Verse Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35
In the Gospel of Matthew there are five great discourses of Jesus:
the Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5-7); the commissioning of the disciples (ch.
10); the parables of the kingdom (ch. 13); life in the church (ch. 18);
and the end of the age (ch. 24-25).
The passage for this study on forgiveness is a part of the teaching
of Jesus in Matthew 18 on life in the church. The chapter begins with a
discussion of who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (vv. 1-9),
followed by the parable of the lost sheep (vv. 10-14) which underscores
the truth that in God's eyes even "one of these little ones" has such
immense value that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep and goes
after the one that has wandered off. This is followed by instructions to
the church on how to deal with a brother who has sinned (vv. 15-20). It
is in this context that Peter asks how often he must forgive an
offending brother (vv. 21-22). In answer, Jesus tells the parable of the
unmerciful servant (vv. 23-34), followed by a final warning (v. 35).
1. Peter's Question about the Limits of Forgiveness (18:21-22)
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many
times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven
times?" 22 Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but
seventy-seven times. 21. Then Peter came to Jesus and asked. Peter's
question was in response to the statement of Jesus in vv. 15-17
outlining the procedure to follow in restoring an offending Christian
back to life in the Christian community.
Seven times. Jewish tradition limited forgiveness to three times,
perhaps based on Amos 1:3, 6, 9 and Job 33:29-30 (note Luke 17:4). Peter
thought his willingness to forgive seven times was much more generous
than Jewish tradition and thus surpassing the righteousness of Pharisees
and teachers of the law (Matthew 5:20).
22. Seventy-seven times. The phrase may also be translated
"seventy times seven." But regardless of the exact translation, it means
unlimited. This expression may be a deliberate allusion to Lamech's
revengeful and bitter words in Gen 4:24: "If Cain is avenged seven
times, then Lamech seventy-seven times." Now in Jesus there is the
possibility of a radical reversal from seventy-sevenfold vengeance to
Peter's question indicated that he still wanted to count how many
times he should forgive. Jesus was in effect telling him not to count.
2. A Parable About a Forgiven Servant (18:23-27)
23 "Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king
who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the
settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.
25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife
and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 "The
servant fell on his knees before him, 'Be patient with me,' he begged,
'and I will pay back everything.' 27 The servant's master took pity on
him, canceled the debt and let him go.
23. Therefore attaches the following parable to the dialogue
between Peter and Jesus. However, the parable is not an exact answer to
Peter's question about how many times he must forgive. Jesus may have
originally spoken the parable at another occasion, although it still
relates to the topic of forgiveness.
The kingdom of heaven is like. As in many of the parables of
Jesus, this phrase does not mean that the kingdom of God is like any one
element in the parable, but it is like the parable taken as a whole. In
this parable, the kingdom of heaven is not like the king; it is like the
parable in its entirety with all the things that happen in it.
In the parables of Jesus a king often stands for God. But if the king
in this parable stands for God, the parable raises some disturbing
questions about God's forgiveness, as will be seen below. The characters
in the parables of Jesus are often morally questionable. Therefore one
must look for the truth of a parable in the impact of the story as a
whole, not in the moral quality of the individual characters in the
A king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. The
reference may be to the custom of a gentile king who demanded an
accounting from high officials to whom he had given the responsibility
of collecting taxes from provinces within the kingdom.
24. A man who owed him ten thousand talents. This amount is so
large that it cannot possibly be a personal loan. Even as taxes from a
province it is an incredibly huge amount. Ten thousand was the largest
number in the first century. The value of a talent varied from six to
ten thousand denarii. A denarius was a common laborer's daily wage. A
minimum daily wage in the United States would be approximately $40 ($5
an hour multiplied by 8 hours). Ten thousand denarii, or one talent,
would be the equivalent of $400,000 in today's economy. Ten thousand
talents would be over four billion dollars ($4,000,000,000). Needless to
say, Jesus used ten thousand talents as a ridiculously exaggerated sum
of money that the servant owed the king.
Was brought to him. The Greek verb here implies that the servant
was dragged to the presence of the king for questioning and settlement
of the case. He may have even been in prison already.
25. Since Jewish law forbade the selling of a person's wife
and his children to pay a debt, we must conclude that the king in the
parable was gentile. There were no Israelite kings during the lifetime
of Jesus. In his parables Jesus often depicted conditions that existed
at the time and were a common knowledge.
But even if the wife, his children and all that he had were to be
sold, there would not be ten thousand talents. The sale of people into
slavery did not bring in that much money. Jesus intended for his hearers
to conclude that this was a hopeless situation.
