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  • Neil Chappell

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Domenico Fetti (1589 - 1623) | Oil on canvas | Old Masters Gallery, Dresden

Matthew 18:21-35

If I presented this painting to you and asked you to guess its title and subject I wonder if you’d get it right. There’s not a huge amount of clues available.

If I then told you it was the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant would you be puzzled? I was at first. In such a large canvas area the main details are very small. But it’s the large area details – the stairs and the arch - that give the hint to the story between the two characters.

The stairs, with their transition from the light, bright airy top of the picture to the gloom at the bottom, hint at the allusion of the downward trajectory of these two men. The stairs are uneven and at odds to each other, suggesting that the way down (or up) is a struggle.

The framing of the arch indicates that the bottom of the stairs is the entrance to somewhere, and the sheer look of horror on the younger man’s face as he gazes in reinforces the belief that it’s not somewhere nice. This is the prison that he will be forced into as he cannot repay the debt he owes to the older, angrier man.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant is an intriguing tale because it tells us about two different ways of using power. On the one hand we have divine grace, and on the other an ungrateful, unforgiving man.

Domenico Fetti captures the moment perfectly with a lightness of touch and amazing detail. It’s not a large painting. At just 55cm x43cm it is slightly smaller than a piece of A2 paper. But the skilfulness and talent of Fetti draws you into the picture, and the horror of the scene replicates the Biblical story.

The painting tells nothing of the backstory to this parable, nor the conclusion. It is just one moment in time, a moment which horrifies us, because we are drawn to the adage of old, “Judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1). The Unmerciful Servant has seen his crushing debt cancelled. In comparison, his fellow servant owes him a pittance. And yet he is ready to subject his fellow servant to the fate from which he was spared, a fate of which he was far more deserving.

If truth be told, if we have been forgiven, then we should be forgiving. The pain of the picture is that we don’t always hold to those standards and we are grieved to be reminded.

Let us make the final phrase of the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi our prayer for today:

For it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

(This blog first appeared as part of the Congregational Federation Life-Light 2023 series of relections. Used with kinf permission. The image is in the Public Domain.)

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