Chapter 18 | Table
of Contents | Chapter 20
The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah
THE DESCENT: FROM THE MOUNT OF TRANSFIGURATION
INTO THE VALLEY OF HUMILIATION AND DEATH.
THE THREE LAST PARABLES OF THE PERAEAN SERIES: THE
THE SELF-RIGHTEOUS PHARISEE AND THE PUBLICAN
THE UNMERCIFUL SERVANT
(St. Luke 18:1-14; St. Matthew 18:23-35.)
If we were to seek confirmation of the suggestion, that these
last and the two preceding Parables are grouped together under a common
viewpoint, such as that of Righteousness, the character and position of
the Parables now to be examined would supply it. For, while the Parable of the
Unjust Judge evidently bears close affinity to those that had preceded -
especially to that of him who persisted in his request for bread1
- it evidently refers not, as the other, to man's present need, but to the
Second Coming of Christ. The prayer, the perseverance, the delay, and the
ultimate answer of which it speaks, are all connected with it.2
Indeed, it follows on what had passed on this subject immediately before -
first, between the Pharisees and Christ,3
and then between Christ and the disciples.4
1. St. Luke xi. 5 &c.
2. Comp. St. Luke xviii. 7, 8.
3. xvii. 20, 21.
4. vv. 22-37.
Again, we must bear in mind that between the Parable of Dives
and Lazarus and that of the Unjust Judge, not indeed, a great
interval of time, but most momentous events, had intervened. These were: the
visit of Jesus to Bethany, the raising of Lazarus, the Jerusalem council
against Christ, the flight to Ephraim,5
a brief stay and preaching there, and the commencement of His last journey to
this last slow journey from the borders of Galilee to Jerusalem, we suppose the
Discourses7 and the
Parable about the Coming of the Son of Man to have been spoken. And although
such utterances will be best considered in connection with Christ's later and
full Discourses about 'The Last Things,' we readily perceive, even at this
stage, how, when He set His Face towards Jerusalem, there to be offered up,
thoughts and words concerning the 'End' may have entered into all His teaching,
and so have given occasion for the questions of the Pharisees and disciples,
and for the answers of Christ, alike by Discourse and in Parable.
5. St. John xi.
6. St. Luke xvii. 11.
7. St. Luke xvii.
The most common and specious, but also the most serious mistake
take in reference to the Parable of 'the Unjust Judge,' is to regard it as
implying that, just as the poor widow insisted in her petition and was righted
because of her insistence, so the disciples should persist in prayer and would
be heard because of their insistence. But this is an entirely false
interpretation. When treating of the Parable of the Unrighteous Steward,
we disclaimed all merely mechanical ideas of prayer, as if God heard us for our
many repetitions. This error must here also be carefully avoided. The inference
from the Parable is not, that the Church will be ultimately vindicated because
she perseveres in prayer, but that she so perseveres, because God will surely
right her cause: it is not, that insistence in prayer is the cause of its
answer, but that the certainty of that which is asked for should lead to
continuance in prayer, even when all around seems to forbid the hope of answer.
This is the lesson to be learned from a comparison of the Unjust Judge with the
Just and Holy God in His dealings with His own. If the widow persevered,
knowing that, although no other consideration, human or Divine, would influence
the Unjust Judge, yet her insistence would secure its object, how much more
should we 'not faint,' but continue in prayer, who are appealing to God, Who
has His people and His cause at heart, even though He delay, remembering also
that even this is for their sakes who pray. And this is fully expressed in the
introductory words. 'He spake also a Parable to them with reference8
to the need be (proV to dein) of
praying and not fainting.'10
this shows that it is intended to mark an essential difference between this and
the preceding Parables.
9. The word autouV should be inserted
in the text.
