Matthew’s General Theology of Forgiveness

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

While increased attention has been paid to Matthew’s overarching theology of forgiveness in recent years, no study has comprehensively treated this theme.[1] Here, we begin the process of tracing Matthew’s theology of forgiveness, considering literary-theological passages, parables, and narrative insights into the importance of forgiveness for the Christian community.

Matthew’s theology of forgiveness begins at the beginning of his gospel, when at the annunciation Joseph is told that Jesus will “save his people from their sins.”[2] Thus from the start readers of the First Gospel are alerted to the fact that Jesus’ salvific import coordinates with the removal of sins—an act of merciful forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus petitions that God forgive us as we forgive others (6:12), continuing after the prayer with the explanation that, “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (6:14-15). This postscript is found neither in Luke 11:1-4 nor in Mark 11:25.[3] The theme of “forgive in order that you may be forgiven” that occurs in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant stands in coordination with this petition from the Lord’s Prayer.[4] Even more important for Matthew’s theology of forgiveness, however, is his affirmation of the Jewish conviction that Yahweh is the one who effects the forgiveness sin.[5]

Matthew continues the development of this theme in 9:1-8, where Jesus confirms his power to forgive sins—just like Yahweh—in the healing of the paralyzed man. The next encounter with forgiveness occurs in Jesus’ discussion of spiritual powers in Matthew 12:31-32, where he speaks of the unforgiveable sin of speaking against the Spirit (εἴπῃ κατὰ τοῦ πνεύματος, 12:32), where to “speak against” conveys not only actual speech, but also general transgression of the will of the Spirit.[6] Less frequently noted is this passage’s differentiation between the Son and the Spirit. Whereas sins against the Spirit are unforgiveable, general sins and even speaking against the Son of Man will be forgiven (ἀφεθήσεται). Scholars have spilled no little ink over attempting to determine what this unforgiveable sin might be.[7] In light of Matthew 18:21-35 and Matthew’s other insights into instances of unforgiveness, it seems plausible that not living out the Spirit’s forgiveness could in fact constitute “speaking against” the Spirit. That is, for Matthew, the unforgiveable sin for Christians is not extending the forgiveness of God to others, thereby transgressing the Spirit of God.

The final literary-theological insight on forgiveness involves the institution of the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:26-30, where Jesus announces that it his blood which, when poured out, provides for the forgiveness of sins (εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν). While Mark 11:22-25, Luke 22:15-20, and Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23-25) all record this all-important scene—including the institution of the supper and the inauguration of the new covenant—no other account of the Lord’s Supper indicates that Jesus’ blood is for the forgiveness of sins. Unique to Matthew’s Gospel, therefore, is the continuation of the Jewish belief that without the blood there is no forgiveness of sins[8] and that is it Jesus’ blood in particular which forgives human sinfulness. These literary-theological insights reveal that, for Matthew, Jesus came into the world in order to save people from their sins, that God (alone) possesses the power to forgive, that Jesus too has been given the power to grant forgiveness, that sins against the Spirit are unforgiveable, that sins against the Son are forgivable, and that Jesus’ blood brings forgiveness of sins.

[1] Bronn, 208-209, notes connections between 5.21–24, 6.15, and 18.15-35, but no other passages. Even Mbabazi’s careful consideration of Matthew’ concept of forgiveness overlooks many of the contributions to Matthew’s overarching theology. See Isaac Kahwa Mbabazi, The Significance of Interpersonal Forgiveness in Matthew’s Gospel (PhD Diss., Manchester: University of Manchester, 2011), esp. 57-67.

[2] Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 27 (ed. Kurt Aland, Westphalia: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2011), 2. αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν.

[3] In the petition, Jesus uses the imperative (ἄφες)—conveying request—and in the explanation he employs the subjunctive (ἀφῆτε)—indicating the conditional nature of the forgiveness.

[4] Bronn, 208-209. Bronn concludes that, “Not only is it clear that Matthew has a special interest in forgiveness but, looking back, we see that he speaks of forgiveness almost exclusively in terms of brotherhood.”

