Answering Allison: Pacifism and the Unforgiving Servant

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.

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The fourth error in Allison’s argument, his exegesis of the parable of the unforgiving servant, is intended to augment the third, but for the sake of keeping my comments brief I will treat it here separately. Picking up in the omitted portion of the previous quote, “But what does one do if others are being insulted or injured? Although this is a crucial question to which Matthew returns no explicit answer, in the parable in 18:23-25 a king, out of mercy, releases a servant from debt. But when that servant mistreats another, the king intervenes with punishment. In this story the king lets himself suffer wrong; but when it is another who suffers, mercy gives way to justice. Could it be that a similar sort of distinction should be read into 5:38-42?” The answer is, unequivocally, no. Why? Because that implication isn’t even present in the parable. It has been devised by Allison as a possible exemption from the ethical strictures of the Sermon on the Mount and then superimposed onto an unrelated parable.

It is simple enough to discern the correct intent of Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant, primarily because Jesus explains it at the end. Allison’s mistake can be understood (and, yes, forgiven) when one considers that the idea of a king being personally forgiving and institutionally violent fits very nicely with his other justification for ignoring the “resist not the evildoer” command. Still, Allison makes a fatal flaw by identifying the king with a human agent when Jesus himself says that the king figures “the heavenly Father” who “will do [likewise] to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” The figure which represents the questioner, in this case Peter, is the unforgiving servant. If there is a figure whose behavior is an analog to Christians’ it is the servant and not the king–lest our egos run away with us.

More than just being a gross exegetical failure, Allison’s reading of the text as a tacit approval of institutional violence to correct injustice misses entirely the point which Jesus is making to Peter. When Peter asks how often to forgive, Jesus gives him an astronomical number and, just in case Peter thinks he’s exaggerating, he follows up with a parable explaining the consequences of not forgiving. Quite in line with Christian pacifism, God is the only agent authorized by the parable to decide when “mercy gives way to justice.” Human agents are expected to forgive because God has forgiven then and to expect the Father to remove that mercy if they are unwilling to emulate it. The suggestion that the parable might decide when Christians should be allowed to punish instead of forgive not only misunderstands the clear purpose of the story, it directly contradicts it. A more careless reading hardly seems possible.

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