The anger and violence in today’s parable of the Kingdom is disturbing, even if we acknowledge that parables are meant sometimes to shock us. A parable is a short story (often a short-short story, what today is often called ‘flash fiction’) that often illustrates a moral point, often by presenting an exaggerated case.
We are presented with a case of mercy and forgiveness contrasted with its exact opposite. The debt forgiveness of the Master is contrasted with the violence with which the Servant tries to extract a debt from another servant. Instead of learning gratitude and mercy from his experience, the Servant does the opposite – and is then punished with even more force by the Master when he learns of the Servant’s lack of mercy.
What are we to make of it? How might we relate it to the Kingdom of God?
We might take a hard moral view, suggesting that in the Kingdom while mercy is the ideal to which we should all aspire, the reality of sin must be dealt with forcefully by God or by God’s representatives. This is dangerous particularly since it turns the Kingdom into a kind of ‘dictatorship of virtue’, where violence ‘from above’ (whether human or divine) is somehow good, even purifying. History is littered with the corpses of millions sacrificed to such a ‘reign’.
It might be better to say that mercy and forgiveness are signs of God’s reign, but that it is never there fully until finally God brings it to fulfilment. This saves us from the temptation to imagine any particular community or society or regime that we create or inhabit as the fullness of the kingdom. At best the good society, the merciful community, will be limited by the reality of sin, however residual it may be.
The imperfect kingdom of the parable may in fact be warning us against those who make claims to authority that naively assume an absolute monopoly of mercy and anger, of virtue and terror. Perhaps by this Jesus is calling us to rethink the temptation to imagine human perfectibility this side of the eschaton.