[5] John S. Kselman, “Forgiveness: Old Testament,” 831-833 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 2 (D-G) (New York/London: Doubleday, 1992), 831. Cx. Ex. 34.6-7, Num. 14.8, 30.6-13. Daniel Johansson, “’Who can forgive sins but God alone?’: Human and Angelic Agents, and Divine Forgiveness in Early Judaism,” JSNT 33.4 (2011): 351-374.

[6] The phrase “εἴπῃ κατὰ” is not extant in any literature prior to Matthew’s Gospel. On use of term, see Galen, In Hippocratis 17b.96.7 and Hermogenes, Rhetoric 1.50.

[7] See Luz, 206-210 on the history of interpretations of this passage, ranging from Origen to modern scholars.

[8] Ex. 30.10, Lev. 2.9. 3.5, Ez. 45.18-20. See also Heb. 9.22. Anna Suk Yee Lee, “Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Old Testament Sacrifice,” McMaster Journal Of Theology & Ministry 13 (2011): 24-44, esp. 25.

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.

The Meaning of Matthew 18:32-34

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

This final section of the parable describes the king’s reaction to the wickedness of his δοῦλος. Indeed, the lord calls the δοῦλος to accounts without even hearing an explanation. Luz indicates that ancient hearers and readers would not have been bothered by the king’s recension of his previous mercy or having his δοῦλος tortured; rather, they would have expected and encouraged his punishment of his δοῦλος’s injustice against the second δοῦλος.[1] Behind the king’s statement stands the idea that the δοῦλος should have imitated his king in granting mercy.[2] This begins to point hearers and readers to the final message of the parable, that “God’s forgiveness of a person must be reflected in that person’s forgiveness of others…. As the disciple judges others, so will God judge the disciple; and by the same measure in which the disciple gives to others, by the same measure will God give to the disciple.”[3]

Verse 34 brings the parable proper to a close, including the sentence of the unforgiving δοῦλος. Given the enormity of 10,000 talents and the fact that his imprisonment will last until full repayment was made, the punishment of the δοῦλος would have been understood as perpetual.[4] The very nature of unending punishment would have raised the eschatological awareness of Jesus’ and Matthew’s audiences, giving this parable undertones warning of final judgment.[5] The final message of the parable thus calls hearers to recognize the nature of ethics, that human actions have lasting implications, perhaps even into the ages.

[1] Luz, 474. Mbabazi notes connections between the Sermon on the Mount (specifically 5.7, 6.12-14) and vv. 32b-33. See Mbabazi, “Jewish Background,” 18-19.

[2] Davies and Allison, 802. “Theologically the imitatio Dei stands in the background here.” (Luz, 474.)

[3] Hagner, 540. Cx. Matt. 6.12, 14-15, 7.2.

[4] Thompson, 221. Davies and Allison, 803. Hagner, 540. Interestingly, no mention is made of the servant’s wife, family, and possessions, leaving open the question of whether or not his family was punished in like manner.

[5] Davies and Allison, 803.

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.

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.

The Meaning of Matthew 18:21-22

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

Peter’s question (a pattern in Matthew) and the parable which follows serve as a gemara, a safeguard against possible absolutist interpretations of the teaching on excommunication (vv.15-20) which precedes it.[1] This brief dialogue introduces the topic of forgiveness, with the future verb ἀφήσω here connoting an imperative sense–how many times “must I forgive”?[2] In contrast to Rabbinic limitations of forgiveness to four times,[3] Peter recognizes Jesus’ greater righteousness and asks Jesus the equivalent of “Is perfect forgiveness expected of [4]me?”

Jesus could have provided a simple “yes” to Peter’s question about the fullness of forgiveness, but he goes even further with the demands of forgiveness. Whether ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά means 490 or 77, “the point is that there can be no limits to the willingness to forgive.”[5] Jesus’ unexpected answer provides a proverbial tone, leading quite naturally into the parable itself, which speaks of the extravagance of forgiveness in its first part.[6]

[1] Davies and Allison, 791. Thompson 204-5.

