of actions with respect to the first slave, summoning, saying, and handing him over to torture – the same kind of torture experienced by the rich man in Luke 16:23. Because while the fellow-slaves are distressed and grieved, their dominus acts in “anger,” a word with connotations of ultimate judgment.
The translation of v35 sounds a little less forbidding in Greek than in its English translation, more like “And so my father in heaven will do to you-all, if you-all do not forgive each his/her brother/sister [to be inclusive] from your-all’s hearts.”
Jesus’ story seems intended to put Peter – and us – in mind of someone who has received power and property and position and perhaps prestige from the dominus – assuming we are right in thinking that the ancient Roman dominus is the relationship that helps us make sense of this parable of the “kingdom of heaven.” Presumably with a set of instructions, a mission, a job description, the doing of which, and particularly the doing-well of which, would have at least conserved that princely peculium, and maybe nurtured and increased it. Instead, the slave presents as one owing, a bankrupt.
I have never heard anyone talk about this story any other way than as an instruction to Christians as individuals. We can read ourselves into this scene pretty easily, can read this as a story about our personal stewardship of the genuinely vast peculium of our “one wild and precious life,” and imagine ourselves “somewhere ages and ages hence,” trying to account for how little we have to show for it. At least, as someone for whom those “ages and ages” are looking shorter and shorter by the year, I’m acutely aware of how little that is in my case. Other people may not feel that way.
I have begun to question this reading, however. Without wanting to take anything away from the treasure that is a human lifespan, and without wanting to let myself off the hook in any way, the purely individual reading seems to suppress several things we know about the text. (1) That it appears in the context of a set of instructions on “how to be the church” – at least, if we are willing to allow that Jesus was giving Peter instructions about the church. (2) That Jesus tells the story as a direct response to Peter’s question, again in the context of how the church is supposed to treat people, of how much “forgiveness” that is supposed to mean. (3) That slave #1 is on the hook for the kind of wealth we would associate with a corporate enterprise. (4) That slave #1 sets himself up as an analog to “the lord” vis-à-vis his “fellow-slave” – but adding in violence, the threat of bodily harm, coercion, and subtracting compassion. In other words, that slave looks and acts like someone who has been placed “in charge” of a lot, including of people. Which makes me wonder whether we don’t need to think of “slave #1” more as a personification of a community, or an institution, that adopts the position of person, king in relation to fellow-slave/servants. A community or institution like “the Church,” perhaps.
At a minimum, I doubt very much that this is a story about how much little, bullied, beaten-up, pushed around individuals, “little ones” (see vv1-11), like wives and children, are supposed to let their fellows get away with, without pressing charges, under the rubric of “forgiveness.” I suspect, rather, that this is a story about the kind of life-threatening hard-heartedness we “others” are supposed to be noticing, and caring about, and reporting to the Person in Charge, and by no means standing by or covering up or sticking up for, unless we want to become, ourselves, agents of the unforgiving-forgiven corporate person. But we will only play our verse 31 part if we, ourselves, recognize the 100 denarii debts as chicken feed, especially compared with the 10,000 talent bail-out, from which we derive our share of the corporate benefits.
 Edgar S. Shumway Freedom and Slavery in Roman Law , 49 U. Pa. L. Rev. 636 (1901). 639. Available at: https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/penn_law_review/vol49/iss11/2
Another treatment of the peculium is this from William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 1875, courtesy of Bill Thayer.