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A Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Amy Dennis imagines what the parable of the Unmerciful Servant from Matthew 18 would sound like if Jesus had told it today.

Over the summer, Matt released a book called The First Time We Saw Him, where he imagined what Jesus’ parables would sound like if Jesus had come today, rather than to first century Palestine. Some friends and I are working on some sermons on the parables, and we’re using Matt’s book as a guide. One of the parables we’re using is the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant from Matthew 18:21-35, and Matt didn’t include it. So Amy Dennis took her inspiration from the book and imagined her own version of “The Unmerciful Servant”. Enjoy!

65-inch TV screen glowing blue. Nick flips through channel after channel, hundreds of them, while Jenny lounges next to him on the couch spinning the rings on each of her fingers. She smells fantastic, as always. Was that the Chanel she was wearing? All three kids are silently and conveniently absorbed in iPads.

Nick rests the remote on his knee as an infomercial chatters away. He stretches luxuriously, raising his hands toward the ceiling and then letting them rest behind his head. His eyes fall on the stack of bills growing next to the TV: a reminder that all is not as peaceful as it seems. Mixed in with the bills are several eviction notices from Don. Nick can’t even remember the last time they paid rent. They were living on borrowed time, and Nick knew it. He’d brought the TV home months ago, but they hadn’t even started to pay it off yet. He knew both cars were hidden away safely in the garage, away from the clutches of the tow truck and the repo man. He’d rather not think about it, though. It was Friday: time to relax.

A knock on the door knots Nick’s stomach. He and Jenny face each other in tense silence. “Don’t answer it,” she says. “You know it’ll be Don.”

Nick drags himself off the couch and heads for the door, ready to face the landlord one more time. “He can hear the TV. I’ll just stall him again. He won’t do anything; he never does.”

Nick swings open the door to find Don there, along with two uniformed police officers and a moving truck. Well, this is different, Nick thinks.

Don clears his throat with a quiet authority. “Nick, Jenny. It’s time. You know it’s time to go. I’ve been patient. I’ve let you slide on rent for eight months now; more than I’ve ever done for anyone. I’ve sent you notice after notice, and I’ve held off on the eviction far longer than I should have. I’d hoped you’d pull it together, so you and the kids could stay here, but I have to fill this property with paying tenants now.

It’s time to go.”

“Go where?!” Nick asks. He feels the world shifting beneath his feet, as if an earthquake was moving his life around from the inside out.

“Well,” Don begins, “you and Jenny are headed downtown to be booked. You’re both on the lease, so you’ll both go. I’m told that the kids will be placed in protective custody. Everything that belongs to you goes in the truck. I’ll sell it off to recover some of the enormous debt you owe me.”

Jenny buckles. Before Nick can catch her, she falls to her knees in tears. Her manicured hands rest helplessly on her knees. As Nick reaches for her shoulder, his watch catches the light from the TV. He can’t look Don in the eye. A voice that seems far away but coming from his own soul begins to ask, beg, plead with Don. “Our children? Please. None of this is their fault. It’s my fault. Please! I’ll pay it all back. Even more. Please, don’t take away our kids, our home. You can’t.”

His eyes move across the faces of the landlord, the officers. The movers hang back and won’t even look at him. All is silent. His eyes fall to rest on the handcuffs at the hip of the officer nearest him. They glow at him in the blue light of the TV.

Don clears his throat. “Nick, you and I both know that you can never, never pay back the rent you owe. And even if you could pay me, what about the rest of it? I’ve seen your credit report, remember? You owe me tens of thousands of dollars. You owe the bank. You owe your creditors. I did a little digging, found some aliases – do you even know how much you actually owe? I do. I added it all up. You could buy a small island with all the money you’ve squandered over the years.”

“You’re in over your head, and we both know that rent is last on your list. All the choices you’ve made, the house, the cars, the TVs, all those little luxuries… it all brought you here. I can’t imagine how you could even start to pay it all back… can you?”

Nick feels himself crumble next to Jenny. It was as if his will, his stubbornness, his greed had drained out all at once– Don had just come along and caused their world to shift. Nick can’t speak. He can’t even breathe. He wonders when he’ll see Jenny again. Where his kids will end up. Any second now, the handcuffs will take the place of his watch.

He knelt in the doorframe, begging, “Please… not my kids. Please.”

“Nick… Nick, look at me.”

Nick’s defeated eyes lift to Don’s solemn face. It takes an eternity to meet Don’s stern, piercing eyes. Here it comes. The handcuffs. The end. But then he saw something soften.

Don sighed, “Okay Nick. I’m giving you a clean slate.”


“Nick. Do you understand what I’m saying to you? I’m wiping out your debt. Your rent, all the back payments, it’s all forgiven. I’ll be contacting your creditors to make it right with them. Your cars, they’ll be paid off as of Monday morning. Everything will be paid. You can start over. I want you to start over.”