[2] Luz, 465. Lambrecht, 54-56.

[3] Senior, 404. Cx. Amos 2.4, 6; Job 33.29.

[4] Luz, 465.

[5] Harrington, 269. See also Luz, 465, who writes that, “The most perfect, boundlessly infinite, countlessly repeated forgiveness is demanded of Peter.” Interestingly, Augustine recounts the 77 generations in Luke’s genealogy as the numerical indicator of why Christians are told to forgive 77 times. See Augustine, Sermon 83.5. Manlio Simonetti (ed.), Matthew 14-28: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 83.

[6] Hagner, 537. Thompson, 207.

Teach Me, O God

Teach me, O God, to use all the circumstances of my life today to nurture the fruits of the Spirit rather than the fruits of sin.

Let me use disappointment as material for patience;
Let me use success as material for thankfulness;
Let me use anxiety as material for perseverance;
Let me use danger as material for courage;
Let me use criticism as material for learning;
Let me use praise as material for humility;
Let me use pleasures as material for self-control;
Let me use pain as material for endurance.

–John Baillie, A Dairy of Private Prayer

Literary Sources for Matthew 18:21-35

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

We must also unearth some of our parable’s literary sources, those materials which stand behind this narrative and help shed light on how Jesus and Matthew’s audiences would have understood this story. The vast majority of scholars attribute at least the kernel of this story to the Historical Jesus, although most find evidence of (sometimes significant) changes as well.[1] Three realms of literary material are often thought to influence the final form of Matthew 18:21-35: redactional sources, Old Testament writings, and first-century influences.

The most common redactional option suggested for this parable is that Matthew drew upon a brief saying found in Q (typically located in 18:21-22 and also used in Luke 17:1-4), then expanded upon and reinterpreted that tradition for his own community.[2] In this line of thinking, the parable itself is either an expansion (or embellishment) of the authentic Jesus saying or Matthew’s own literary creation.[3] The other primary redactional option is that Matthew built upon oral tradition or catechetical materials in his use of this parable. For example, Luz writes, “I am on the opinion, therefore, that Matthew put into written form a story that previously had been transmitted orally….”[4] Similarly, Meier posits that, “M material no doubt grew in liturgical and catechetical activity of the Church over decades and was the living Sitz im Leben in which Mark and Q were understood long before the sources were brought together by Matthew. M, therefore, should be viewed as a dynamic oral tradition rather than some sort of primitive document.”[5]

A number of Old Testament echoes have been located in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Most widely recognized is Leviticus 19:17’s command to not hate one’s brother from the heart, which apparently informs at least v. 35.[6] Scholars have posited several different passages in Sirach as influences on this parable. Sirach 19:3-17 likely forms a general “wisdom tradition” background for reproving friends when necessary.[7] Even more central to this parable is Isaac Mbabazi’s investigation of the themes and terminology of Sirach 28:1-7, which contains themes of God’s judgment on those who refuse to practice mercy and forgiveness and the notion that human activity may influence the divine.[8] Although literary echoes are famously difficult to determine with any meaningful degree of certainty, it does seem that this parable builds from themes present in Leviticus 19 and Sirach 28.

Although not necessarily written materials, several first-century influences are also thought to have shaped (or paralleled) Matthew 18:21-35. The most obvious of these involves the teachings and community regulations of first-century Judaisms. The Pharisaical tradition had long wrestled with questions concerning forgiveness and apparently come to the conclusion that three instances of forgiveness was sufficient for the same sin; perhaps Peter had this dialogue in the back of his mind when asking Jesus about the ‘seven times’ he should forgive his brother.[9] Other portions of Matthew 18 parallel quite closely other Second Temple period teachings on receiving brothers found in sin,[10] suggesting that Jesus’ conversations about the church stood in some continuity with other Jewish interpreters of the period. Perhaps the closest parallel to this portion of Matthew comes in the Community Rule of Qumran, which speaks of not hating from the heart in order to not incur guilt.[11] A final first-century influence is the general context of Greco-Roman economics, wherein hearers of this parable would have been expected to understand the amounts of money being demanded and the legal expectations of loans.[12]