10. The verbs are, of course, in the infinitive.
The remarks just made will remove what otherwise might seem
another serious difficulty. If it be asked, how the conduct of the Unjust Judge
could serve as illustration of what might be expected from God, we answer, that
the lesson in the Parable is not from the similarity but from the contrast
between the Unrighteous human and the Righteous Divine Judge. 'Hear what the
Unrighteous Judge saith. But God [mark the emphatic position of the word], shall
He not indeed [ou mh] vindicate
[the injuries of, do judgment for] His elect . . .?' In truth, this mode of
argument is perhaps the most common in Jewish Parables, and occurs on almost
every page of ancient Rabbinic commentaries. It is called the Qal vaChomer,
'light and heavy,' and answers to our reasoning a fortiori or de
minore ad majus (from the less to the greater).11
According to the Rabbis, ten instances of such reasoning occur in the
Generally, such reasoning is introduced by the words Qal vaChomer; often
it is prefaced by, Al achath Kammah veKammah, 'against one how much and
how much,' that is, 'how much more.' Thus, it is argued that, 'if a King of
flesh and blood' did so and so, shall not the King of Kings, &c.; or, if
the sinner received such and such, shall not the righteous, &c.? In the
present Parable the reasoning would be: 'If the Judge of Unrighteousness' said
that he would vindicate, shall not the Judge of all Righteousness do judgment
on behalf of His Elect? In fact, we have an exact Rabbinic parallel to the
thought underlying, and the lesson derived from, this Parable. When describing,
how at the preaching of Jonah Nineveh repented and cried to God, His answer to
the loud persistent cry of the people is thus explained: 'The bold (he who is
unabashed) conquers even a wicked person [to grant him his request], how much
more the All-Good of the world!'14
11. Sometimes it is applied in the opposite direction, from the greater to the less.
ten passages are: Gen. xliv. 8; Exod. vi. 9, 12; Numb. xii. 14; Deut.
xxxi. 27; two instances in Jerem. xii. 5; 1 Sam. xxiii. 3; Prov. xi. 31; Esth.
ix. 12; and Ezek. xv. 5.
R. 92, ed. Warsh. p. 164 b from about the middle.
ed Buber. p. 161 a, lines 3 and 2 from bottom.
The Parable opens by laying down as a general principle the
necessity and duty of the Disciples always to pray - the precise meaning being
defined by the opposite, or limited clause: 'not to faint,' that is, not 'to
The word 'always' must not be understood in respect of time, as if it meant
continuously, but at all times, in the sense of under all circumstances,
however apparently adverse, when it might seem as if an answer could not come,
and we would therefore be in danger of 'fainting' or becoming weary. This rule
applies here primarily to that 'weariness' which might lead to the cessation of
prayer for the Coming of the Lord, or of expectancy of it, during the long
period when it seems as if He delayed His return, nay, as if increasingly there
were no likelihood of it. But it may also be applied to all similar
circumstances, when prayer seems so long unanswered that weariness in praying
threatens to overtake us. Thus, it is argued, even in Jewish writings, that a
man should never be deterred from, nor cease praying, the illustration by Qal
vaChomer being from the case of Moses, who knew that it was decreed he
should not enter the land, and yet continued praying about it.16
verb is used in the same sense wherever it occurs in the N.T.: viz., St. Luke
xviii. 1; 2 Cor. iv. 1, 16; Gal. vi. 9; Eph. iii. 13; and 2 Thess. iii. 13. It
is thus peculiar to St. Luke and to St. Paul.
ed Friedm. p.50 b, line 7 from top.
The Parable introduces to us a Judge in a city, and a widow.
Except where a case was voluntarily submitted for arbitration rather than
judgment, or judicial advice was sought of a sage, one man could not have
formed a Jewish tribunal. Besides, his mode of speaking and acting is
inconsistent with such a hypothesis. He must therefore have been one of the
Judges, or municipal authorities, appointed by Herod or the Romans, perhaps a
Jew, but not a Jewish Judge. Possibly, he may have been a
police-magistrate, or one who had some function of that kind delegated to him.
