Forgiveness in Matthew’s Gospel: Introduction

Matthew’s Gospel has long been known as the “Gospel of the Church” because it contains so many parables and passages on the life of the Christian community.[1] Of the many insights which Matthew offered for his community and the community of faith which has read his gospel for nearly 2,000 years, few have been more important than the theme of forgiveness which runs throughout his narrative. Indeed, Bridget Illian has gone so far as to say that, “Forgiveness is one of the foundational acts of Christian practice and theology, and nowhere is it more strongly advocated than in the Gospel of Matthew.”[2]

In order to strike at the heart of Matthew’s theology of forgiveness, this series examines the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant found in Matthew 18:21-35 and considers its theological importance for Christian theology. The arguments of this project are twofold: First, that for Jesus (and Matthew) Christian forgiveness was of paramount importance, holding the community together and proclaiming to the world the good news of God’s love and mercy. True Christian love involves extraordinary forgiveness, recalling our debt to God and His great mercy. Second, that Matthew’s wider theology of forgiveness both informed why he wrote his gospel and how he intended to shape the perceptions of his community. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, along with the Parable of the Two Sons (Matt. 21:28-32) form the backdrop for Matthew’s story of how Jesus saves the world from their sins and redeems even the Jewish people.

The trajectory of this series is fivefold. First, I offer a historical-critical introduction to Matthew’s Gospel. Second, I turn to the context of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Third, I engage in a verse-by-verse consideration of the meaning of this parable. Fourth, I situate the meaning of this parable within Matthew’s wider narrative theology of forgiveness. Finally, I reflect further on the theological implications of both this parable and Matthew’s wider call to forgiveness from the heart.

[1] Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew’s Gospel: Pastoral Problems and Possibilities,” 62-73 in The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study: Studies in Memory of William G. Thompson, S.J. (ed. D.E. Aune, Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001), 70, 73. Matthias Konradt, “’Whoever humbles himself like this child…’ The Ethical Instruction in Matthew’s Community Discourse (Matt 18) and Its Narrative Setting,” 105-138 in Moral Language in the New Testament: The Interrelatedness of Language and Ethics in Early Christian Writings (ed. R. Zimmermann and J.G. van der Watt, Tübigen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 105.

[2] Bridget Illian, “Church Discipline and Forgiveness in Matthew 18:15-35,” Currents in Theology and Mission 37.6 (2010): 444.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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