For the purposes of this project, I am inclined to proceed to consideration of the meaning of Matthew 18:21-35 on the bases 1) that the parable originated with the Historical Jesus, who was reflecting on Old Testament themes; 2) that the parable circulated in oral form until Matthew wrote the account down and added minor literary adjustments; and 3) that for Matthew and Jesus, the parable was useful not only for community formation but also stood in conversation with contemporary Second Temple Jewish discussions. This literary context in mind, we now turn to consideration of the meaning of Matthew 18:21-35.

[1] Lambrecht, 58-63.

[2] Davies and Allison, 781. Thompson, 237. Harrington, 270. Konradt, 132. For a helpful discussion of the status questionis of the Synoptic Problem, see David Alan Black and David R. Beck (eds.), Rethinking the Synoptic Problem (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001).

[3] de Boer, 225-31. “If such embellishment of the figures can be attributed to Matthew in the parable of the Talents [cx. Matt. 25:16-28 and Luke 19:11-27], the possibility that he has also embellished the amount of the servant’s debts in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant is strengthened.” (de Boer, 228) See also S.H. Brooks, Matthew’s Community: The Evidence of His Special Sayings Material (Sheffield: JSOT, 1987).

[4] Luz, 469. On vv. 21-23 see Davies and Allison, 781.

[5] Meier, 623. See also Johnson, 190.

[6] Davies and Allison, 786. Lev. 19.15-18. Compare also Prov. 10.18; 26.24-5. See also Bronn’s argument on the use of Genesis 45.1-5 in v.35 (William R. Bronn, “Forgiveness in ‘My Brothers’ of Matthew 28:10 and Its Significance for the Matthean Climax (28:16-20),” BTB 40.4 [2010]: 210-213).

[7] Illian, 446.

[8] Isaac Kahwa Mbabazi, “The Jewish Background to Interpersonal Forgiveness in Matthew,” African Journal of Evangelical Theology 30.1 (2011): 15-6. See also Sirach 5.4-7, 17.25-32, 18.8-14, and 28.1-46. See also David J. Reimer, “Stories of Forgiveness: Narrative Ethics and the Old Testament,” 359-378 in Reflection and Refraction: Studies in Biblical Historiography in Honour of A. Graeme Auld (eds. R. Rezetko, T.H. Lim and W.B. Aucker. Leiden: Brill, 2007), 359-78.

[9] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28 (Dallas: Word Books, 1995), 537. Cx. b. Yoma 86b-87a and m. Yoma 8:9.

[10] Compare 18.15-7 with CD IX, 2-8; 1QS V, 24-VI, 1; Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, T. Gad 4:2-3, 6:37. Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (New York: Penguin Press, 1997).

[11] “They shall rebuke one another in truth, humility, and charity. Let no man address his companion with anger, or ill-temper, or obduracy, or with envy prompted by the spirit of wickedness. Let him not hate him [because of his uncircumcised] heart, but let him rebuke him on the very same day lest he incur guilt because of him. And furthermore, let not man accuse his companion before the Congregation without having admonished him in the presence of witnesses.” 1QS5.25-6.1. Vermes, 105.

[12] Scott, 433. See also J. Duncan M. Derrett, Law in the New Testament (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1970).

A Prayer for Today

Let me face what you send with the strength you supply;
When you make what I do effective, help me to ensure that your word is effective in my heart;
When you call me to go through the dark valley, do not let me persuade myself that I know a way around;
Help me not to refuse any opportunity to help other people that may come today, nor fall into any temptation that may lie in wait for me;
Do not let the sins of yesterday be repeated in my life today, or the life of today set any evil example to the life of tomorrow.

