Remembering the Future: Matthew 18 and Deuteronomy 15

Willie Young
Endicott College

In his discussion of Leviticus, Robert Gibbs raised the possibility that keeping open a future may be one of the most fundamentally important functions of law. The law against taking interest, and against selling into slavery, keeps the future of one’s brother (or sister) open. As Gibbs highlights, because the brother, as God’s servant, is one of those whom God liberated from slavery in Egypt, one cannot exact an absolute claim over his rights. The one in debt, while serving others, will be God’s servant as well. In what follows, I would like to reflect upon how Matthew 18 keeps open the future of our brothers, and consider if the modality of the future in this text differs from that of Leviticus.

In Matthew 18, as Dan Hardy has laid out for us, the character and integrity of the king take on a central place. Character, as growing from one’s history and relations with others, develops over time, and is displayed in narrative. In this parable, however, the king’s character not only grows from the past, but extends into the future. It does so—or is supposed to do so—through the impression that it makes on the character of others; in receiving mercy from the king, the servant should realize that he is to be merciful to others: “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (18:32-3) So, too, Jesus’ followers are to be forgiving of others, as God has forgiven them (35). It is through their receiving of mercy, that this mercy extends from past action into the future.

With its story of being freed from debt-bondage and slavery, Jesus’ parable of the wicked servant implicitly recalls the story of Exodus. Perhaps more indirectly, it closely follows the logic of Deuteronomy 15, in which the narrative of Exodus frames the injunction for keeping the Jubilee year. The institution of the jubilee exemplifies what Ricoeur calls the “logic of abundance”—God generously blesses the recipient of the command, who is then to give generously to others. This contrasts with the demand for exact remuneration, the “logic of equivalence” that so often determines the economic sphere. In particular, in Deuteronomy 15 one should “willingly lend enough to meet the need, whatever it may be”—one’s own holdings are, in a sense, in the hands of one’s neighbor. One should not be “hard-hearted or tight-fisted,” evoking Pharaoh, but give or provide liberally, and when a slave is freed they should partake of the bounty “with which the LORD your God has blessed you”(14). One can, I think, see the king’s taking pity on the slave, and forgiveness of this debt, as parallel to the Lord’s blessing, and the injunction this entails.

While the command to give is given, the question remains: why follow this command? Here, the Exodus story comes to the forefront:

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today (15:15).

There is a different emphasis in this text than in Leviticus. It is not God’s claim on the debtor that must be recognized, but rather God’s claim on the lender, which legitimates the command. As the lender has been freed and blessed, so too the lender is to free and bless others, through the jubilee cycle. The emphasis, here, is that you were a slave—you were in the shoes (or, in the need for shoes) of your neighbor, and God showed compassion to you, so you should do likewise. [1]

If the language of Jesus’ parable evokes Exodus, the end of the parable brings out this vocative dimension of the command. The servant’s failure is precisely to see that king’s character as placing an injunction upon him. By saying God will do to them as the king has done to the servant, unless they forgive their brothers and sisters, Jesus effectively places the disciples and readers in the servant’s shoes, as one who has received mercy, and now is to live that out in compassion. Matthew 18 thus functions as a commentary on Deuteronomy 15, and a call for forgiveness as demanded by the law. Both texts emphasize the hearing of Exodus as a story in which one lives, addressed to “you” —as having been a servant, as now a lender, and thus potentially in the position of the Egyptian, unless you emulate God’s character . Obedience, here, is best understood as emulation of the generous redemption that God practices in Exodus, and in providing for the people, so as to remove the enslaving need for debt.

Perhaps a stereotypical Christian reading would, at this point, contrast “forgiving from one’s heart” with following the law of Deuteronomy, as an internalization or spiritualization of the law. In my view, this would be deeply mistaken. From a scriptural reasoning view, though, Deuteronomy likewise calls for forgiveness of debts from one’s heart; one must “be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought,” which would lead one to lend less generously, and become hostile to neighbors in need. [2] Likewise, one should not resent sending out one’s servants as free persons—”because for six years they have given you services worth the wages of hired laborers” (15:18). One must recognize God’s generosity, but this also means seeing the neighbor’s service as, itself, given to you. I would suggest, as a hypothesis, that we understand this in the following way: the neighbor’s service and labor (and, perhaps we could say, all economic resources) are lent to us, by God, but this ought to shape how we lend to others (and, how we release them from debts). The logic of abundance reshapes how we envision economic practices themselves—somewhat as Basit Koshul suggests in his essay, all property and labor is on loan.

In reading these texts intertextually, I would suggest that they elucidate an important condition for law to open the future: that the law, as command, should be heard as concretizing and imitating the mercy and grace of God’s activity in the biblical narrative. By calling us to see ourselves in the story, the law thereby shifting our perspective on one another and the practices that bind us, the law lets us imagine ourselves in different social positions, and creates a space for new relations. It is in these new relations, through the loosening of social bonds in mercy and forgiveness, that the jubilee might enact the renewal of creation, and bring us to participation in the character of the king. Does this mean, then, that the law is in a certain way parabolic?

The displacement of identity in these texts raises an important possibility as to how scriptural reasoning may contribute to discussions of poverty and debt. It is possible that scriptural reasoning may discover new ways of thinking about these issues that go beyond economic and political theory. That remains to be seen. However, the reading of these texts, in tandem with other traditions, enables social re-positioning, which may cultivate alternative bonds of solidarity, and thereby indirectly create new approaches to these issues. The contribution of scriptural reasoning, then, may be in cultivating a practice in which through these texts, the social roles (which are constituted by political and economic power) that we take for granted are troubled, so that we can imagine alternative distributions of power. In recognizing that lenders were debtors, does this help us to envisage a day when those in debt will be free? [3]


[1] In the Leviticus text, Gibbs notes that both the debtor and lender are God’s servants, but the emphasis seems to be far stronger on the debtor’s service to God, whereas here it is otherwise.

[2] It is true that in Deuteronomy, this command only applies to one’s fellow people. Foreigners may still be enslaved. However, one could say that a similar limitation to forgiveness applies in Matthew, where forgiveness may only be for brothers and sisters in the ecclesia . This limitation is obviously significant, but goes beyond what I can address here.

[3] As I finish this response, the G8 has been meeting in Scotland. How might the discourse of environmental responsibility and debt-release be different, if the G8 saw itself not simply as those who use the most resources, and hold the debts of African nations? What if, as in these texts, we learned to see ourselves as (always already) having been debtors?

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