464: THE PARABLE OF THE UNMERCIFUL SERVANT

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[london graffiti – not buckingham palace!]

“A warm welcome to Zingcreed, the blog of the post-Christian age. We reject all the mumbo jumbo the church has to throw at us, but we still have a soft spot for the bloke who started it all – J.C.
Once again we deconstruct one of Jesus’ parables, paraphrasing the excellent analysis put forward by Professor William Herzog in his book “Parables as subversive speech“. You won’t ever hear this  interpretation of Jesus’ words in church, so if it sounds right to you, check out the earlier posts based on Herzog’s book, or get the book. (I use it in the British Library, which fortunately is only a couple of tube stations from where I live.) This one has a king in it, probably modelled on Herod the Great or one of his descendants. The spirit of the parable seems more anarchist than monarchist however, as Herzog’s class analysis makes clear. It is worth bearing in mind that Jesus’ hearers would have been illiterate subsistence peasants and people of the equally impoverished artisan class like Jesus himself.
I hope you find this interesting.
Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.”

misty 001

[visiting a royal palace]

THE PARABLE OF THE UNMERCIFUL SERVANT

Here is the Gospels’ only version of this story:-
(v. 23)”This is why Heaven’s imperial rule should be compared to a secular ruler who decided to settle accounts with his slaves.
(24) When the process began, this debtor was brought to him who owed ten million dollars.
(25) Since he couldn’t pay it back, the ruler ordered him sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, so he could recover his money.
(26) At this prospect, the slave fell down and grovelled before him:’Be patient with me, and I’ll repay every cent.’
(27) Because he was compassionate, the master of that slave let him go and canceled the debt.
(28) As soon as he got out, that same fellow collared one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred dollars, and grabbed him by the neck and demanded:’Pay back what you owe!’
(29) His fellow slave fell down and begged him:’Be patient with me and I’ll pay you back.’
(30) But he wasn’t interested; instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he paid the debt.
(31) When his fellow slaves realised what had happened, they were terribly distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had taken place.
(32) At that point, his master summoned him:’You wicked slave,’he says to him,’I cancelled your entire debt because you begged me.
(33) Wasn’t it only fair  for you to treat your fellow slave with the same consideration as I treated you?’
(34) And the master was so angry he handed him over to those in charge of punishment until he paid back everything he owed.
(35) That’s what my heavenly father will do to you, unless you find it in your heart to forgive each one of your brothers and sisters.”

(Matthew 18:23-35) Scholar’s Translation from the Jesus Seminar, who rate the parable ‘pink’ meaning ‘Jesus probably said something like this’, except for the last verse which they rate ‘black’ meaning ‘Jesus did not say this. It represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.’

Herzog asks what the parable meant in Jesus’ original spoken version before Matthew, with his own systems of ethics and theology, interpreted it in his own way. Apparently most scholars assign 3 additions to the evangelist which should be removed to get a pre-Matthean centre of gravity:
(i) v.23 “This is why”
(ii) v.23a “Heaven’s imperial rule”
(iii) v. 35 the concluding moral to the story.

Let us look at the characters in the story, and add what we now know about first century Palestinian society, to get a fuller, more meaningful picture.

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[london graffiti]

The Master/King/Ruler (‘King’ being the translation preferred by Herzog, which I shall use too.) This agrarian ruler sounds like a ruthless, absolute oriental despot, above the law and at the apex of an authoritarian system. The elite he belongs to make up 1 to 2 % of the population. The ‘king’ would have engaged in a power struggle with other equally ambitious aristocrats to get the most lucrative prize of all – control of the state and the political apparatus. He could have been Jewish or Gentile, it doesn’t make any difference, but in the Galileean context he would have been a client king, owing his power to Rome. He would have been perpetually struggling to consolidate his power and protect himself from the the endless intrigues of those rivals who would gladly usurp his power as he had usurped his predecessor. To do this effectively he needed immense resources which he could amass through confiscation of land and taxation, both direct and indirect. The state’s resources were his to plunder. In the parable we see his absolute power expressed in his ability to punish, forgive and withdraw his forgiveness all in quick succession. His word is the law and he can change it virtually at will. As Herzog puts it “Arbitrariness is the norm. It is a tool of authoritarian control.” 

The slaves/servants/retainers/bureaucrats
made up 5-7% of the population. They were hated by the people among whom Jesus worked because they were the visible figures who put into practice the policies of the wealthy elite. Feuding and mistrust were endemic to their world as they took and gave bribes, peddled influence, and feather-bedded. They fell into 3 subclasses:
(i) illiterati: porters, guards and torturers (v.34)
(ii) literati: scribes, lawyers, accountants, record keepers. They liked red tape and opacity so that their departmental heads couldn’t snoop on what they were up to.
(iii) dignitates: department heads and other high officials in the king’s court. They headed up competing pyramids of patron-client loyalties.
The king frequently changed his departmental heads to minimise corruption and ambition; it was a power-ridden, fear-dominated society. The closer to the ruler you were, the more power and wealth you had, but there was still a vast gap between any slave/functionary (doulos) and the king. They were totally dependent on his patronage. Of course this urban political elite lived off the economic surplus generated by the producers, i.e. the subsistence peasantry, living in the countryside

The main departments in the bureaucracy were (a) military, (b) administration, (c) financial, (d) ideology and religion.

fuego

[cerezo barredo]
The parable transported Jesus’ subsistence hearers to a magical and unimaginable world full of powerful elites whose whims dominated their  lives – all financed by their hard graft in the fields!

The unmerciful servant is a typical top echelon bureaucrat who reached those heights by cunning and ruthlessness. He started out by courting more powerful patrons, then forming coalitions with them as he became more powerful himself. He brought down opponents vying for the same positions that he wanted himself, and he built up a following of clients for whom he could do favours – in return for their support. In the zero-sum game of apparatus politics he soon learned how to reward his friends and punish his enemies through the time-honoured arts of back stabbing and witch hunting.

The story
The king fostered the bureaucracy as, when it came down to it, it was a better bet than the scheming aristocracy. He really seems to have trusted our ‘unmerciful servant’, calling the huge sum of tribute money he was owed a “loan” (daneion). As long as the servant could hand it over when it was asked for it didn’t much matter what he did with it, e.g. he might take a calculated risk by financing little schemes of his own. It didn’t just lie around the place as pieces of gold in a sack. But he got overconfident and reckless this time, and made the king look weak. The servant misjudged the situation and was sentenced to be sold, which could mean to the galleys or to the mines. He was made an example of – he was not as indispensible as he thought! His majesty the king depended on the bureaucracy as a whole not on one individual alone.

Realising his mistake, the top echelon bureaucrat realised he had blown it and his life was in the balance. He fell to his knees and made all the appropriate supplicant noises. The king realised his threat had worked, he had got what he expected. As the grovelling servant wailed and promised “I’ll never do it again!!”, the ruler smiled to himself and thought “Damn right you won’t!”

Why did the king change his mind?
– the servant had been OK in the past, this was his first slip up,
– he was literate and therefore an accurate record keeper,
– his special skills at extracting tribute were in short supply,
– his replacement might  be allied with the aristocracy.
An unexpected act of patronly generosity might go down well with the court.

Role reversal:
The bureaucrat switches roles from client to patron as he bullies the lower level servant that owes him money. He has to teach the watching vultures that he is as strong as ever. But when he throws his debtor in gaol his other clients feel threatened. They feel sympathy for the gaoled retainer and may even choose to defect to another powerful patron and through him gain access to the king. They may even inform on their former patron and get rewarded for it. Through his moles and planted informers the king knows what has been done.

629

[london graffiti]

The money
A talent was the largest unit of currency, and 10,000 was the largest number anyone ever used. Jesus’ listeners’ eyes would have popped out of their heads at the thought of such unimaginably vast sums. The point of it in this story might be that it emphasises the trust the king put in his servant, in making him responsible for such a large sum.
A denarius is much less. 200 denarii was the annual salary of a Roman legionnaire, and a Galilean day labourer earned a little over 100 denarii for a years work.

The king’s reaction:
Anyone could see the bureaucrat’s punishment of his debtor was out of all proportion to the crime, but issues of honour and shame also arose. The unmerciful servant completely misconstrued what the king was about. The king’s extraordinary act of debt forgiveness was meant to initiate  further acts of debt forgiveness; a cycle of ruthless exploitation was being was being broken in front of everyone; and along comes the unmerciful bureaucrat and thwarts the king’s new project. More than that, he shames the king, and violates his honour in a fundamental way. Instead of the king’s generous action initiating further acts of forgiveness in the kingdom, he is made to look a fool by the bureaucrat. The king was backed into a corner and reverted to the ‘business as usual’ mode, with a vengeance – the bureaucrat not merely sold into slavery but sent to the torturers!
In Herzog’s words “The functionaries had internalised the system to such an extent that they were creatures of it.”

The point of the parable:
Jesus’ Jewish hearers were familiar with the debt stories of the Hebrew Scriptures (O.T.) As Herzog puts it,”If the largest debt imaginable has been cancelled, the messianic age has begun. It is the fulfilment of sabbatical and jubilee hopes condensed into a moment.”
The parable shows (a) the hopelessness of looking for a messianic ruler/king/master to solve your problems for you, even though their intentions may sometimes be good and a streak of generosity and forgiveness may occasionally show through. Just remember that even a benevolent dictator may turn against you at the drop of a hat, as the ‘unmerciful servant’ learnt to his cost. (A bit like the story of king Herod Antipas, who locked up John the Baptist; one moment he listens carefully to his teachings, and allows his disciples full access to him, the next he has him beheaded on a whim to please a girl. Mark 6)
(b) the critical role of retainers/bureaucracy (the church?) as seen in their power to frustrate the designs of a debt-forgiving ruler.
“In short the parable proposes that neither the messianic hope nor the tradition of popular kingship can resolve the peoples’ dilemma. To reshape their world, the people of the land must look elsewhere. Just where is not the concern of this parable.”

409

[London street art]

Source:
Herzog, W.R. “Parables as subversive speech” John Knox Press (1994)

Related Zingcreed Posts:
The parable of the vineyard labourers
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus
The parable of the wicked tenants
Parables are subversive

[464,i]

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