–John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, 79

The Context of Matthew 18:21-35

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

Literary Genre

The central features of Matthew 18:21-35 are universally recognized to belong to the genre of parable. And despite its preservation only in Matthew’s Gospel, this parable is “almost universally reckoned an authentic parable of Jesus.”[1] Defined broadly, “parabolic sayings constitute a type of figurative speech involving a comparison that is distinguishable from the simple metaphor on the one hand and allegory on the other yet contains, or may contain, elements of both, particularly the ‘shock’ quality of metaphor and, occasionally, several points of comparison as in allegory.”[2] According to Jeremias’s classic understanding, parables often contain “an element of unexpectedness” and this element “was intended to indicate where the meaning was to be found.”[3] Further, a parable-teller delivered their message in order to open the eyes of their audience and to overcome any rhetorical resistance to their chief idea.[4] When reading parables, then, one should be aware of the images, extravagance, and rhetorical purposes at work. This is especially true in readings of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, which belongs to the realm of “strict parable,”[5] as it tells an unusual fictitious story in order to highlight a message of forgiveness.

Literary Context

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant finds itself within a number of different literary contexts. Most broadly, the parable occurs at the end of Matthew 18, which scholars often count as the fourth of Matthew’s five “dialogue sections.[6] This parable is also the fourth of seven parables which only Matthew records.[7] In chapter 18, it follows a discussion of sin (vv. 6-9), the Parable of the Lost Sheep (vv. 12-14), and a dialogue concerning how to handle sin in the community (vv.15-20). Our parable thus occurs in a dialogue discussing the inner life of the church and the rules of mercy and forgiveness which are to govern the community of believers.[8] Luz suggests tension between vv. 21-35 and vv. 15-20, for him an indication that Matthew combined materials which were not originally presented in coordination.[9] Numerous scholars have noted vv.15-20’s reliance upon passages of the Hebrew Bible, especially Leviticus 19:17 and Deuteronomy 19:15, leading some to suggest that any tension between these passages is a result of the good news of mercy which Jesus brings.[10] In contrast to perspectives which find tension between 18:21-35 and its immediate literary contexts, it seems better to view this parable as a coordinative piece of Jesus’ (and Matthew’s) theological puzzle, wherein general principles for discipline and discipleship in the church are laid down.[11]

Literary Structure

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant may be broken up into five sections: Peter’s framing question (vv.21-22[12]), the king and his subjects (vv. 23-27), the servant and his fellow servant (vv. 28-31), the king’s response (vv. 32-34), and the application of the parable (v. 35).[13] Within vv. 23-34, an additional structure has been noted, namely one of introduction/situation (vv. 23-25, 28, 31), words (vv. 26, 29, 32-33), and response/action (vv. 27, 30, 34).[14] Notice of these literary structures may assist in clarifying the parable’s meaning and message.

Literary Form

While the text-critical apparatus of the Novum Testamentum Graece (NA 28) notes no significant textual variants for Matthew 18:21-35, there are a number of minor variants which may impact the interpretation of this passage. A number of ancient witnesses include κυριε after λεγων in v. 26, [15] perhaps inserted to express a more spiritual interpretation of the passage in coordination with v. 35. However, given the number of significant manuscripts which support a shorter reading,[16] it seems best to leave κυριε out of our readings. Additionally, the Textus Receptus of 18:35 includes τα παραπτωματα αυτων at the end of the verse. Given the ready connections of this verse to Matt. 6:14 and lack of this phrase in a number of manuscripts,[17] here also it seems best to proceed on the assumption that this longer reader reflects an interpretative expansion of the passage. At the very least, the existence of these textual variants alerts us to the fact that early Christian transmitters of this passage read it with other Matthean references to forgiveness in mind.

[1] W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew in Three Volumes: Volume II: Commentary on Matthew VIII-XVIII (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 794.

[2] Richard N. Soulen and R. Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism: Third Edition, Revised and Expanded (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 28-9.

[3] Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus: Revised Edition (New York: Scribner’s Press, 1972), 30.

