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Squid Game and the Unforgiving Servant

Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

In light of Squid Game, basically Netflix’s K-pop remix of Saw, I’ll never hear certain of Jesus’ parables in the same way again. You see, Squid Game is a kind of parable too. Not only that, but the series treads a lot of the same ground that the Lord himself covered in his well-known analogies.

In particular, Jesus’ parables on debt, the salient theme of Squid Game, are among his best known: (1) the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:21-35, about which more later, and (2) the Parable of the Two Debtors in Luke 7:36-50. Both of these biblical tales hit very differently following my shameless binge of Squid Game.

It’s fair to say that the series leaves an impression. Flannery O’Connor once remarked in a writing masterclass, ‘To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.’

But whereas O’Connor cupped her hands and yelled, Squid Game explodes from the business end of an earthquake siren. And while the Georgian writer painted striking pictures with colourful words, the show splatters its ill omens through the screen like a frenzied werewolf toting a paintball gun.

As Brendan O’Neill has written for Spiked Online, ‘The violence is graphic, the blood bright red … The metaphors are laid on almost as thickly as the blood.’

A brief synopsis for anyone who hasn’t seen Squid Game. Opponents compete in children’s games in the hope of winning an eight-figure cash reward.

Only there’s a gruesome twist. (Isn’t there always?) Everyone who fails a challenge is “eliminated,” allowing only one lucky survivor to secure the money for themselves. The winner takes it all.

For these desperate rivals, it’s the only way to pay their debts before financial Armageddon closes in. And as the series progresses, we learn that this grisly Olympiad is put on for the viewing pleasure of wealthy “VIPs.”

Cue the sub-plot. In-between the deadly games, we follow a police detective investigating Front Man, the competition’s… front man, who runs the show from the shadows. That’s the gist of it, anyway.

Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, about which Squid Game had me thinking, is part of his response to the question in Matthew 18, ‘Lord how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?’ (v. 21).

Peter is honest enough to admit, in asking this, a stubborn feature of the human condition: that we find it impossibly challenging to forgo vengeance. It’s easier to place an upper limit on the number of times that we bury the hatchet. Seven is, famously, the limit of Peter’s forbearance.

Though Jesus’ response is equally well-known. ‘I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven’ (v. 22). But it wouldn’t be a lesson in the School of Jesus without a story to reinforce this idea. Hence the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.

Squid Game, itself a latter-day parable, opens in a dingy part of Seoul, where we meet a debt-saddled single father whose name is Gi-Hun. Early on, we learn that our protagonist has gotten himself tied up with loan sharks in order to service a gambling addiction.

But as more characters enter from the wings, we realise there are as many ways to wind up in debt as there are people struggling under the burden of unpayable bills. And so, Gi-Hun signs on to participate in the Squid Game, tempted by its cash reward: a chance to save his financial skin. The whole series, beginning with Gi-Hun’s fatal bargain, is a litany of the terrible things that straitened circumstances will force people to do.

We see this desperation in Jesus’ parable as well. The Unforgiving Servant in the title is heavily in the debt of a certain lord, to the tune of ten thousand talents (v. 24).

Everything about the scene brings to mind that ominous line from Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, ‘A debt is a debt, and must be paid.’ Even without the help of exchange rates, we can assume that the servant owes a colossal sum. And unfortunately for him, a literal day of reckoning is imminent; it’s time for the settling of scores (v. 23). But things take a happy turn in the servant’s favour…

Not so for Gi-Hun. From the very first round of Squid Game, it’s very clear what being “eliminated” from the competition means: a brutal death either, depending on the game, by tumbling from a great height or from a bullet in the brain. Any sane person, surely, would run a mile over broken glass to get away from this torture?

But leaving empty-handed would be to fall straight into the Korean debt epidemic all over again. There isn’t really another option; the Squid Game facility is a debtor’s prison. And so, fully aware that their lives are at stake, a majority play on for a shot at winning.

The Unforgiving Servant is in a dilemma too. Everything that he has he stands to lose if he cannot service the debt that he owes (v. 25). He will be sold. His wife will be sold. His children will be sold. His property will be sold.

We realise that his creditor, the lord in the Parable, is in a godlike position. It’s entirely within his power to do whatever he wants to the servant, which is dramatically rendered in the servant’s blubbering act of dropping down prostrate and worshipping him (v. 26).

Mercifully, the lord refuses to wield this battle-axe of godlike authority and instead releases the servant from all his debts (v. 27). Freedom with no strings attached.

A similarly godlike power lies in the hands of Squid Game’s VIP bankrollers. This mysterious cabal of animal-mask wearing financiers keep the competition afloat and indulge in its orgies of bloodshed for pure entertainment.

In designing the luxury suite from which these investors view the games, there’s barely a symbol of wealth and status that the production team overlooked. As they feast on death and suffering, martini glasses in hand, they recline on chaises longues and actual people are hunkered on all fours as their footstools.

The whole thing is obscene. But it’s all to point up the gross imbalance of power between these elites and the people whose misery they seize upon.

And whereas the lord in Jesus’ parable chose to lay down his godlike authority over his debtor, the Unforgiving Servant is not so… forgiving. In this respect, he responds to his fellow man like the VIPs from Squid Game.

See, the Unforgiving Servant accosts another servant who, somewhat ironically, owes him a smaller debt than the one he was forgiven, and he violently demands that he repay it in full (v. 28).

Adding irony to irony, the second servant’s plea for mercy is a verbatim restatement of the Unforgiving Servant’s prior petition for lenience (v. 29). The Unforgiving Servant won’t have any of it, though; spurning the clemency that he received, he throws the poor debtor in jail (v. 30).

Debt has a habit of changing people. Maybe the cruel streak within the Unforgiving Servant was a product of sleepless nights worrying, agonising about where he would ever find the money to pay his dues. How permanent are the fractures of a debt-haunted soul?

Perhaps this is what happened to the Unforgiving Servant, and which so disfigured his character. I speculate, of course, but we see the descent, in Squid Game as well, of initially decent inmates into ghoulish deeds.

Very few manage to retain their basic human compassion under extreme pressure. At certain points along the way, the viewer has little more sympathy for some of the players than for the VIPs or the Front Man.

Having finally tasted some godlike authority, the power to decide the fate of another, the Unforgiving Servant, as with Squid Game’s more unsavoury types, is lured into the thrill of dispensing punishment.

Yet it’s a fleeting sensation.

The lord summons the Unforgiving Servant and excoriates him savagely (v. 32). Then follows the question containing the nub of the parable, ‘shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?’ (v. 33).

But the servant instead, as we know, evidenced utter contempt of his lord when he spurned his gracious example. And so, poetic justice takes its course and the Unforgiving Servant is handed over to the jailers (v. 34).

Even those to whom life has deal a poor hand, such as the characters of Squid Game, are accountable. Jesus never exempts anyone from needing to treat others as one wishes to be treated.

‘So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses’ (v. 35).

Insisting on an unpayable debt is only ever a means of controlling another person. Titillating as it is, power can be deeply destructive in malicious hands. And so, Jesus proposes a counterintuitive experiment in the giving up of power.

By choosing peace over payback, as the lord in the parable does, and as Gi-Hun does when the crucial moment arrives, debt is unable to wreak its destruction. Forgiveness gets the final word.


11/24/2021 4:33:11 PM
Matthew Allen
About Matthew Allen
Matthew Allen is a writer and musician based in Northern Ireland. He is a graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast, where he studied Theology and Liberal Arts.