We know that, at least in Jerusalem, there were two stipendiary magistrates (Dayyaney
whose duty it was to see to the observance of all police-regulations and the
prevention of crime. Unlike the regular Judges, who attended only on certain
days and hours,18
and were unpaid, these magistrates were, so to speak, always on duty, and hence
unable to engage in any other occupation. It was probably for this reason that
they were paid out of the Temple-Treasury,19
and received so large a salary as 225l., or, if needful, even more.20
On account of this, perhaps also for their unjust exactions, Jewish wit
designated them, by a play on the words, as Dayyaney Gezeloth -
Robber-Judges, instead of their real title of Dayyaney Gezeroth (Judges
of Prohibitions, or else of Punishments).21
It may have been that there were such Jewish magistrates in other places also. Josephus
speaks of local magistracies.2223
At any rate there were in every locality police-officials, who watched over
order and law.24
The Talmud speaks in very depreciatory terms of these 'village-Judges' (Dayyaney
deMegista), in opposition to the town tribunals (Bey Davar), and
accuses them of ignorance, arbitrariness, and covetousness, so that for a dish
of meat they would pervert justice.25
Frequent instances are also mentioned of gross injustice and bribery in regard
to the non-Jewish Judges in Palestine.
Sheq. 48 a.
20. Keth. 105 a; Jer. Keth xiii. 1.
Geiger, Urschr. u. Uebers. pp. 119, 120, Note, with which, however,
comp. the two Essays mentioned in Note 3.
iv. 8, 14.
Geiger, u. s. p. 115.
Bloch, Mos. Talm. Polizeirecht, which is, however, only an enlargement
of Frankel's essay in the Monatschr. fur Gesch. d. Judenth. for 1852,
It is to such a Judge that the Parable refers - one who was
consciously, openly, and avowedly26
inaccessible to the highest motive, the fear of God, and not even restrained by
the lower consideration of regard for public opinion. It is an extreme case,
intended to illustrate the exceeding unlikelihood of justice being done. For
the same purpose, the party seeking justice at his hands is described as a
poor, unprotected widow. But we must also bear in mind, in the interpretation
of this Parable, that the Church, whom she represents, is also widowed in the
absence of her Lord. To return - this widow 'came' to the Unjust Judge (the
imperfect tense in the original indicating repeated, even continuous coming),
with the urgent demand to be vindicated of her adversary, that is, that the
Judge should make legal inquiry, and by a decision set her right as against him
at whose hands she was suffering wrong. For reasons of his own he would not;
and this continued for a while. At last, not from any higher principle, nor
even from regard for public opinion - both of which, indeed, as he avowed to
himself, had no weight with him - he complied with her request, as the text
(literally translated) has it: 'Yet at any rate27
because this widow troubleth me, I will do justice for her, lest, in the end,
coming she bruise me,'28
- do personal violence to me, attack me bodily. Then follows the grand
inference from it: If the 'Judge of Unrighteousness' speak thus, shall not the
Judge of all Righteousness - God - do judgment, vindicate [by His Coming to
judgment and so setting right the wrong done to His Church] 'His Elect, which
cry to Him day and night, although He suffer long on account of them' - delay
His final interposition of judgment and mercy, and that, not as the Unjust
Judge, but for their own sakes, in order that the number of the Elect may all
be gathered in, and they fully prepared?
Luke xviii. 4.
St. Luke xi. 8.
as the only possible rendering of the verb in this instance, is also vindicated
by Meyer ad loc. The Judge seems afraid of bodily violence from the
exasperated woman. For a significant pugilistic use of the verb, comp. 1 Cor.
Difficult as the rendering of this last clause admittedly is,
our interpretation of it seems confirmed by the final application of this
the previous verse along with it, we would have this double Parallelism: 'But
God, shall He not vindicate [do judgment on behalf of] His Elect?'30
'I tell you, that He will do judgment on behalf of them shortly' - this word
being chosen rather than 'speedily' (as in the A. and R.V.), because the latter
might convey the idea of a sudden interposition, such as is not implied in the
expression. This would be the first Parallelism; the second this: 'Although He
suffer long [delay His final interposition] on account of them' (verse 7), to
which the second clause of verse 8 would correspond, as offering the
explanation and vindication: 'But the Son of Man, when He have come, shall He
find the faith upon the earth?' It is a terribly sad question, as put by Him
Who is the Christ: After all this long-suffering delay, shall He find the faith
upon the earth - intellectual belief on the part of one class, and on the part
of the Church the faith of the heart which trusts in, longs, and prays, because
it expects and looks for His Coming, all undisturbed by the prevailing unbelief
around, only quickened by it to more intensity of prayer! Shall He find it? Let
the history of the Church, nay, each man's heart, make answer!