[4] Jan Lambrecht, Out of the Treasure: The Parables in the Gospel of Matthew (Louvain: Peeters Press, 1998), 26-9.

[5] Ibid., 22-3. Additional categorizations which have been applied to this parable are Kingdom of Heaven parable (Lambrecht, 53), a parable of process (Gerardo Soding, “La ‘Novedad de Jesus’ en sus Parabolas: Una propuesta hermeneutica,” Revista Biblica 1.4 [2010]: 151-186), and astronomical parable (George R. Beasley-Murray, Matthew [London: Scripture Union, 1984], 115.).

[6] Harrington, 5. McKnight, 787-8. Depending on the schema used to understand Matthew, this passage occurs either at the end of the Ministry in Galilee section (15.21-18.35) or in the midst of the lead up to the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus (16.21-28.20). The vast majority of scholars mark this parable as the end point of Matthew’s train of thought, making the materials which occur afterwards of little immediate literary connection. The exception to this is Konradt, who views this passage as part of a literary structure running from 16.21-20.34.

[7] Lambrecht, 20-1. The others being the Weeds among the Wheat (13.24-30), Hidden Treasure (13.44), the Pearl (13.45-46), Fishermen’s Net (13.47-50), Workers in the Vineyard (20.1-16), Two Sons (21.28-32), and the Wise and Foolish Virgins (25.1-3).

[8] Johnson, 207. Indeed, along with 16.18, 18.17 is the only other place in the gospel to use the term ἐκκλησίας.

[9] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20 (trans. J.E. Crouch, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 450. See also Bernard Brandon Scott, “The King’s Accounting: Matthew 18:23-34,” JBL 104.3 (1985): 429, who remarks that, “A major problem confronting the interpretation of Jesus’ parables is their preservation in contexts created by others.”

[10] Harrington, Matthew, 268-269. Luz, 451-8. Keener, 453-455. Cx. Didache 15.3

[11] Daniel M. Doriani, “Forgiveness: Jesus’ Plan for Healing and Reconciliation in the Church (Matthew 18:15-35),” SBJT 13.3 (2009): 22-5. Randy Nelson, “Exegeting Forgiveness,” ATI 5.2 (2012): 43, 46. Hagner, li. Martinus C. de Boer, “Ten Thousand Talents? Matthew’s Interpretation and Redaction of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:23-25),” CBQ 50 (1988): 219. Further pointing to some internal coherence are the terms used to designate the three groups in Matt. 18: child (παιδίον, vv.2-5), little one (μικρός, vv.6-14), and brother (ἀδελφός, vv.15-35).

[12] Three basic positions have been taken by scholars regarding the connections between vv. 21-22 and vv. 23f. First, that Matthew combines loosely similar materials (see Luz, 468). Second, that Matthew forces a poor interpretation of Peter’s question and the parable (Joachim Jeremias, Unknown Sayings of Jesus [London: S.P.C.K., 1964], 97. Scott, 429-430). And third, that the δια τουτο of v. 23 and the thematic continuity sufficiently account for Matthew (or an earlier tradition) placing these materials in coordination (Davies and Allison, 794. Hagner, 537.).

[13] This basic structure is affirmed by Davies and Allison, 794; Hagner, 536-7; Joh Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 106; William G. Thompson, Matthew’s Advice to a Divided Community: Mt. 17,22-18,35 (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970), 204; and Scott, 433.

[14] Davies and Allison, 794. Crossan, 106. Scott, 433.

[15] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Companion on the Greek New Testament: A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (Third Edition) (London and New York: United Bible Societies, 1975), 46. As in πεσὼν οὖν ὁ δοῦλος προσεκύνει αὐτῷ λέγων· κυριε μακροθύμησον ἐπ’ ἐμοί, καὶ πάντα ἀποδώσω σοι.

[16] Including B D Θ 700 vg syrc arm geo al.

[17] Including א B D L Θ 1 22* 700 892 1582 ita, b, c, d, e, ff2, j, q, r1 vg syrc, s copsa, bo geo eth Speculum.