The Context of Matthew 18:21-35

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

Literary Genre

The central features of Matthew 18:21-35 are universally recognized to belong to the genre of parable. And despite its preservation only in Matthew’s Gospel, this parable is “almost universally reckoned an authentic parable of Jesus.”[1] Defined broadly, “parabolic sayings constitute a type of figurative speech involving a comparison that is distinguishable from the simple metaphor on the one hand and allegory on the other yet contains, or may contain, elements of both, particularly the ‘shock’ quality of metaphor and, occasionally, several points of comparison as in allegory.”[2] According to Jeremias’s classic understanding, parables often contain “an element of unexpectedness” and this element “was intended to indicate where the meaning was to be found.”[3] Further, a parable-teller delivered their message in order to open the eyes of their audience and to overcome any rhetorical resistance to their chief idea.[4] When reading parables, then, one should be aware of the images, extravagance, and rhetorical purposes at work. This is especially true in readings of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, which belongs to the realm of “strict parable,”[5] as it tells an unusual fictitious story in order to highlight a message of forgiveness.

Literary Context

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant finds itself within a number of different literary contexts. Most broadly, the parable occurs at the end of Matthew 18, which scholars often count as the fourth of Matthew’s five “dialogue sections.[6] This parable is also the fourth of seven parables which only Matthew records.[7] In chapter 18, it follows a discussion of sin (vv. 6-9), the Parable of the Lost Sheep (vv. 12-14), and a dialogue concerning how to handle sin in the community (vv.15-20). Our parable thus occurs in a dialogue discussing the inner life of the church and the rules of mercy and forgiveness which are to govern the community of believers.[8] Luz suggests tension between vv. 21-35 and vv. 15-20, for him an indication that Matthew combined materials which were not originally presented in coordination.[9] Numerous scholars have noted vv.15-20’s reliance upon passages of the Hebrew Bible, especially Leviticus 19:17 and Deuteronomy 19:15, leading some to suggest that any tension between these passages is a result of the good news of mercy which Jesus brings.[10] In contrast to perspectives which find tension between 18:21-35 and its immediate literary contexts, it seems better to view this parable as a coordinative piece of Jesus’ (and Matthew’s) theological puzzle, wherein general principles for discipline and discipleship in the church are laid down.[11]

Literary Structure

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant may be broken up into five sections: Peter’s framing question (vv.21-22[12]), the king and his subjects (vv. 23-27), the servant and his fellow servant (vv. 28-31), the king’s response (vv. 32-34), and the application of the parable (v. 35).[13] Within vv. 23-34, an additional structure has been noted, namely one of introduction/situation (vv. 23-25, 28, 31), words (vv. 26, 29, 32-33), and response/action (vv. 27, 30, 34).[14] Notice of these literary structures may assist in clarifying the parable’s meaning and message.

Literary Form

While the text-critical apparatus of the Novum Testamentum Graece (NA 28) notes no significant textual variants for Matthew 18:21-35, there are a number of minor variants which may impact the interpretation of this passage. A number of ancient witnesses include κυριε after λεγων in v. 26, [15] perhaps inserted to express a more spiritual interpretation of the passage in coordination with v. 35. However, given the number of significant manuscripts which support a shorter reading,[16] it seems best to leave κυριε out of our readings. Additionally, the Textus Receptus of 18:35 includes τα παραπτωματα αυτων at the end of the verse. Given the ready connections of this verse to Matt. 6:14 and lack of this phrase in a number of manuscripts,[17] here also it seems best to proceed on the assumption that this longer reader reflects an interpretative expansion of the passage. At the very least, the existence of these textual variants alerts us to the fact that early Christian transmitters of this passage read it with other Matthean references to forgiveness in mind.

[1] W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew in Three Volumes: Volume II: Commentary on Matthew VIII-XVIII (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 794.

[2] Richard N. Soulen and R. Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism: Third Edition, Revised and Expanded (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 28-9.

[3] Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus: Revised Edition (New York: Scribner’s Press, 1972), 30.

