Twice this week I have ended up studying Matthew 18:21-35. It’s known as the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.
Basically, a servant is pulled before the king because he has debts far too large to ever hope to repay in a lifetime. He pleads with the king for mercy and receives it. His debt is wiped clean and he is released. He then goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes him a small amount of money and begins to choke him, demanding the debt be repaid. The second servant begs for mercy, but the first servant will not give it and has the servant thrown in prison until he can repay. The king/master hears about what has happened and the first servant is brought before him. The king/master expresses his dismay that the servant to whom he had shown mercy then turned and refused to show mercy. For this he was thrown in prison and tortured until he could repay what he owed.
The first time I studied the parable this week it was in a Sunday school class and in the context of the whole chapter and what is being said about the nature of the Kingdom of God. The issue of the torture in the story was raised and the discussion turned to the nature of God’s divine wrath. In the face of this sin, the servant received the punishment he deserved from a holy God.
The second time I studied the parable it was in my Bible study. Again, we were seeking to better understand the Kingdom of God, but we were also looking at the issue of forgiveness. When the discussion got to the torture (as it inevitably does – it’s so disturbing) a thought struck me. This king/master is not shown to be violent in the first exchange with the servant, but then in the second exchange the servant is tortured, a cruel and dehumanizing punishment.
I recently listened to the Duke Chapel service from September 11 when the sermon was on Ground Zero. Wells talked about the use of the ‘Ground Zero’ language in conjunction with the development and testing of the atomic bomb, a weapon used to wipe humans from the face of the earth. Then he talked about the events of 9/11 and how so many of the people who died in the towers couldn’t even be identified by genetic material from Ground Zero. They had been wiped from the face of the earth with no trace. A country that had introduced this level of violence to the world was now the victim of the same level of violence.
So, in reading the parable I looked back and found the choking. The leader pointed out what a violent and dehumanizing reaction that choking would be in asking for repayment for a debt. The servant introduces a hugely escalated and dehumanizing level of violence to the equation. Then, in his own judgement, he receives the sentence of torture, also a violent and dehumanizing overreaction to the crime.
I think both approaches have a great deal of merit, but in light of my views (and recent studies) on violence, the latter has me thinking. How often do we see ourselves as the victim of violence that we ourselves introduced to the equation? Why do we repeatedly assume that in using extreme violence, we will get and maintain some level of control? When has escalating violence ever worked as a long term solution?
While the second reaction of the king/master is most certainly a message about the anger of God in the face of our lack of grace, mercy and forgiveness, could it also be a reflection of God’s anger when we use violence for power against our fellow human beings? Anger at our arrogance in dehumanizing another human created in the image of God?
Food for thought.