Monday, February 13, 2012

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

And Its Application to the Current Mortgage Disaster

I’ve been reading David Graeber’s recent book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. In the chapter, “Cruelty and Redemption,” he recounts the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35). As an exercise you might want to read the story as one about the recent mortgage mess in the United States. In this version the king is the Federal Government and the first servant, the unforgiving one, corresponds to the investment bankers who sold those bought, packaged, and sold risky mortgages as fancy derivative instruments. The second servant, then, would be all those homeowners to took out those risky mortgages and are now losing their homes. In this reading, there's lots more work to be done to fill out the Biblical model.

Here’s the parable as it’s quoted from the World English Bible in the Wikipedia, which also has some useful interpretive remarks:
Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times?"

Jesus said to him, "I don't tell you until seven times, but, until seventy times seven. Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who wanted to reconcile accounts with his servants. When he had begun to reconcile, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But because he couldn't pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, with his wife, his children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down and knelt before him, saying, 'Lord, have patience with me, and I will repay you all!' The lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.

"But that servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, who owed him one hundred denarii, and he grabbed him, and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!'

"So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will repay you!' He would not, but went and cast him into prison, until he should pay back that which was due. So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were exceedingly sorry, and came and told to their lord all that was done. Then his lord called him in, and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt, because you begged me. Shouldn't you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?' His lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due to him. So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don't each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds."


  1. Lots of people on both sides of the Atlantic seem to be reading everything no matter what the source as Kill the Poor.

    I watched a documentary on American poverty last night that just stunned me. A presidential candidate who seems to think the re-introduction of child labour is morally required to teach the children of unemployed families the importance of the work ethic.

    A debate in which when asked if some one ill should be left to die on the streets half the audience shouts out a very enthusiastic yes.

    I thought people like that could only exist in my nightmares.

    Political dogma seems to have reached extremes I would not have thought could be possible.

    1. Yes, it's scary.

      BTW, you might want to check out Graeber's book. It's quite interesting and looks at a lot of old texts in considering the history of debt, money, slavery, honor, etc. including some Celtic stuff.

  2. I will. Oddly enough I have just returned to this subject and my historical roots for a brief holiday.

    Shamefully rusty. Getting up to speed with economic and honor system and some horribly complex legal documents. Economics, its power to utterly alter and consume a culture is not to be underestimated.

    Given the subjects you have just mentioned you may find it interesting reading alongside the book. Its very carefully thought.