Luke xviii. 8.
2. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, which
follows,31 is only
internally connected with that of 'the Unjust Judge.' It is not unrighteousness,
but of self-righteousness - and this, both in its positive and negative
aspects: as trust in one's own state, and as contempt of others. Again, it has
also this connection with the previous Parable, that, whereas that of the
Unrighteous Judge pointed to continuance, this to humility in prayer.
Luke xviii. 9-14.
The introductory clause shows that it has no connection in
point of time with what had preceded, although the interval between the two
may, of course, have been very short. Probably, something had taken place,
which is not recorded, to occasion this Parable, which, if not directly
addressed to the Pharisees,32
is to such as are of Pharisaic spirit. It brings before us two men going up to
the Temple - whether 'at the hour of prayer,' or otherwise, is not stated.
Remembering that, with the exception of the Psalms for the day and the interval
for a certain prescribed prayer, the service in the Temple was entirely
sacrificial, we are thankful for such glimpses, which show that, both in the
time of public service, and still more at other times, the Temple was made the
place of private prayer.33
On the present occasion the two men, who went together to the entrance of the
Temple, represented the two religious extremes in Jewish society. To the
entrance of the Temple, but no farther, did the Pharisee and the Publican go
together. Within the sacred enclosure - before God, where man should least have
made it, began their separation. 'The Pharisee put himself by himself,34
and prayed thus: O God, I thank Thee that I am not as the rest of men -
extortioners, unjust, adulterers - nor also as this Publican [there].' Never,
perhaps, were words of thanksgiving spoken in less thankfulness than these.
For, thankfulness implies the acknowledgement of a gift; hence, a sense of not
having had ourselves what we have received; in other words, then, a sense of
our personal need, or humility. But the very first act of this Pharisee had
been to separate himself from all the other worshippers, and notably from the
Publican, whom, as his words show, he had noticed, and looked down upon. His
thanksgiving referred not to what he had received, but to the sins of others by
which they were separated from him, and to his own meritorious deeds by which
he was separated from them. Thus, his words expressed what his attitude
indicated; and both were the expression, not of thankfulness, but of
boastfulness. It was the same as their bearing at the feast and in public
places; the same as their contempt and condemnation of 'the rest of men,' and
especially 'the publicans;' the same that even their designation - 'Pharisees,'
'Separated ones,' implied. The 'rest of men' might be either the Gentiles, or,
more probably, the common unlearned people, the Am haArets, whom they
accused or suspected of every possible sin, according to their fundamental
principle: 'The unlearned cannot be pious.' And, in their sense of that term,
they were right - and in this lies the condemnation of their righteousness.
And, most painful though it be, remembering the downright earnestness and zeal
of these men, it must be added that, as we read the Liturgy of the Synagogue,
we come ever and again upon such and similar thanksgiving - that they are 'not
as the rest of men.'35
objection of Schleiermacher (followed by later commentators), that, in a
Parable addressed to Pharisees, a Pharisee would not have been introduced as
the chief figure, seems of little force.
St. Luke ii. 27, 37; Acts ii. 46; v. 12, 42.
the philological vindication of this rendering, see Goebel, Parabeln (i.p.
327). The arguments in its favour are as follows: 1. It corresponds to the
description of the position of the Publican, who also stood by himself 'afar
off.' 2. Otherwise, the mention that the Pharisee 'stood' would seem utterly
idle. He could not have sat. 3. The rendering 'prayed with himself,' is
not correct. The words mean: 'to himself' - and this would give no
meaning. But even were we to render it 'with himself' in the sense of silent
prayer, the introduction of such a remark as that he prayed silently, would be
both needless and aimless. But what decides us is the parallelism with the
account of the posture of the Publican.
this spirit are even such Eulogies as these in the ordinary morning-prayer:
'Blessed art Thou, Lord, our God, King of the world, that Thou hast not made me
a stranger (a Gentile). . . a servant . . . a woman.'
