Parable of the Unmerciful Servant and ‘the Measure by Which You Measure’

SCRIPTURES & ART: A look at the readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, through the eyes of Baroque artist Domenico Fetti

Domenico Fetti, “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant,” ca. 1619-1621
Domenico Fetti, “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant,” ca. 1619-1621 (photo: Public Domain)

Last week, Jesus spoke of fraternal correction, to admonish the brother who does us wrong to move him to repentance. That is why we correct our brother: not to show our superiority (of which no true follower of Christ should imagine himself) but to “win your brother over” (Matthew 18:15b). 

But if we have “won our brother over,” the Christian’s proper posture towards him is one of forgiveness and mercy. That’s the point of today’s Gospel, the parable of the unforgiving servant.

(Matthew’s Gospel is replete with parables, and we will hear many for the remainder of this year as we read the First Gospel.)

The Gospel opens with Peter asking how often he had to forgive an errant brother. Seven times? Seven in Jewish tradition is a perfect number, a sign of fullness. 

Jesus raises the stakes — 77 times. Now, Jesus is not suggesting that one bring down the boom on the 78th offense. Rather, his remark is a figure of Semitic speech: not just fullness (seven times) but fullness multiplied 10, 11 times over. In other words, open-ended.

Jesus then tells a parable of two indebted servants. The king’s direct servant “owed him a huge amount.” His credit line was maxed out and “he had no way of paying it back.” The king resolved to sell him and his family into some form of indentured servitude to recover his money. The servant pleads for time “and I will pay you back in full.” That promise doesn’t seem especially realistic. Nevertheless, “moved with compassion,” the king relents, not just giving him time to do what is probably impossible, but “forgave him the loan” in full. He cleared his ledger and gave the servant a clean start.

God is that king. He is our “master” (even if that term rankles some people). Our sins offend an eternal and infinite God, hence, they incur eternal and infinite debts. But such debts are far beyond our capacity to repay. That led to the conundrum: the one who owed the debt was incapable of paying it, while the One who could pay it is in fact the one offended. Only Divine Love could find a solution: that solution is God become Man, Jesus Christ.

But if God has been so rich in his mercy towards us, do we reflect the same merciful forgiveness towards others? Do we offer a generous turning from past wrongs to live in the future? Or do we nourish and stew over how we feel offended, feigning to “forgive” while never “forgetting” (or allowing anybody else to forget) and move on? Refusing or merely pretending to forgive merely condemns one to stagnate in a past that one is powerless to change. It creates a hellish feedback circle that generates responses today to grievances still nursed from the past. The Master gives his servant the freedom to get on with his life, to make the future different and better than the past. 

That is the issue in today’s parable. The unmerciful servant has been remitted a crushing debt. In comparison, his fellow servant owes him a pittance. But even if it is a pittance, it’s apparent the unmerciful servant has calculated it — with interest — down to the last penny. He is ready to subject his fellow servant to the fate from which he was spared, a fate of which he was far more deserving. He clearly wasn’t forgiven his trespasses as he forgives those who trespass against him.

And so, in justice, the unmerciful servant finds that “the measure by which you measure will be measured out to you” (Matthew 7:2). The king seizes the unmerciful servant and “handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.” 

Let’s be honest: how many of us would really like to be judged by ourselves? Perhaps, then, we might think about modifying our yardstick?

Today’s Gospel is depicted in art by “Italian” (remember, there’s no “Italy” at this time) Baroque painter, Domenico Fetti (c. 1589-1623). Fetti’s “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” is a small oil painting (about 21x17 inches). Fetti was rather productive in painting the parables (see, for example, here).

Fetti captures the moment of the unmerciful servant’s encounter with his own debtor servant, whom “he seized … and started to choke …” The unmerciful servant appears older and stronger; his debtor seems just a lad. He’s in the process of choking him at the bottom of a series of jagged steps (symbolic of the jagged edges of life). Pamela Askew observes that the contrasts of light and shadow are important: we’ve fallen down from the light into a much murkier area. We, the viewer, appear to be looking at the scene through the dark archway door: is that the prison into which the unmerciful servant had his fellow debtor put? Askew also asks: since the debtor servant gazes forward, i.e., into the archway abyss (where, presumably we are standing, identifying ourselves with him), are we not asked to stand in solidarity with one who is not forgiven? Or being asked to consider our own chariness in the realm of forgiveness?