Implications for Matthew’s Theology of Forgiveness

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

But what are the implications and applications of this theology of forgiveness? Ulrich Luz rightly reminds us that, “Biblical texts are meaningful only when they become a part of our life.”[1] While Matthew’s Gospel has been read and interpreted in a variety of ways in the nearly 2,000 years since its composition,[2] the ethical, ecclesiological, Christological, and eschatological ramifications outlined here focus specifically on the messages evident from the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant and the connected insights on forgiveness.

Matthew 18:21-35 offers the ethical basis for interacting with other members of the Christian community by calling members to recognize that strict justice cannot govern human affairs[3] and instead live out reconciliation and forgiveness among their fellow believers. Following the principle of imitatio Dei, “as God freely forgives those who have sinned against him, so are disciples to freely forgive those who sin against them…. The community must treat its members as God treats them.”[4] In one sense, there are no limits to this forgiveness, although in the context of Matthew 18 there are clear steps available for the community in instances where correction is not accepted (vv. 15-20).[5] To not forgive another person remains nothing short of extreme hubris, arrogance which will result in dire consequences in the end. The ethical implication of Matthew’s call to forgiveness is that true disciples must always forgive their fellow disciples, no matter how often they have sinned, because of God’s merciful forgiveness granted through the blood of Christ.

Matthew 18:21-35 offers important ecclesiological insights as well, namely that community and mercy are to stand as the fundamental characteristics of the Christian Church. Not only does the context of the parable emphasize the importance of community,[6] but the parable itself also highlights the role of other believers in promoting forgiveness. The fellow servants play an important role in the parable by holding the unforgiving servant accountable for his lack of mercy and by petitioning the king.[7] It is only through the community that accountability is accomplished (18:19-20, 31), wrongs are righted (18:15-17), and forgiveness is granted (18:18-20). Even when an unremitting sinner leaves the community, they are to be viewed by the community as one worthy of continuing pastoral care, not—it seems—on a strictly individual level, but on a corporate level.[8] The ecclesiology offered through Matthew’s theology of forgiveness is community-centered, using the mechanisms of Christian forgiveness to make love and mercy the governing principles of the new covenant.

Although Christ is not an immediately identifiable character in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (apart from his delivery of the parable itself), this parable does offer insights into Christology. Obviously, a central message of 18:21-35 speaks to the merciful character of God, who in Trinitarian perspective allows us to understand Christ one who extends mercy. Yet to stop there would be to miss how Matthew situates the historical reality of God’s forgiveness. For it is in Christ’s death on the cross that God’s loving mercy becomes personified and concrete.[9] As Hilary of Poitiers reminds us, “all pardon comes from [Jesus]” and the forgiving power of his blood.[10] Without Jesus’ bringing God’s mercy into the reality of this world, forgiveness remains an abstract concept.[11]

Matthean forgiveness expects an incarnation of God’s forgiving mercy, an embodiment which Jesus provides. Christ thus stands as the true forgiver, the one who brings God’s mercy into the world and offers it to those who belong to the community of the new covenant of his blood. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant ends on an unmistakably eschatological note (v. 35), warning Jesus’ hearers and Matthew’s readers of the impending judgment for not living out true forgiveness. As Buckley notes, this message connects with Matthew’s overarching vision of final judgment wherein men and women answer for how they followed Jesus’ imperative of love.[12] The parable itself, which leads readers to repent for failures in the past and to work to forgive more fully in the future, ultimately makes sense only in light of the cross, where truly significant forgiveness begins. While the main eschatology of the parable is set off in the future, there are inaugurated aspects as well.[13] For it is through forgiveness that the church participates in the reign of God in the here and now, serving all those around us as agents of God’s grace. Christians are thus called to forgive with the end in mind, not only to avoid final condemnation, but also to reveal the kingdom of God now.

[1] Ulrich Luz, Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 13.

[2] For an outline of the Wirkungsgeschicthe of Matthew, see Dale C. Allison, “Matthew and the History of its Interpretation,” Expository Times 120.1 (2008): 1-7.

[3] Thomas W. Buckley, Seventy Times Seven: Sin, Judgment, and Forgiveness in Matthew (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 86.

[4] Hagner, 540-541.

[5] As Illian notes, “Forgiveness in this part of the Gospel of Matthew is conditional; it can be repeated endlessly, but not without repentance.” (449)

[6] Luz, 479-481. Ascough, 115. On the connections between Matthew 16 and 18 regarding the authority of the disciples, see Ernest R. Martinez, “The Interpretation of ‘Oi Mathetai in Matthew 18,” CBQ 23.3 (1961): 281-92.

[7] Hylen, 147, 155.

[8] Although a widely neglected viewpoint, Senior correctly notes that, “If radical action must be taken for the sake of the community, then the expelled member is to be treated as ‘a Gentile and a tax collector’ (18:17)—an intriguing suggestion that may, in fact, be a call for continuing pastoral care even toward the expelled member. In this Gospel, tax collectors are enumerated among the apostles and called the friends of Jesus (9:9-13; 10:3; 11:19), and Gentiles are praised for their faith (8:5-13; 15:28) and become the object of the community’s mission (28:19).” (Senior, 404.)

[9] Deiden, 211.

[10] Hilary of Poitiers, On Matthew 18.10. Simonetti, 82.

[11] Rowan Williams, “The Forgiveness of Sins: Hosea 11:1-9; Matthew 18:23-35,” 214-18 in Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (ed. Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007), 216. Lambrecht, 63-4. Additionally, there are concerns about the nature of God which Scott (440-1) and others have suggested this parable raises. In its simplest form, this query takes the form of, “Can a God of judgment be the same God who forgives humanity?” The king’s reversal of mercy and enaction of wrath are particularly troublesome for many contemporary readers of the parable. In response to such concerns, warnings of over-examining parables and the consideration of a fully canonical God (that is, one capable of just punishment and undeserved grace) remain the most suitable starting points.

[12] Buckley, 87.

[13] Hylen, 156.


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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