But this was not all. From looking down upon others the
Pharisee proceeded to look up to himself. Here Talmudic writings offer painful
parallelisms. They are full of references to the merits of the just, to 'the
merits and righteousness of the fathers,' or else of Israel in taking upon
itself the Law. And for the sake of these merits and of that righteousness,
Israel, as a nation, expects general acceptance, pardon, and temporal benefits36
- for, all spiritual benefits Israel as a nation, and the pious in
Israel individually, possess already, nor do they need to get them from heaven,
since they can and do work them out for themselves. And here the Pharisee in
the Parable significantly dropped even the form of thanksgiving. The religious
performances which he enumerated are those which mark the Pharisee among the
Pharisees: 'I fast twice a week, and I give tithes of all that I acquire.'37
The first of these was in pursuance of the custom of some 'more righteous than
the rest,' who, as previously explained, fasted on the second and fifth days of
the week (Mondays and Thursdays).38
But, perhaps, we should not forget that these were also the regular market
days, when the country-people came to the towns, and there were special
Services in the Synagogues, and the local Sanhedrin met - so that these saints
in Israel would, at the same time, attract and receive special notice for their
fasts. As for the boast about giving tithes of all that he acquired - and not
merely of his land, fruits, &c. - it has already been explained,39
that this was one of the distinctive characteristics of 'the sect of the
Pharisees.' Their practice in this respect may be summed up in these words of
'He tithes all that he eats, all that he sells, and all that he buys, and he is
not a guest with an unlearned person [Am haArets, so as not possibly to
partake of what may have been left untithed].'
merit of Zekhuth. On this subject we must refer, as far too large for
quotation, to the detailed account in such works as Weber, System d.
altsynag. Theol. pp. 280 &c. Indeed, there is no limit to such
extravagances. The world itself had been created on account of the merits of
Israel, and is sustained by them, even as all nations only continue by reason
of this (Shemoth R. 15, 28; Bemidb. R. 2). A most extraordinary account is
given in Bemidb. R. 20 of the four merits for the sake of which Israel was
delivered out of Egypt: they did not change their names; nor their language;
nor reveal their secrets; nor were dissolute.
'possess,' as in the A.V.
Book III. ch. ii.
Although it may not be necessary, yet one or two quotations
will help to show how truly this picture of the Pharisee was taken from life.
Thus, the following prayer of a Rabbi is recorded: 'I thank Thee, O Lord my
God, that Thou hast put my part with those who sit in the Academy, and not with
those who sit at the corners [money-changers and traders]. For, I rise early
and they rise early: I rise early to the words of the Law, and they to vain
things. I labour and they labour: I labour and receive a reward, they labour
and receive no reward. I run and they run: I run to the life of the world to
come, and they to the pit of destruction.'41
Even more closely parallel is this thanksgiving, which a Rabbi puts into the
mouth of Israel: 'Lord of the world, judge me not as those who dwell in the big
towns [such as Rome]: among whom there is robbery, and uncleanness, and vain
and false swearing.'42
Lastly, as regards the boastful spirit of Rabbinism, we recall such painful
sayings as those of Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai, to which reference has already
been made43 - notably
this, that if there were only two righteous men in the world, he and his son
were these; and if only one, it was he!44
21 b, lines 12 and 11 from bottom.
vol. i. p. 540.
