Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.
Read: Matthew 18:21-35
Peter’s question of forgiveness here frames a parable which is set in the world of the ruling bureaucracy and its practice of tax farming. High level retainers like the first servant in the parable were responsible to bring an already agreed upon sum of money, collected in taxes from the people, to the ruler. The figure of ten thousand talents is an astronomical amount, showing the high standing of the servant. He is “a top-echelon bureaucrat responsible for extracting tribute from the subjects of the realm. He reached those heights because he was cunning, shrewd, ruthless, merciful, calculating, loyal, and political.”1 The agreed upon amount that he owes the king, then, is not his own money, but that which he is to collect in taxes from the provinces over which he has charge.
When the servant is called to account by the king, and is unable to pay the agreed upon sum, the king responds predictably. Yet, rather than going through with his threat, the king cancels the debt, “having been moved with compassion” for the servant. What remains to be seen at this point is whether the king’s compassion is only for the servant, or whether it also extends to the population, invisible in the bureaucratic negotiations of the powerful, who are being crushed under the weight of his tax demands.
Once released from his debt, and having suffered a blow to his honour, the servant finds an opportunity to show his fellow retainers that he has not lost his ruthless “edge”.2 They are unimpressed, however, and report his actions to the king, who this time brings the full force of his anger down on the servant. The servant, in his ruthlessness toward his underling, his shown the king’s forgiveness to be “soft”, and thus violated his honour. The end result, for the servant, is that he is given over to torture. For the people of his provinces, there will be no tax relief—“the pressure for payment falls once again on the people.”3
How are we, then, to understand this parable in relation to Jesus’ teaching to “forgive your brother or sister from your heart”? And how are we to understand the character of God who, we are told, will “also do to every one of you” as was done to the servant fo the parable, surely violating Jesus’ own teaching to forgive “seventy-seven times”?
Firstly, contrary to much traditional interpretation from a dominant perspective, the parable does not require that God is allegorically equated with the king. Jesus is speaking of a concrete reality with which his peasant hearers were all too familiar—the crushing burden of taxes and the ruthless machinations of power—in order to invite his hearers to imagine a new way of doing things. The burden of the parable is not about the character of God, but about the practice of forgiveness which disciples are to practice.
Secondly, however, it is indeed troubling that Matthew’s Jesus speaks of the heavenly Father as the ultimately acting in the same way as the king (v 35). Here, Ched Myers is helpful:
In a monotheist universe, God is the “true lord” of history. This means that what happens is what God “allows” to happen. So while we may be reaping what we have sown, the rhetorical tradition of both Torah and the prophets portray God as “doing it to us.” This coheres with the powerful assertion of Matthew 18:18f.: God is “bound” by our decisions to liberate, but also to lock down. The implication of 18:35 is that God will not save us from the consequences of not interrupting the spiral of vengeance. To invoke retribution on others is to invoke it on ourselves – this is not just moral cause and effect, but a historical ultimatum!4
Matthew 18:21-35 is both exhortation and warning. Forgiveness is the only way to live together, and it must be a continual practice. To not choose forgiveness is to choose a cycle of violence which can only end in a dark place.
- How do you find this reading of the parable of the Unforgiving Servant? What resonates with you? What questions do you have?
- In what ways have you experienced receiving and offering forgiveness?
- Where do you hear God’s voice in today’s reading?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
1. William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as pedagogue of the oppressed (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 140.
2. Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech, 146.
3. Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 199.
4. Myers, Ched & Elaine Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation Vol 1: New Testament Reflections on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2009), 80.
Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.
- Read: Matthew 19:1-12
At the outset of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees in today’s reading, Matthew tells us the motivation behind their question—“to tempt him”.5 As in Jesus encounter with Satan in Mt 4:1-11, and later when the Pharisees and Sadducees asked him to prove his authority with a “sign from heaven” (Mt 16:1-4), so here the Pharisees’ question asks Jesus to prove his moral authority regarding Moses’ teaching on divorce. Though we often miss it, Jesus well knows that it is a game of high stakes. Lurking in the background of the Pharisees’ question is the figure of Herod Antipas, who has already killed John the Baptist over his teaching on divorce. Now, the Pharisees’ question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” has Jesus cornered. If he answers “no”, then he will contradict John, who the people regard as a prophet.6 If he answers “yes”, then he will risk sharing in John’s fate.