Outside the door, the police officers and movers step back in confusion. They’d come here to get a job done, and now this? They’d never seen anything like it before.

Don’s hand reaches down to Jenny’ shoulder. “Stand up. Look at me, Jenny. Nick, get up.” Nick and Jenny unfold themselves and stand uncertainly before Don. Was this real?

“Don… why… why are you doing this for us? I thought you were here to get rid of us.”

“Nick, Jenny… your debt is forgiven. Don’t forget that. I bet you have some forgiving to do, too. That’s the only way you can repay me. Go do for someone else what I just did for you. And go take care of your kids. It’s their bedtime.”

With that, Don turns and shuffles the confused group off the porch, down the sidewalk, and back out into the night. Nick and Jenny are left standing silently. The magnitude of what had just occurred was only now beginning to dawn on them.

Nick turns to Jenny. “Did that just happen?” Jenny’s tearful smile tells that him it had. A clean slate? He’d never dreamed of such a thing. That night, they sleep soundly for the first time in years. The debt collectors won’t call. The tow truck won’t idle in the alley, waiting for them to come out.

Morning comes, brighter and fresher than it has in recent memory. The coffee even smells better as Nick sips it and looks out over the back yard. Time to start again. The lawn needs mowing: it’s the perfect way to start fresh, cut through all the weeds, and start over. He’d go get the mower back from Kevin next door.

Kevin opens the door with a nervous smile. “Niiiiiiick… hey. What’s up, neighbor?”

“Hey man, I need the mower back. Time to get the grass in shape.”

“Yeah, Nick, about the mower. I… oh man, this is embarrassing. I was short on rent last month and I needed cash anywhere I could get it.” Kevin’s eyes dropped to the porch. “I, uh… I had to sell it but I get paid tomorrow, man, and I’ll get you a new one, an even better one. I’ll mow your lawn for you, too, as soon as I get paid. I’m really sorry.” Kevin meets Nick’s flashing eyes and waits for a verdict.

Nick erupts. “Kevin, are you freaking kidding me?! That mower cost three grand, dude! It wasn’t yours! You didn’t pay for it! What right did you have?! You owe me big time, neighbor.” Nick drops his coffee mug to the porch step as he pushes Kevin backwards through the doorway. Kevin’s hands are raised in surrender. He isn’t asking for trouble; he just needs another day.

Nick steps over the threshold into Kevin’s living room. “I will see a new mower by the end of the day. Either that or the money to buy one myself. Today, Kevin. And I am not afraid to pick up my phone, call the cops, and let them know you stole my mower. Remember that.” Nick boots the broken coffee mug out of the way as he storms home.

The mower never arrives. The cash never shows up. It’s time. Nick grabs his phone to call 9-1-1. Kevin will be sorry.

Before he can dial, Kevin hears a knock on the door. Good. Probably Kevin, and not a moment too soon. Time to get his money back. It’ll be good to have full pockets again; it’s been a long time coming.

Nick swings open the door to find Don waiting on the porch along with the officers, the same ones as before. The moving truck idles at the curb, back doors open and ramp lowered to the ground. Again, Nick loses the power of speech. His eyes search Don’s face for that softness but finds only icy cold.

Don clears his throat. “Nick, now it’s time for you to go.”

“What is this? I thought you said…” Nick’s words die before they can grow.

Don sighs. “I wanted to forgive your debt. All of it, every last cent. And all I asked was that you do the same for someone else. Then, this morning, I had an interesting phone conversation. I gave your neighbor a ring to see when he planned on mowing his lawn. You are aware, Nick, that Kevin is renting his house from me just like you are? Actually, not just like you; Kevin has always paid his rent on time. He told me about the mower, and then he told me he’d be short on rent next month because he had to pay you back first. He was worried about what you might do; wouldn’t even let his kids play outside today. Said he was afraid you’d target them.”

Nick has no reply. The only sound is the click of the handcuffs as they close around his wrist and chime against his watch. Don remembers how Nick was always full of words anytime he needed more time, or more money, or more mercy. But now, to defend his actions, only silence.

Jenny emerges from the kitchen, her necklace flashing brightly as she drops several shopping bags on the floor. Her eyes meet Nick’s, and they both know that the end has come.

Amy Dennis teaches creative writing at Eastfield College.

What did you think of Amy’s take on the parable?

By JR. Forasteros

JR. lives in Dallas, TX with his wife Amanda. In addition to exploring the wonders that are the Lone Star state, JR. is the teaching pastor at Catalyst Community Church, a writer and blogger. His book, Empathy for the Devil, is available from InterVarsity Press. He's haunted by the Batman, who is in turn haunted by the myth of redemptive violence.