R. 35 ed. Warsh. p. 64 b, end.
The second picture, or scene, in the Parable sets before us the
reverse state of feeling from that of the Pharisee. Only, we must bear in mind,
that, as the Pharisee is not blamed for his giving of thanks, nor yet for his
good-doing, real or imaginary, so the prayer of the Publican is not answered,
because he was a sinner. In both cases what decides the rejection or acceptance
of the prayer is, whether or not it was prayer. The Pharisee retains the
righteousness which he had claimed for himself, whatever its value; and the
Publican receives the righteousness which he asks: both have what they desire
before God. If the Pharisee 'stood by himself,' apart from others, so did the
Publican: 'standing afar off,' viz. from the Pharisee - quite far back, as
became one who felt himself unworthy to mingle with God's people. In accordance
with this: 'He would not so much as lift45
his eyes to heaven,' as men generally do in prayer, 'but smote his46
breast' - as the Jews still do in the most solemn part of their confession on
the Day of Atonement - 'saying, God be merciful to me the sinner.' The definite
article is used to indicate that he felt, as if he alone were a sinner - nay, the
sinner. Not only, as has been well remarked,47
'does he not think of any one else' (de nemine alio homine cogitat),
while the Pharisee had thought of every one else; but, as he had taken a
position not in front of, but behind, every one else, so, in contrast to the
Pharisee, who had regarded every one but himself as a sinner, the Publican
regarded every one else as righteous compared with him 'the sinner.' And, while
the Pharisee felt no need, and uttered no petition, the Publican felt only
need, and uttered only petition. The one appealed to himself for justice, the
other appealed to God for mercy.
and not 'lift so much as his eyes,' is the proper position of the words.
word 'upon' should be left out.
contrast, therefore, could not be imagined. And once more, as between the
Pharisee and the Publican, the seeming and the real, that before men and before
God, there is sharp contrast, and the lesson which Christ had so often pointed
is again set forth, not only in regard to the feelings which the Pharisees
entertained, but also to the gladsome tidings of pardon to the lost: 'I say
unto you, This man went down to his house justified above the other' [so
according to the better reading, par
ekeinon]. In other words, the sentence of righteousness as from God with
which the Publican went home was above, far better than, the sentence of
righteousness as pronounced by himself, with which the Pharisee returned. This
saying casts also light on such comparisons as between 'the righteous' elder
brother and the pardoned prodigal, or the ninety-nine that 'need no repentance'
and the lost that was found, or, on such an utterance as this: 'Except your
righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye
shall in no case enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.'48
And so the Parable ends with the general principle, so often enunciated: 'For
every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall
be exalted.' And with this general teaching of the Parable fully accords the
instruction of Christ to His disciples concerning the reception of little
children, which immediately follows. 49
Matt. v. 20.
Luke xviii. 15-17.
3. The Parable with which this series closes - that of the Unmerciful
can be treated more briefly, since the circumstances leading up to it have
already been explained in chapter iii. of this Book. We are now reaching the
point where the solitary narrative of St. Luke again merges with those of the
other Evangelists. That the Parable was spoken before Christ's final
journey to Jerusalem, appears from St. Matthew's Gospel.51
On the other hand, as we compare what in the Gospel by St. Luke follows on the
Parable of the Pharisee and Publican52
with the circumstances in which the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant is
introduced, we cannot fail to perceive inward connection between the narratives
of the two Evangelists, confirming the conclusion, arrived at on other grounds,
that the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant belongs to the Peræan series, and
Matt. xviii. 23-35.
Matt. xix. 1.
Luke xviii. 15-17.
Its connection with the Parable of the Pharisee and the
Publican lies in this, that Pharisaic self-righteousness and contempt of others
may easily lead to unforgiveness and unmercifulness, which are utterly incompatible
with a sense of our own need of Divine mercy and forgiveness. And so in the
Gospel of St. Matthew this Parable follows on the exhibition of a
self-righteous, unmerciful spirit, which would reckon up how often we should
forgive, forgetful of our own need of absolute and unlimited pardon at the
hands of God53
- a spirit, moreover, of harshness, that could look down upon Christ's 'little
ones,' in forgetfulness of our own need perhaps of cutting off even a right
hand or foot to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.54
Matt. xviii. 15-22.
Matt. xviii. 1-14, passim.
In studying this Parable, we must once more remind ourselves of
the general canon of the need of distinguishing between what is essential
in a Parable, as directly bearing on its lessons, and what is merely introduced
for the sake of the Parable itself, to give point to its main teaching. In the
present instance, no sober interpreter would regard of the essence of the
Parable the King's command to sell into slavery the first debtor, together with
his wife and children. It is simply a historical trait, introducing what is
analogous circumstances might happen in real life, in order to point the
lesson, that a man's strict desert before God is utter hopeless, and eternal
ruin and loss. Similarly, when the promise of the debtor is thus introduced:
'Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all,' it can only be to complete in
a natural manner the first part of the Parabolic history and to prepare for the
second, in which forbearance is asked by a fellow-servant for the small debt
which he owes. Lastly, in the same manner, the recall of the King's original
forgiveness of the great debtor can only be intended to bring out the utter
incompatibility of such harshness towards a brother on the part of one who has
been consciously forgiven by God his great debt.
Thus keeping apart the essentials of the Parable from the
accidents of its narration, we have three distinct scenes, or parts, in this
story. In the first, our new feelings towards our brethren are traced to
our new relation towards God, as the proper spring of all our thinking,
speaking, and acting. Notably, as regards forgiveness, we are to remember the
Kingdom of God: 'Therefore has the Kingdom of God become like' - 'therefore:'
in order that thereby we may learn the duty of absolute, not limited, forgiveness
- not that of 'seven,' but of 'seventy times seven.' And now this likeness of
the Kingdom of Heaven is set forth in the Parable of 'a man, a King' (as the
Rabbis would have expressed it, 'a king of flesh and blood'), who would 'make
his reckoning' (sunairein) 'with
his servants' - certainly not his bondservants, but probably the governors of
his provinces, or those who had charge of the revenue and finances. 'But after
he had begun to reckon' - not necessarily at the very beginning of it - 'one
was brought to him, a debtor of ten thousand talents.' Reckoning them only as
Attic talents (1 talent = 60 minas = 6,000 dinars) this would amount to the
enormous sum of about two and a quarter millions sterling. No wonder, that one
who during his administration had been guilty of such peculation, or else
culpable negligence, should, as the words 'brought to him' imply, have been
reluctant to face the king. The Parable further implies, that the debt was
admitted; and hence, in the course of ordinary judicial procedure - according
to the Law of Moses,55
and the universal code of antiquity - that 'servant,' with his family and all
his property, was ordered to be sold,56
and the returns paid into the treasury.
xxii. 3; Lev. xxv. 39, 47.
these servants could not have been 'bondservants,' as in the margin of the R.V.
Of course, it is not suggested that the 'payment' thus made had
met his debt. Even this would, if need were, confirm the view, previously
expressed, that this trait belongs not to the essentials of the Parable, but to
the details of the narrative. So does the promise, with which the now terrified
'servant,' as he cast himself at the feet of the King, supported his plea for
patience: 'I will pay thee all.' In truth, the narrative takes no notice of
this, but, on the other hand, states: 'But, being moved with compassion, the
lord of that servant released him [from the bondage decreed, and which had
virtually begun with his sentence], and the debt forgave he him.'57
A more accurate representation of our relation to God could not be made. We are
the debtors of our heavenly King, Who has entrusted to us the administration of
what is His, and which we have purloined or misused, incurring an unspeakable
debt, which we can never discharge, and of which, in the course of justice,
unending bondage, misery, and utter ruin would be the proper sequence. But, if
in humble repentance we cast ourselves at His Feet, He is ready, in infinite
compassion, not only to release us from meet punishment, but - O blessed
revelation of the Gospel! - to forgive us the debt.
the emphatic position of the words in the original.
It is this new relationship to God which must be the foundation
and the rule for our new relationship towards our fellow-servants. And this
brings us to the second part, or scene in this Parable. Here the lately
pardoned servant finds one of his fellow-servants, who owes him the small sum
of 100 dinars, about 4l. 10s. Mark now the sharp contrast, which
is so drawn as to give point to the Parable. In the first case, it was the
servant brought to account, and that before the King; here it is
a servant finding and that his fellowservant; in the first case,
he owed talents, in the second dinars (a six-thousandth part of them); in the
first, ten thousand talents; in the second, one hundred dinars. Again, in the
first case payment is only demanded, while in the second the man takes his
fellow-servant by the throat - a not uncommon mode of harshness on the part of
Roman creditors - and says: 'Pay what,' or according to the better reading, 'if
thou owest anything.' And, lastly, although the words of the second debtor are
almost the same58
as those in which the first debtor besought the King's patience, yet no mercy
is shown, but he is 'cast' [with violence] into prison, till he have paid what
to the better reading, the word 'all' in ver. 29 should be left out - and the
omission is significant. The servant who promised to pay 'all' (ver. 26)
promised more than he could possibly perform; while he who undertook what he
might reasonably perform, did not say 'all.'