Jesus, however, will not play their game—at least not yet. Instead, he takes aim at the patriarchal assumptions of the Pharisees’ question. Matthew’s world was one in which wives were seen as little more than possessions and divorce could be initiated for as diverse reasons as “stealing money (Cicero, Att 11:24), adultery and being drunk (Aulus Gellius 10.23/5), loss of looks (Juvenal, Sat 6.142-47), arguments with one’s mother-in-law and unpleasant temperament (Suetonius, Augustus 62), sickness and unpleasing behaviour (Josephus, Vita 426).7 In quoting Genesis 1:27, Jesus is not speaking to modern questions of gender identity, but to patriarchal assumptions: God did not make only male—God made male and female. Together they reflect God’s image, and both female and male carry all of the dignity and worth which that entails. Jesus’ answer affirms that wives are not to be seen by Matthew’s male hearers as possessions to be acquired and disposed of.
In verse 9 Jesus’ answer finally cuts to the chase. It is possible that the sense of Jesus’ words is not a blanket prohibition of remarriage after divorce, but rather “whoever divorces his wife… in order to marry another.”8 If this is the case, then Jesus is now taking direct aim at Herod Antipas in agreement with John!
In a postscript to the encounter, the disciples’ ask Jesus a question which betrays their lack of ability to see through the patriarchal assumptions. “Their argument is that if one cannot get a divorce, then it is better not to enter marriage agreements at all.”9 In his answer, “this teaching” refers not to what precedes but what follows. That is, Jesus doesn’t simply agree with the disciples that “it is better not to marry” (if you can’t have divorce),. but rather he extends his previous teaching. Eunuchs were
permanent outsiders, dishonored marginal figures, often despised and socially alienated, with a distinct identity, yet participants in society and often with powerful or elite positions… Without children or family, sexually ambivalent, scorned… and abused, eunuchs did not belong.10
Jesus affirms that some carry sexual ambiguity from birth, and some were castrated as slaves to serve in the households of the elite (and thus be no threat to the man of the household). Some, however, will choose not to marry in order to devote themselves to participating in God’s transforming activity in the world.11 If disciples do not marry, it is not in order to evade the counter-cultural way of marriage according to God’s reign, but to align themselves with those on the margins such as eunuchs, and to seek God’s transformation from the bottom up.
- What stands out to you in today’s reading?
- In what ways are you challenged or encouraged?
Pray for one another.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
5. Cf. Mt 4:1, 3; 16:1.
6. As, of course, does Jesus (Mt 11:9).
7. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll: Orbis, 379)
8. See Bruce Malina & Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress 1992), Kindle loc. 1985.
9. Malina and Rorhbaugh, Social Science Commentary, Kindle loc. 1996.
10. Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 383.
11. For a reading which understands “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” as men whose wives have committed adultery and thus shamed them, but have chosen not to regain their honour by divorcing their wives, rather seeking reconciliation, see Malina and Rorhbaugh, Social Science Commentary, Kindle loc. 1995.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.
Read: Matthew 19:13-15
“Childhood in antiquity”, say Malina and Rorhbaugh,
was a time of terror. Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30 percent. Another 30 percent of live births were dead by age six, and 60 percent were gone by age sixteen. Children always suffered first from famine, war, disease, and dislocation, and in some areas or eras few would have lived to adulthood with both parents alive.”12
This is the stark reality facing those being brought to Jesus in today’s passage. They are vulnerable and marginalised in a world not recognising their value, except as future participants in it.13
Yet the disciples, for all Jesus’ teaching, breaking down current power arrangements and imagining a social order where the vulnerable and marginalised are valued, still don’t get it. Jesus calls the disciples to invite the children in, to cease being a blockage in the flow of the coming of the kingdom of heaven, for it is precisely amongst the children that God’s reign will take shape.
- In what ways have you experienced God’s reign in take shape amongst children?
- In what ways do you sense God’s Spirit inviting you to participate in this story?
Pray. for one another
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
12. Malina and Rorhbaugh, Social Science Commentary, Kindle loc. 3976.
13. Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 385.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.
Advent reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
Read: Isaiah 64:1-9 as a Lectio Devina
1) Have one person read the verses through twice.
2) Speak out any words or phrases that stand out to you.
3) Read through the verses again.
4) What thoughts, feelings, and impressions do you sense? Share them.
5) Read the verses a final time.
6) What challenges or encouragements emerge? Share them with the group.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer