The Meaning of Matthew 18:35 and the Message of the Parable

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

The closing remark[1] offers an allegorical reading of the parable and presents its meaning not only to Peter, but to the whole community of disciples.[2] Susan Hylen notes the difficulty of translating this passage into English due to the combination of singular and plural nouns. She argues that each person in the Matthean community is implicated by the command to forgive, but that the “presence of both singular and plural forms rules out a strictly individualistic interpretation of ν. 35.”[3] 

Perhaps most clearly, this application verse conveys the parable’s message of the necessity of forgiveness. The king of the parable stands for God and the δοῦλοι represent disciples, who are to forgive the (comparatively) petty sins of one another because of the enormity of God’s forgiveness which has been extended to them.[4] “Forgiveness from the heart” must be lived out in the practice of the disciples, for the parable reveals that “Christian life is not a matter of mere aspiration or good intentions; faith must be translated into just and compassionate acts.”[5] Further, the future indicative tense of ποιήσει alerts hearers of this parable to the fact that this parable carries eschatological connotations as well as ethical ones.[6] Not only should the community forgive because they have been forgiven; they also must be aware of the eschatological consequences—already foreshadowed in the parable’s enacting on the unforgiving servant—which will result from non-forgiveness.

While the theological implications of Matthew’s theology of forgiveness will be explored in more depth later in this series, we note here the general teaching of this parable, namely, that “A true disciple must never refuse to forgive his brother, no matter how often he has sinned against him.”[7] This parable illuminates the mercy of God and the condition that all who have received His mercy ought to extend that mercy toward others. The Christian community, therefore, should be one animated by a spirit of mercy and forgiveness.[8] This passage summons disciples to give themselves wholly to the king, not merely through acts of obedience and service, but by letting the king’s mercy pervade their minds and hearts and to become truly forgiving.[9] Ethically, if God is willing to show mercy to His disciples, they must be willing to show mercy to others, for “Interpersonal forgiveness is nothing else than a consequence of the forgiveness that one has received oneself.”[10] Eschatologically, those who have received this mercy and fail to reciprocate forgiveness will receive strict justice in the end.[11] Christologically, of course, readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have recognized that it was “in Jesus that mercy has taken a concrete, personified human form.”[12] The exegesis of Matthew 18:21-25 and general theological conceptions in hand, we now turn to consideration of Matthew’s wider theology of forgiveness.

[1] Depending on the scholar, offered either by Jesus or added by Matthew.

[2] Lambrecht, 57. de Boer, 219-223. de Boer suggests that v.26’s use of προσκυνει informs an allegorical reading, since worship would have been understood as due only to God.

[3] Susan E. Hylen, “Forgiveness and Life in Community,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 54.2 (2000): 153.

[4] Hagner, 540.

[5] Senior, 407. Davies and Allison, 803.

[6] Thompson, 222. Lambrecht, 67. Luz, 474-475.

[7] Thompson, 225. This conclusion stands in contrast to certain economically-oriented interpretations of this parable. On an economic interpretation, see Derrett, 35-40. Contra this position, consider Scott, 432-433. Nelson, 47. M.J. Nel, “Interpersoonlike vergifnis in Matteus 18:15-35,” Die Skriflig 49.2 (2015): 1f.

[8] Davies and Allison, 804. Hagner, 537, 540-541. Thomas Deidun, “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:23-25),” BTB 6.2-3 (1976): 214.

[9] Doriani, 31. Nelson, 48.

[10] Konradt, 136.

[11] Meier, 633. Harrington, Matthew, 271. Mbabazi, “Jewish Background,” 29.

[12] Lambrecht, 64.


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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