“Re-Imagine the World: Unforgiving Slave Parable”

August 13, 2017


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Aug. 13, 2017

Re-Imagine the World: Unforgiving Slave Parable
Matt. 18:23-34

Eric and I went out last week to see the purple martins migrating to Brazil. They are coming through Wichita on their way – 20,000 to 50,000 per evening. It is quite a sight to see them soaring in groups way above the ground – so high they are barely visible. And then, on some silent command, the whole group flies straight into 6 small ornamental trees to rest for the night. Seeing it happen live is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

As we were standing in the parking lot waiting for this spectacular show to start, someone near us began discussing how the birds chose a leader and how they knew to follow that head bird.
• How do they know to land in Wichita?
• How do they know that these few trees are the spot for the night?
• And how does the group a day behind them know that these are the trees to roost in?
• There is a clear pecking order.

Merriam Webster defines a pecking order as a social structure. It is “the basic pattern of social organization within a flock of poultry in which each bird pecks another lower in the scale without fear of retaliation and submits to pecking by one of higher rank”.

Humans observe pecking orders too. We pretend they are a bit less noticeable, but we continue to put structure and hierarchy in place. Establishing these hierarchies help us identify our roles in the world. Just ask anyone who steps out of the expected and silently assigned place – and they will tell you that the pecking order between humans is solidly in place. Just go ask Charlottesville.

Jesus spoke out against pecking orders, hierarchies, and social constructions like these in our parable today from Matt. 18:23-34…

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.

But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.

When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.

This is the only one of Jesus’ parables about a king or a secular ruler. Remember, one of Jesus’ favorite phrases to begin a parable is “the kingdom of God is like..”, so it is surprising that most of the stories don’t include a ruler.

Jesus’ disciples clearly enjoyed the idea that the kingdom of God had an imperial aspect to it by their insistence that Jesus show his power and take his place in the world. But Jesus seemed to prefer the image of a child when he spoke of power.

Right before the parable we are considering today, is the framing question from Peter, “Master, how many times can a companion wrong me and still expect my forgiveness? As many as seven times?” Jesus responded, “My advice to you is not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” This is hyperbole, of course. And those numbers (as I preached on number theory some time back) are highly symbolic. Seven is a Divine Number. Jesus’ response is forgiveness is a divine activity and the number to use in forgiving someone is the divine number times the divine number times ten!

Right after this lesson, Jesus tells the parable I read… the parable of an unforgiving slave. This is again, a troubling parable. After Jesus demands almost infinite forgiveness, he tells a parable in which a king forgives an almost unimaginable amount and then turns around and punishes a slave after his first offense. Peter has to forgive seventy-seven times” but the king is going to forgive only once.

Often, we’ve been told, that the main character in the parables represents God.
1. The prodigal father represents God.
2. The wealthy person who gave an elaborate dinner party is God.
3. The Shepherd looking for one lost sheep is Jesus (or the Lord)
4. The woman who lost a coin is like God.
5. The leaven in rising bread is like God.
But if this king represents God, we are in trouble! It makes God into a very threatening character – like a demanding tyrant. Forgive you once, shame on you. Forgive you twice, shame on the King?

This parable has 3 different scenes:
The king’s accounting of his slave.
The slave’s accounting of others.
The king’s second accounting.
The first two scenes are structured in parallel. In each section, the one owing a debt falls down and begs, “Be patient with me and I’ll pay you back.” But, there are some differences too: the debts are very different; and the king shows compassion and forgives; but the slave does not.

The amount of money owed is tremendous in the ancient world. A talent equaled 6,000 denarii. A denarii was a day laborer’s wage. Just one talent, then, was 6,000 days of work – that’s 16.5 years of work without a day off. 10,000 talents would be several lifetimes of labor. That means it probably is an expression of a fantastic amount – like what we might call “a zillion”.

What we need to know that all Jesus’ hearers would have understood without explanation was how the taxation system of the Roman Empire worked. A king asked someone in his kingdom to collect taxes on his behalf. The person he chose would, in turn, hire others to help. When the tax collectors came to your door, they added an amount to your tax bill to pay for their troubles. That added amount was up to them and you didn’t know exactly what was actually owed and what was added onto that bill. This is why tax collectors were despised – they had a soft job comparatively and they took extra money from the working poor.

Another thing about the Roman government we need to be reminded about: staying on top as a ruler was not easy and demanded ruthless use of power. Remember that Herod imprisoned and executed many of his family members, including one of his wives and three of his own sons. One of the sons who survived, Herod Antipas, was involved in other political maneuvering, including the death of John the Baptist. This Herod, himself, became a victim of his family when his nephew and brother-in-law, Herod Agripa, exiled him to Gaul. Do these Herods remind you of a contemporary leader? Kim Jong Un, for example?

When Jesus’ audience heard that the king was compassionate and forgave the whole debt, they must have gasped out loud. Kings were not compassionate. And the word Jesus used to describe the king’s compassion is the same word used in the parable of the Good Samaritan when he discovered the man in the ditch.
But, that slave doesn’t offer the same compassion to those who owed him much less. And the king’s next response is extreme because the slave has violated the king’s own honor and shamed him. By not following his example, he has made a mockery of the forgiveness he received. That’s when the king in our parable uses his power in the last scene, and it is no surprise at all to Jesus’ listeners. This society was organized in a descending series of dependent relationships, or a deluxe pecking order!

According to Brandon Scott, the author of our book for this series, “this parable represents a fundamental challenge to popular notions of messianic kingship: the system of kingship has a fatal flaw. Because it is totally authoritarian, it is inherently unstable…. When there is a constant scramble for power…. And there is no way the system can distribute forgiveness or blessing…” this is key and it is especially important to understand Jesus’ parable even today.

When we pray each week, “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” we are praying for the end of empires and kingdoms. We are asking for a different mode of government. But do we really know what that means? According to this teaching from Jesus – it means that pecking orders are absolutely dissolved. To be blunt – it means that:
• One of us can’t have a huge house and another be homeless
• One of us can’t eat so much that we are overweight while others go hungry
• One of us can’t have money in the bank when others are literally penniless
• None of us can judge another
• And even more to the events of this week: we are not to be in the business of threats or actions to bomb one another.
• There is no supremacy. At all

Jesus and our gospels are full of rebellion against societal norms and structures. Jesus advocated for a complete change in government systems – one that did not stand on honor and shame, patron and client, power and destruction. This parable stands in condemnation of that view of reality. It points to the utter corruption and irredeemable character of a world organized by power systems and empires. And Jesus says that whatever the empire of God is, it absolutely cannot be that.

Resources Used:
Crossan, John Dominic. “God and Empire”. HarperCollins. 2017.
Meyers, Robin. “Spiritual Defiance”. Yale University Press. 2015.
Scott, Bernard Brandon. “Re-Imagine the World”. Polebridge Press. 2001.