The Narrative of Matthew and Forgiveness (Part 1)

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

It has often been suggested that the canonical gospels are passion stories with long introductions,[1] that the narrative of the crucifixion, death, and resurrections form the crux of the gospel message and is supplemented by what comes earlier in the gospels. Insofar as this is true of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, this principle also applies to Matthew’s theology of forgiveness, for it is during the passion narrative that Matthew’s dual theological emphases on forgiveness come to a head. The first stream involves Matthew’s perspective on the limitlessness of forgiveness applied to the actions of Peter and Judas; the second involves the climax of the gospel message—that forgiveness of sins comes through the blood of Jesus.

In chapters 26 and 27 Matthew casts Peter and Judas in the paradigm of the Parable of the Two Sons, two workers who say one thing and do another and are both in need of forgiveness. In 26:14-16, 47-50, Judas takes the place of the first son, the one who claims that he will follow Jesus but instead betrays him. In 26:31-35, Peter follows the example of the second son, saying that he will never betray Jesus. But then in 26:69-75 he fails to follow through and denies Jesus three times. Matthew portrays Peter as clearly contrite for his actions (26:75), but it does not take away from the fact that he has sinned by changing his mind.

What then of Judas? Again using material that no other evangelist provides, in 27:3-10 Matthew recounts Judas’s post-betrayal actions. 27:3 records that when Judas saw that Jesus was condemned, he “repented” (μεταμεληθεὶς), the same term used for the second son who “changed his mind” (μεταμεληθείς ) and did his father’s will in the Parable of the Two Sons (21:29). He then confessed his sin to the priests—at least part of the required atonement for sin (Lev. 4:27-35)—and paid thirty pieces of silver—the price of a slave’s life (Exodus 21:32). Since one can sin against the Son of Man and still receive forgiveness (12:32), until this point Judas stands as one capable of being forgiven by God, of being the son who did the will of his father.

Unfortunately, the priests then fail him by failing to forgive him and he goes off and hangs himself.[2] Although Peter’s post-denial repentance and Judas’s post-betrayal forgiveness add a twist, Matthew’s account of these two workers’ actions employs the Parable of the Two Sons paradigm. The message to his community is, quite shockingly, to be more like Judas than Peter, for it is better to ask for forgiveness for betraying Jesus than to say you will not deny him and disown him three times. In Matthew’s Gospel, even a sin as heinous as denying Jesus is a forgivable offense, provided you properly request forgiveness and extend forgiveness to others.

[1] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (trans. Carl E. Braaten, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), 80n2.

[2] The failure of the priests could very well be interpreted as an anti-priesthood sentiment, perhaps influenced by the Sitz im Leben of Matthew’s community. Alternatively, it could simply be another indication of the consistent rejection of proper righteousness by this priests in particular. We leave aside questions of forgiveness for suicide, as this is beyond the scope of this paper.


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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