26. Fell on his knees before him. In Greek the verb also means
"he worshiped him," which is another indication that both king and
servant were gentiles since Jews did not worship human beings. The
servant prostrated himself before the king in a desperate plea for
mercy. The servant did not ask the king to forgive him but to be patient
with him and he would pay back everything, which is impossible and
ridiculous in light of the astronomical debt.
27. The king did much more than show patience: he took pity on
him, canceled the debt and let him go. The Greek word for "took pity"
occurs several times in Matthew and is used of Jesus' compassion on the
crowds (9:36; 15:32) and on the two blind men (20:34).
3. Forgiven but Unforgiving (18:28-30)
28 "But when that servant went out, he found one of
his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and
began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. 29 "His
fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me,
and I will pay you back.' 30 "But he refused. Instead, he went off and
had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
This section of the parable is identical in structure to the first
part. This similarity of structure helps the hearer to notice all the
more the stark contrast between the king's conduct and the conduct of
the forgiven but unforgiving servant. First, there is the first
servant's demand that his fellow servant repay his debt (v. 28); then,
the fellow servant's plea for forbearance (v. 29); and finally, the
first servant's calloused treatment of his fellow servant (v. 30).
28. In contrast to the fantastic debt of the first servant,
the fellow servant's debt of a hundred denarii was a mere trifle. It is
equivalent to $4,000, or one millionth of the first servant's forgiven
debt. In light of the king's gracious treatment, the conduct of this
servant toward his fellow servant was particularly repugnant: He grabbed
him and began to choke him. He demanded that the whole amount right then
29. The conduct and words of the fellow servant in this verse
are almost identical to the conduct and words of the first servant in
verse 26, with two exceptions. First, the word "worship" is absent here.
Secondly, the promise that the servant makes to pay back the owed amount
does not have "everything" in this verse as it does in verse 26. This is
all the more significant because the first servant's promise to pay back
"everything" was simply a hollow promise. The fellow servant's plea here
for patience and his promise to repay the debt were at least within the
realm of possibility. Yet the irony is that the forgiven servant was not
even willing to be patient, let alone cancel the debt.
30. Having a person thrown into prison until he could pay the
debt was a common practice in the first century. Again, the two servants
in this parable were probably a part of a hierarchical system where one
official was accountable to the one above him for a certain amount of
tax to be collected. If government officials in charge of collecting
taxes were suspected of cheating or for some reason unable to come up
with the expected amount, they were often imprisoned and tortured (cf.
v. 34). This would force them to tell their superiors where they may
have hidden some of the funds.
Since the king forgave the first servant, there was no need for him
to be so demanding of his fellow servant. The hearer cannot help but
respond in anger to the unreasonable conduct of the first servant.
4. The Fate of the Unforgiving Servant (18:31-34)
31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they
were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that
had happened. 32 "Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked
servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged
me to. 33 Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I
had on you?' 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be
tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
31. The other servants... were greatly distressed. Now the
hearers of the parable identify with these servants who saw the
injustice done and reported it to the king. The hearers are drawn into
the story and feel that now this unjust servant will get his due.
32-33. As expected, the king revokes his previous decision and
condemns the unforgiving servant for his unjust treatment of his fellow
servant. When the king says, "You wicked servant," the hearers of the
parable feel good that justice was now being done to this servant who
had received forgiveness but refused to grant it.
34. The king took back his offer of forgiveness. Instead, he
turned the unforgiving servant over to the jailers to be tortured, until
he should pay back all he owed. As this drama unfolds, the hearers of
the parable cheer the king for his sense of justice.
Yet precisely at this point we must stop and take a second look. Why
are we as hearers angered at the conduct of this unjust servant? Why do
we rejoice at the decision of the king to revoke his forgiveness to this
rascal? And if the king is a metaphor for God, what kind of God is this
that in anger He revokes His forgiveness and condemns a person to
eternal torture? If we as Christians are expected to forgive
seventy-seven times, why can't God? Or is it possible that our angry
response to the unjust servant is a telltale sign of our own unforgiving
spirit? Perhaps we as hearers need to examine our own hearts and repent
of our harsh judgment of others.
5. Warning Against Unwillingness to Forgive (18:35)
35 "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of
you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
35. Refusal to forgive will make it impossible for us to
understand and experience the forgiveness of God for us. Jesus taught
his disciples to pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven
our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). Then commenting on that prayer, Jesus said,
"For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father
will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your
Father will not forgive your sins" (Matthew 6:14-15).
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus expected his disciples to be perfect
"as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). The perfection
demanded here is that of love, not only to one's neighbor, but also to
one's enemies. After all, God "causes his sun to rise on the evil and
the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew