The Meaning of Matthew 18:28-31

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

These verses mirror verses 24-27, except for the fact that the unforgiving δοῦλος does not respond to his fellow δοῦλος with mercy. There are two immediately obvious dissimilarities which would have captured the attention of this parable’s audiences. First, there is the discrepancy between the amounts that each δοῦλος owed. One hundred δηνάρια—a Roman silver coin that was the standard day’s wage for a laborer—represent a small, repayable amount, especially in contrast to the sizeable debt that was just forgiven by the king.[1] In v. 29 when  the second δοῦλος asks for time to repay his debt, his request is quite reasonable, unlike the earlier request of the one now making the demand of repayment. This contrast would have been especially evident to hearers of this parable given how the plea of the second δοῦλος is deliberately patterned after the request of the first δοῦλος.[2]

The second obvious dissimilarity involves the striking contrast between the merciful lord and his unmerciful subject. The normal brutality of a creditor exacting payment from his debtor becomes even more scandalous in light of the story’s context: the appeal for patience is ignored and the second δοῦλος is cast into prison.[3] While the δοῦλος’s actions in v. 30 are not unlawful, they reek of hypocrisy. In contrast to the “Golden Rule” (Matt. 7:12) the “wicked servant asked for and benefited from mercy yet refuses to bestow it.”[4] The vivid contrast between the king and his unforgiving δοῦλος is confirmed by the reaction of the members of the household (the σύνδουλοι) in v. 31, who are disturbed and grief stricken by the first δοῦλος’s actions.[5] As Lambrecht notes, “Whoever listens attentively to the parable is, like the fellow servants, very upset and greatly distressed by the inexplicable conduct of the favored first servant toward his fellow servant.”[6] This is the second key movement of the parable, drawing a contrast between the forgiveness of the king and the (hypocritical) non-forgiveness of his δοῦλος.

[1] Davies and Allison, 800. Harrington, Matthew, 270. Cx. Matt. 20.2, 9, 10, 13, 22.19.

[2] Hagner, 539. Davies and Allison, 801.

[3] Luz, 473. Davies and Allison, 800-801.

[4] Davies and Allison, 801. Thompson, 218.

[5] Senior, 405.

[6] Lambrecht, 63.


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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