Rabbinic Law was much more merciful than this apparently harsh (Roman or
Herodian) administration of it. It laid it down that, just as when a person had
owed to the Sanctuary a certain sum or his property, his goods might be
distrained, but so much was to be deducted and left to the person, or given to
him, as was needful for his sustenance, so was it to be between creditor and
debtor. If a creditor distrained the goods of his debtor, he was bound to leave
to the latter, if he had been a rich man, a sofa [to recline at table] and a
couch and pillow; if the debtor had been a poor man, a sofa and a couch with a
reed-mat [for coverlet] (Bab. Mets. 113 a and b). Nay, certain
tools had to be returned for his use, nor was either the Sheriff-officer nor
the creditor allowed to enter the house to make distraint. (As regards
distraints for Vows, see Arach. 23 b, 24 a).
It can scarcely be necessary to show the incongrousness or the
guilt of such conduct. But this is the object of the third part, or
scene, in the Parable. Here - again for the sake of pictorialness - the other
servants are introduced as exceedingly sorry, no doubt about the fate of their
fellow-servant, especially in the circumstances of the case. Then they come to
their lord, and 'clearly set forth,' or 'explain' (diasafein) what had happened, upon which the Unmerciful
Servant is summoned, and addressed as 'wicked servant,' not only because he had
not followed the example of his lord, but because, after having received such
immense favour as the entire remission of his debt on entreating his master, to
have refused to the entreaty of his fellow-servant even a brief delay in the
payment of a small sum, argued want of all mercy and positive wickedness. And
the words are followed by the manifestations of righteous anger. As he has
done, so is it done to him - and this is the final application of the Parable.60
He is delivered to the 'tormentors,' not in the sense of being tormented by
them, which would scarcely have been just, but in that of being handed over to
such keepers of the prison, to whom criminals who were to be tortured were
delivered, and who executed such punishment on them: in other words he is sent
to the hardest and severest prison, there to remain till he should pay all that
was due by him - that is, in the circumstances, for ever. And here we may again
remark, without drawing any dogmatic inferences from the language of the
Parable, that it seems to proceed on these two assumptions: that suffering
neither expiates guilt, nor in itself amends the guilty, and that as sin has
incurred a debt that can never be discharged, so the banishment, or rather the
loss and misery of it, will be endless.
Matt. xviii. 35.
We pause to notice, how near Rabbinism has come to this
Parable, and yet how far it is from its sublime teaching. At the outset we
recall that unlimited forgiveness - or, indeed, for more than the farthest
limit of three times - was not the doctrine of Rabbinism. It did,
indeed, teach how freely God would forgive Israel, and it introduces a similar
Parable of a debtor appealing to his creditor, and receiving the fullest and
freest release of mercy,61
and it also draws from it the moral, that man should similarly show mercy: but
it is not the mercy of forgiveness from the heart, but of forgiveness of money
debts to the poor,62
or of various injuries,63
and the mercy of benevolence and beneficence to the wretched.64
But, however beautifully Rabbinism at times speaks on the subject, the Gospel
conception of forgiveness, even as that of mercy, could only come by blessed
experience of the infinitely higher forgiveness, and the incomparably greater
mercy, which the pardoned sinner has received in Christ from our Father in
example, Shem. R. 31.
R. 19, ed. Warsh. p. 77 a.
Shem. R. 31.
But to us all there is the deepest seriousness in the warning
against unmercifulness; and that, even though we remember that the case here
referred to is only that of unwillingness to forgive from the heart an
offending brother who actually asks for it. Yet, if not the sin, the temptation
to it is very real to us all - perhaps rather unconsciously to ourselves than
consciously. For, how often is our forgiveness in the heart, as well as from
the heart, narrowed by limitations and burdened with conditions; and is it not
of the very essence of sectarianism to condemn without mercy him who does not
come up to our demands - ay, and until he shall have come up to them to the
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