[4] Jan Lambrecht, Out of the Treasure: The Parables in the Gospel of Matthew (Louvain: Peeters Press, 1998), 26-9.

[5] Ibid., 22-3. Additional categorizations which have been applied to this parable are Kingdom of Heaven parable (Lambrecht, 53), a parable of process (Gerardo Soding, “La ‘Novedad de Jesus’ en sus Parabolas: Una propuesta hermeneutica,” Revista Biblica 1.4 [2010]: 151-186), and astronomical parable (George R. Beasley-Murray, Matthew [London: Scripture Union, 1984], 115.).

[6] Harrington, 5. McKnight, 787-8. Depending on the schema used to understand Matthew, this passage occurs either at the end of the Ministry in Galilee section (15.21-18.35) or in the midst of the lead up to the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus (16.21-28.20). The vast majority of scholars mark this parable as the end point of Matthew’s train of thought, making the materials which occur afterwards of little immediate literary connection. The exception to this is Konradt, who views this passage as part of a literary structure running from 16.21-20.34.

[7] Lambrecht, 20-1. The others being the Weeds among the Wheat (13.24-30), Hidden Treasure (13.44), the Pearl (13.45-46), Fishermen’s Net (13.47-50), Workers in the Vineyard (20.1-16), Two Sons (21.28-32), and the Wise and Foolish Virgins (25.1-3).

[8] Johnson, 207. Indeed, along with 16.18, 18.17 is the only other place in the gospel to use the term ἐκκλησίας.

[9] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20 (trans. J.E. Crouch, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 450. See also Bernard Brandon Scott, “The King’s Accounting: Matthew 18:23-34,” JBL 104.3 (1985): 429, who remarks that, “A major problem confronting the interpretation of Jesus’ parables is their preservation in contexts created by others.”

[10] Harrington, Matthew, 268-269. Luz, 451-8. Keener, 453-455. Cx. Didache 15.3

[11] Daniel M. Doriani, “Forgiveness: Jesus’ Plan for Healing and Reconciliation in the Church (Matthew 18:15-35),” SBJT 13.3 (2009): 22-5. Randy Nelson, “Exegeting Forgiveness,” ATI 5.2 (2012): 43, 46. Hagner, li. Martinus C. de Boer, “Ten Thousand Talents? Matthew’s Interpretation and Redaction of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:23-25),” CBQ 50 (1988): 219. Further pointing to some internal coherence are the terms used to designate the three groups in Matt. 18: child (παιδίον, vv.2-5), little one (μικρός, vv.6-14), and brother (ἀδελφός, vv.15-35).

[12] Three basic positions have been taken by scholars regarding the connections between vv. 21-22 and vv. 23f. First, that Matthew combines loosely similar materials (see Luz, 468). Second, that Matthew forces a poor interpretation of Peter’s question and the parable (Joachim Jeremias, Unknown Sayings of Jesus [London: S.P.C.K., 1964], 97. Scott, 429-430). And third, that the δια τουτο of v. 23 and the thematic continuity sufficiently account for Matthew (or an earlier tradition) placing these materials in coordination (Davies and Allison, 794. Hagner, 537.).

[13] This basic structure is affirmed by Davies and Allison, 794; Hagner, 536-7; Joh Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 106; William G. Thompson, Matthew’s Advice to a Divided Community: Mt. 17,22-18,35 (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970), 204; and Scott, 433.

[14] Davies and Allison, 794. Crossan, 106. Scott, 433.

[15] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Companion on the Greek New Testament: A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (Third Edition) (London and New York: United Bible Societies, 1975), 46. As in πεσὼν οὖν ὁ δοῦλος προσεκύνει αὐτῷ λέγων· κυριε μακροθύμησον ἐπ’ ἐμοί, καὶ πάντα ἀποδώσω σοι.

[16] Including B D Θ 700 vg syrc arm geo al.

[17] Including א B D L Θ 1 22* 700 892 1582 ita, b, c, d, e, ff2, j, q, r1 vg syrc, s copsa, bo geo eth Speculum.


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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: