The Meaning of Matthew 18:23-27

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

The opening Διὰ τοῦτο of v.23 indicates the connection of this story to that which immediately precedes.[1] This is a kingdom of the heavens parable (βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν) which is set in the typical Semitic form of a king and his servants, the stock images of God and His people.[2] Much has been made of the fact that the βασιλεύς (here in the dative) throughout the rest of the parable is referred to as the κύριος. While some have taken this to indicate Matthew’s interpretation (of the master as God) or redaction, it seems perfectly natural to substitute comparative terminology for king and master, both of which could easily be understood as a) the same figure and b) representative of God.[3]

The precise meaning of δοῦλος throughout this passage is somewhat more troublesome. Although typically indicating “born bondman or slave,” the term may also refer to “subjects” more generally or even ancillary characters.[4] Indeed, δοῦλος is often translated as “minister” or “official” in 1 Samuel 29:3 (LXX), 2 Kings 5:6 (LXX), and Josephus’s Antiquities 2.70. Given the flexibility of this term (and the owed sum, v. 24), several scholars have argued that this parable involves not a servant or slave but a lesser official (perhaps a tax-collector) being held accountable by his king.[5]

In this view, when the δοῦλος is called to accounts in v. 24, the 10,000 talents owed seems somewhat more reasonable. While Josephus records that that the total tax revenue from Judea, Idumea, and Samaria in 4 BCE was only 600 talents, other tax revenue figures make such a total not entirely impossible to accumulate.[6] However, even if 10,000 talents would have been a possible amount of tax revenue, for Jesus’ hearers and Matthew’s readers 10,000 talents would have represented an extravagant and entirely unpayable sum of money.[7] Thus, regardless of the precise character of the δοῦλος, it seems best to understand him as someone who remains entirely incapable of satisfactorily paying off his debt to the king. The “limitlessness” of this debt will prove important for theological interpretations of this parable.

An immediately striking action in this parable—especially for readers viewing the king as God—is the command in v. 25 to sell the δοῦλος and his family for the repayment of the debt. Various contextual clues may inform our understanding of this passage. Several Old Testament passages suggest that children could be sold for the repayment of debt[8] and debt-slavery was not uncommon in parts of the Greco-Roman world.[9] Yet there is no reason to suspect that Second Temple Jews would condone such actions.[10] Furthermore, even if the δοῦλος and his family were sold into slavery, the amount earned from their sales would by no means cover the 10,000 talent debt.[11] Therefore, we would be wise to not over read the specifics of this account. The point here seems to be the just judgment of the king would involve the dissolution of all that the δοῦλος finds most dear—his life, the life of his wife and children, and all of their possessions—are to be exacted, not for actual reparation of the debt but for the sake of punishment.

In response to this terrible (though seemingly just) judgment, the servant falls in worship (προσεκύνει) before the king and unrealistically promises to repay the debt.[12] Then, remarkably and unexpectedly, the king not only grants the request of his δοῦλος, but moved by σπλαγχνισθεὶς (deep emotion, literally a “stirring of the innards”)[13] he extends unimaginable grace by dismissing the debt in its entirety.[14] John Chrysostom summarizes this pivotal moment by remarking, “Do you see again how generous [the master] was? The servant asked only for an extension of time, but he gave him more than he asked for, remission and forgiveness of the entire debt.”[15] This remarkable mercy brings the first act of the parable to a close, whereby hearers and readers of the parable would have been expected to understand that the incredible forgiveness of debt by the king corresponds to the incredible forgiveness of human sin by God.[16]

[1] Hagner, 537. Thompson, 208.

[2] Hagner, 538. Davies and Allison, 796. Donald Senior, “Matthew 18:21-25,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 41.4 (1987): 404. Luz, 471.

[3] Hagner, 538. Davies and Allison, 796-7. Luz, 471. Thompson, 209.

[4] George Liddell, Robert Scott, and H.S. Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon (9th Ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 447.

[5] de Boer, 217-218. Doriani, 29.

[6] Josephus, Ant. 17.11.4. Compare Plutarch, Antony, 56, and Jerome, Daniel 11.5. Luz, 471. Davies and Allison, 798.

[7] Lambrecht, 57. Harrington, Matthew, 270. Hagner, 528. Hagner suggests that μύριοι indicates deliberate hyperbole, a number beyond number pointing to incalculable debt.

[8] 1 Sam. 22.2, 2 Kgs. 4.1, Neh. 5.5, Isa. 50.1, and Amos 2.6.

[9] Harrington, Matthew, 270. Davies and Allison, 799. Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1927), 270.

[10] Luz, 472.

[11] Thompson, 214. “Even if the master were able to sell the servant and his household at the best possible price (say, 10,000 denarii), the money realized from the sale would obviously represent a miniscule amount relative to the total debt.” (de Boer, 215.)

[12] Hagner, 538. Thompson, 215.

[13] Senior, 405. The same term is used to describe Jesus’ own compassion toward helpless crowds in Matt. 9.36, 14.14, and 15.34 as well as for the two blind men in 20.34.

[14] Hagner, 539. There is some discussion of the whether δάνειον should be translated as “loan” or “debt.” This issue is compounded by the Syriac version of this parable—which some have taken as indicative of the Aramaic original—that uses ܚܘܒܐ  (debt, liability, wrong). On this, see de Boer, 215.

[15] John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew Homily 61.3. Simonetti, 85.

[16] On the equation of sin to debt in Second Temple Judaism, see Davies and Allison 798.

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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