The Story Behind the Story?
Taking Simon the Pharisee to School
Thoughts on Luke 7:36-8:3 in Relation to Matthew’s Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
In our lectionary text for June 13 from Luke 7:36-8:3, Simon the Pharisee objects to the devotion shown to Jesus by a woman who is a “sinner.” In response Jesus tells a brief parable (verses 41-42) about 2 debtors and a merciful creditor. He uses it to communicate that the one who has been forgiven more will love more. And the one who has been forgiven less will love less. I’m not entirely convinced that Simon has less to be forgiven for than the woman. Who says being judgmental is less serious than whatever her sins have been? I can’t help but think about the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew when I read this passage from Luke. If I were preaching on this passage this Sunday, I’d let the parable of the Unforgiving Servant from Matthew’s gospel take Simon the Pharisee from Luke’s gospel to school.
The Unforgiving Servant
This parable is unique to Matthew. It is about forgiveness, but with Matthew’s typical ending in which someone has to pay. A good way to get into the meaning of a parable for us is to ask ourselves, what do we wish it said instead of what it says? I would prefer a more positive version of this parable about forgiveness whose theme music is in a major key and that has a positive ending. My parable would go like this: A master forgives a servant’s debt. The servant then goes out and sees another servant who owes him money. The second servant falls on his knees in front of the first and begs for forgiveness. Then there is a touching moment, when the first servant reaches out his hand and lifts the second servant to his feet and says something like, “Since I have just come from being forgiven by the king, how could I do anything but forgive you?” The second servant rejoices and goes and spreads the news. The news of the first servant’s merciful behavior reaches the ears of the king. The first servant gets a promotion and then there is a party. Maybe I would even have the king forgive all the debts of all his servants. But I have gotten carried away by my imaginings and forgotten where I am. I am in the gospel of Matthew, not Luke.
All of the parables unique to Matthew, except for the brief analogies of the treasure, the pearl and the fishnet, end with someone’s downfall, while the minor key theme song of judgment plays in the background. So the unforgiving servant in this parable ends up being tortured in a dungeon (18:34). The weeds get thrown into a furnace of fire (13:42); the laborer who dared to complain about his wages is sent packing (20:14); the son who didn’t go to the fields is eventually excluded from the kingdom 21:32), and those who did not see Jesus in the destitute go away into eternal punishment (25:46).
Now it is time for personal confession. I rolled through a red light several months ago and was stopped by a police officer and given a ticket. You will be pleased to hear that your author was very polite to the officer. I was then given the mandatory opportunity to attend “red light school” at the township building one evening. So there I sat with 20 or 30 of my fellow citizens, now labeled “red light runners.” The 2 hour program began, as you would expect, with a slideshow of cars destroyed by red light runners, slides of people hurt and even killed by red light runners and statistics to last a lifetime. Flashing before us for a full half an hour were images of the consequences of our actions. I must admit, that, as weary as I sometimes get of Matthew’s repeated pictures of judgment, I do scrupulously stop at yellow lights now.
Matthew must have thought that his congregation needed a warning label affixed to parables, a warning of the consequences of merely doing their religion lip service, of being hearers but not doers. A crucial expression of our obedience to Jesus’ teachings is not to judge ourselves superior to others (7:1-5; 18:1-5) on the basis of our religious heritage or observances. The parable of the weeds, another parable unique to Matthew among the four canonical gospels, (Matthew 13:24-30; Gospel of Thomas 57), shows us that he believed the present time is a time of grace in which God allows weeds and wheat to grow together and it is God’s to judge which is which. So we are not to judge one another, but we are to live aware of the winnowing that is to come at God’s hands. The presence of forgiveness in our lives is an important criterion on which our obedience will be judged when the time comes. We are not to roll judgmentally down the road of life, but we are to stop when necessary, to take stock of our own sins and to extend the same forgiveness we have received to others. Mathew emphasizes that the one who teaches us this lesson on forgiveness is the Son of God, who has promised to be with us to the end of the age (28:20). Therefore, we are not being asked to summon this forgiveness apart from the presence of Jesus, but summon it we must.
The parable of the unforgiving servant is realistic and strange. It is realistic that a king would settle accounts. It is strange that he would demand that the debtor’s family also be enslaved, much less sold! Jewish law stipulated that only the debtor be enslaved, not that his family be enslaved or sold. This exaggeration is meant to underscore the harshness and mercilessness of the king.
It is strange that a servant would owe such a massive amount as 10,000 talents, an amount that could never be repayable in one lifetime, since 1 talent was the equivalent of 15-20 years of daily wages. The absurd amount highlights how tremendously grateful the first servant should be to the king for the forgiveness of such a massive debt. The monumental amount the first servant owed the king also is meant to contrast with the relatively modest amount that the second servant owes the first servant. The amount is 100 denarii. A denarius is the equivalent of one day’s wages, so this is certainly an amount that can be repaid in a timely fashion.
The cruelty of the king reminds us of other violent overreactions by authority figures elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel: the king in the parable of the wedding garment (Matthew 22:12) and the master in the parable of the talents 25:30. These sorts of reactions are missing from the parables unique to Luke.
So we have a picture here of a terribly harsh king who, inexplicably, takes pity on a servant who owes him a tremendous debt. And we have a picture of a person who has been shown tremendous mercy, inexplicably unwilling to extend it to someone else.
What motivates someone who is apparently without pity to take pity?
What motivates a person who has been shown mercy to deny it to someone else?
Do we see ourselves in either of those questions? Do we need, in our lives, in our relationships, Matthew’s reminder that, in light of the coming reckoning, we need to make changes in the way we do things?
Excerpt from The Parables for Today, Alyce M. McKenzie (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007). 91-93.