And Peter Asked Jesus: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

And Peter Asked Jesus: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant September 17, 2023

a Bible with three wooden crosses
image via Pixabay

A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Matthew:

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”


There are certain Gospel passages that the wrong kind of people like to seize on.

Last Sunday’s was one of them. This is another. This is the passage that abusive people pull out whenever they want to force you not to hold them accountable. It’s the one people use to tell you that you’re not allowed to walk away from those who hurt you and that you have to let yourself get hurt again and again; that you’re not allowed to be leery of the Church if the Church has abused and traumatized you. If that’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then Jesus Christ is Himself an abuser.

Is there a different way to look at it?

I’ve thought and thought about this Gospel reading, and then I backed up and tried to bring it into context.

Two weeks ago we had the reading from the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, where Simon Peter has just declared that Jesus is the Christ and been praised and called the Rock on which the whole Church would be built. Then he spoils everything by rebuking Jesus for telling him God’s plan for salvation. Peter wanted Jesus to do something triumphant and exciting. Jesus knew that the Father’s plan is for Him to be with His people, always choosing to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, descending to suffer the worst thing one human could do to another so that no one would find themselves suffering where God was not. Peter got called Satan and harshly warned to knock it off.

After that, in the seventeenth chapter, Jesus takes Peter, John and James up the mountain and is transfigured before him. Peter, ever the loudmouth, makes it all about himself again and starts ranting about putting up tents. They come down the mountain together, where there is a boy with epilepsy that the apostles have had no luck healing, and Jesus scolds them for their lack of faith and heals the child Himself. He reminds the apostles that he’s going to be lynched; this time, Peter says nothing, but they’re all filled with grief. Peter and Jesus banter about the temple tax and Jesus has Peter catch a fish with a miraculous bit of money inside, which leads us to Chapter Eighteen.

The eighteenth chapter of Matthew also begins with Jesus standing with the vulnerable. All the apostles want to know who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, and he shows them up. None of them is the greatest. He tells them that a little child, who in the Roman Empire had no legal rights at all, was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.  He says that anyone who shelters a child shelters Jesus.  Then Jesus warns the apostles that the fate awaiting anyone who brings scandal and harm to vulnerable children is worse than being thrown in the ocean with a millstone around their neck.

Last week, we had the reading that comes right after the exhortation about vulnerable children: the reading about what to do if your brother sins against you. That’s the one that’s been appropriated as an excuse to shun people but, as I pointed out last week, it’s actually about the community’s responsibility to protect victims from the people who sin against them.

Now, we have Peter opening his trap again: Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?

It sounds to me like Peter sat there listening to a sermon about how vehemently God insists that His followers stand with the most vulnerable, and made it all about himself again.

He listened to a sermon all about what to do if someone in the community is wounded, so that we can forgive and show mercy and also keep people safe, and asked how often he, personally, was supposed to forgive.

It seems like all of this stretch of the Gospel According to Matthew involves Jesus honoring the Apostles with visions and prophesies and miracles, reminding them that they are going to be leaders of His new Faith, and the Apostles making fools of themselves in their pride and human weakness every time, and then Jesus reminding them that the Church is really about caring for the most vulnerable. Yes, you are entrusted with the leadership. No, that doesn’t mean you’re the most important. The poor and the sick and children are the most important.  Yes, I’m showing you visions and telling you secrets that no one else gets to know until later. No, that doesn’t make you wiser than anyone else. Yes, you’re going to be in charge. No, that doesn’t mean you get to lord it over anyone; you are servants. Yes, I will work miracles through you. No, you’re still not God; in fact you’re very silly. Yes, I love you and am going to change the world through you, but I will also hold you accountable, severely, when you fail the faithful.

Saint Peter, the Rock on which the Church was founded, the first Pope, Vicar of Christ, the one against whom the gates of hell will not prevail– Peter, who’s been saying the wrong thing and asking annoying questions for quite some time, asks Jesus exactly how many times he has to forgive his brother. That’s all he took home from that sermon: that he might have to forgive his brother more times that he would like.

And Jesus says to the Pope, not to the multitude He sometimes preaches to but to the Pope: not seven times but seventy times seven– that is, an infinite number of times. In the Bible, seven stands for infinity. The Church has got to be merciful, an infinite number of times.

And then He tells a story about a debtor was loaned an enormous, incalculable sum by the king. That debtor had riches beyond our wildest dreams, and he squandered it all somehow.  The king demands that the debtor be sold into slavery to pay it off. The debtor falls on his knees and begs, and the king relents. He forgives the debt. The debtor walks out of the courtroom a free man.

Out on the street, the debtor finds a fellow servant who owes him a pittance. The debtor grabs the fellow servant by the neck and chokes him; he has him thrown into prison. The other servants appeal to the king, and the king isn’t pleased. The king has his unmerciful debtor tortured until he pays the last penny.

And I suppose that Jesus tells that story to every Pope and every Apostle, to the bishops and all the clergy, to the ones He put in charge, knowing that they would fail Him again and again and again.

He is going to give them authority over the Church, the keys to bind and loose, the power to transform bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, the ability to forgive sins, gifts greater than any human being can possibly comprehend.

They are going to fail at their duties, miserably. They will deserve to lose everything for that.

He is going to continue to let them have the gift, because the gift is for the whole Church.

And when they inevitably turn on the people He’s placed under them, when they refuse to show mercy, when they strangle and imprison when they were meant to give life and break chains, He will hear about it. And He will be angry. And they will get the most strident punishments, because they have been entrusted with so much.

At least, that’s how the Gospel reading looks to me.

Whoever has ears, let him hear.



Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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