Surprised by Undeserved Mercy
Synopsis: We have a penchant for keeping score and seeking revenge for wrongs committed against us. Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant turns that mindset on its head through undeserved mercy. A mindset that channels everything through the narrow categories of debts owed and debts paid will adversely shape our lives. The way of tit-for-tat and revenge paves the path to hell, but the way of mercy and forgiveness leads to the kingdom of God.
What makes us keep score of offenses committed against us? We not only keep score but feel a compulsion to take revenge. Our sense of justice is violated and we seek to get even. This tit-for-tat is continually played out internationally as in the ongoing conflicts between our country and other countries perceived to be our enemies. It’s also played out in our domestic politics. As one American politician famously said, “I don’t get mad; I get even.”
What about our personal relationships as Christians? This is addressed in the last part of Matthew 18. The conversation is framed by Peter asking Jesus how many times he should forgive a brother who has sinned against him, and suggests seven times? Jesus, responds by saying he should forgive seventy-seven times. It speaks to our penchant for keeping score and our desire to get revenge. Unconditional forgiveness is the exact opposite.
I was once involved in a mediation process between two people in a church. We thought we were dealing with a specific difference between the two people in conflict. But then the person who had brought the accusation began to list other grievances going back at least several years, some of which the person being accused could not even remember. They also involved other people.
There was now no way to resolve the issue or heal the relationship in several mediation sessions. Some grievances have deep roots going back to other incidents. Some include things like abusive relationships in childhood, which then resurface. We weren’t able to heal that conflict even though we tried to rectify the issue and people asked for forgiveness for hurts they had caused. I’ve learned through such experiences that we can’t fix some things.
Furthermore, such experiences have pushed me to examine my own baggage. Sure, some of us have more baggage than others, but if you don’t think you have any, you’re not looking closely enough. For example, my clan has a penchant for holding grudges and being unforgiving. Some have even refused to talk with each other. That made some extended family gatherings very awkward when I was a child.
I recognize that same spirit in me. It can be an addiction. Sometimes it takes some deep spiritual work and a power beyond myself to overcome it—but it’s so liberating to let such stuff go. As biblical scholar Douglas Hare explains:
There’s nothing particularly Christian about the practice of forgiveness. Whatever our religion or nonreligion, we must request and grant forgiveness almost every day of our lives. Most of the offenses are trivial and unintentional. Forgiveness becomes problematic only when the trespasses are more serious, when they’re intentional, and especially when they’re repeated.
This brings us to the parable of the unmerciful servant. A helpful exercise in interpreting a parable is to notice the frame that the gospel writer places it within. It’s like a picture within a frame. This becomes especially obvious when different gospels put one of Jesus’ parables within different frames.
Another consideration is that parables don’t have only one correct interpretation. Of course, the story itself limits our interpretation to some extent. Parables, however, are meant to provoke our hearts and imaginations. If we, therefore, insist on only one correct interpretation we’re limiting the power of the story.
The frame that Matthew puts around the parable of the unmerciful servant is Peter’s question about forgiveness right before the parable. And then, immediately following the parable, we have the verse about the necessity of forgiving our brother or sister from our heart. This is a paraphrase of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive is our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors.”
Biblical scholar John Donahue says that this makes the parable into a warning that God will not forgive us if we cannot forgive others. This fits and builds on the parable but it doesn’t exhaust its meaning. Notice that it doesn’t even address Peter’s question of how often we need to forgive. It appears to be more about the quality of our forgiveness.
The setting of the story is at the court of a Middle Eastern king. It evokes the virtually unlimited power and incalculable wealth of the king or emperor. His was the patron and all who served him were clients. The Greek word describing the man the king has called to account is doulos which can be translated as either servant or slave. No matter how powerful this person is, he’s still a slave completely subject to the whims of the king.
Biblical scholar William Herzog II explains, “The king is above the law and not subjected to the law; indeed, his word is the law, and he can change it virtually at will.” This is the opposite of our American system of government with a balance of power between the executive, judicial, and congressional branches. The ongoing impeachment trial of our president is an example of this. Nobody is above the law.
It’s helpful to break Jesus’ parable into three acts. Act One is about the king and the servant with the immense debt. Act Two is about the forgiven servant and the fellow servant with debt. Act Three is about the fellow servants, the first servant, and the second servant.
Act One begins with the king settling accounts with his servants. This sounds ominous. A provincial governor or satrap is brought before him who owes the king an incalculable debt of ten thousand talents, which would compare to trillions of dollars today. Even such a powerful provincial governor is still a slave and completely beholden to this all-powerful king.
The satrap immediately falls to his knees and begs for more time to pay. He pleads, “Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.” All he’s asking for is more time. What’s so shocking is that the king takes pity and forgives the entire debt. This is a complete reversal. The king had planned to sell the man and his whole family, reducing them to absolute poverty.
In Act Two the satrap now leaves and confronts another member of the government bureaucracy who’s a client of his. Roles are reversed and now he’s the all-powerful despot. This client owes him a hundred denarii. This is peanuts compared to ten thousand talents but still a considerably larger debt than a common Palestinian villager could imagine having. Let’s say that today it would be several hundred thousand dollars.
The scene is repeated from Act One with the exception that the satrap gets physical and grabs the man be the throat. The client falls to the ground and pleads, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” It’s conceivable that it could have been repaid in time (unlike the satrap’s unfathomable large dept). Still, he showed no mercy and had the man thrown into prison.
This leads to Act Three where things get complicated and hard to understand. Shocked and destressed, the satrap’s fellow servants report what had happened to the king. The satrap appears to have been very foolish. Why didn’t he consider that this would happen? William Herzog II suggests that he had been humiliated by his encounter with the king and needed to show that he was still an important and powerful man.
Biblical scholar John Donahue suggests that the satrap was operating out of a worldview of strict justice. Notice, he hadn’t asked the king for mercy. All he asked for was more time to pay his impossibly huge debt. This mindset didn’t change when the king, instead, surprised him with completely unexpected and undeserved mercy. It was simply something that happened to him, not something that changed his way of viewing the world.
This is born out by the king’s accusation against him, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” Here’s where things become even harder to understand. The king now withdraws his mercy and hands him over to be to tortured until he pays his entire debt.
We must not make a direct analogy between the king and God because God is not a despot or a torturer. The best I can come up with is that if we insist on living in a world that demands tit-for-tat and revenge, that’s what we’ll get. As Gandhi has said, “An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth makes us all blind and toothless.”
What speaks most powerfully to me in this parable is being completely surprised by undeserved mercy. Jesus is calling us to be forgiving because we have been forgiven. And he’s cautioning us against a legalistic and closed tit-for-tat way of living our lives; a way that channels everything through the narrow categories of debts owed and debts paid. The way of tit-for-tat and revenge paves the path to hell, but the way of mercy and forgiveness leads to the kingdom of God.
 Douglas Hare, Matthew: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 215-216.
 William Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 139.
 John Donahue, The Gospel in Parable (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1990), 77.