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Matthew 18:21-35 Biblical Commentary:
Matthew 18: THE CONTEXT
This is a difficult text, because it demands so much. It helps to see the text in context, which softens it a bit—but only a bit.
The chapter begins with the disciples asking who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven (verses 1-6). Jesus puts a child among them, and says, “Most certainly I tell you, unless you turn, and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (v. 3). Jesus continues by saying that it would be better for us to drown in the depths of the sea than to put a stumbling block in the path of one of these little ones (v. 7). Jesus is greatly concerned for vulnerable people, and calls us to share his concern.
Jesus continues with the Parable of the Lost Sheep (verses 10-14). The Great Shepherd is not content to have ninety-nine safe sheep, but risks everything to save one lost sheep. In the eyes of the Great Shepherd, every sheep is important—none is expendable. Jesus calls us to embody this same sense of urgency for the sheep that is outside the fold.
Jesus then offers detailed guidance regarding the handling of conflict in the church (verses 15-20). The object is reconciliation, and our obligation is to pursue reconciliation even at great cost of time and energy. The penalty is severe for those who refuse to respond to the reconciliation process, but the process is designed, not to punish, but to open the eyes of the offender to the seriousness of the offense—and to bring him/her back into the fold.
The common element in these portions of this chapter is that they call us to throw away the calculator when dealing with relationships.
• No care is too great when dealing with the little ones—vulnerable ones. Not only must we avoid causing them to stumble, but we must also emulate their humility.
• No risk is too great when seeking one sheep that is lost. We must expend every effort to find the lost one and to restore it to the flock.
• No effort is too great when trying to restore peace in the church. The victim must take the initiative to seek out the offender and to resolve the conflict. It that cannot be accomplished one-on-one, the victim must seek the help of one or two others. If that fails, the victim must solicit the help of the whole church. We cannot “write off” a fellow Christian. Even the final step of excommunication is intended as a wake-up call rather than irrevocable banishment.
• Our text for this Sunday, then, simply extends the concerns of the earlier parts of the chapter by calling us to throw away the calculator when it comes to forgiveness. The central issue is not justice but reconciliation.
Matthew 18:21-35. FORGIVENESS
Our text for this Sunday is about forgiveness. It is a difficult word to hear, because we find forgiveness difficult—both to receive and to give. However, it is also an urgent word, because receiving and giving forgiveness is central to our faith.
First, we received God’s forgiveness. We can pass on only that which we have received. Having experienced forgiveness at the hands of God and God’s people, we are then called to make it possible for others to experience it. Thus the circle of Christ’s love expands ever wider to encircle one more lost sheep—and another—and another.
This is not cheap grace. Jesus isn’t suggesting that we regard offenses as unimportant. Nor is he suggesting that we wink at sin. He is calling us to take sin seriously—and then to take forgiveness equally seriously.
Verses 15-20 tell us ho w seriously we are to take these violations. Verses 21-35 tell us how gracefully we are do deal with them.
Matthew 18:21-22. HOW OFTEN SHALL I FORGIVE?
21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times?”
22Jesus said to him, “I don’t tell you until seven times, but, until seventy times seven” (Greek: hebdomekontakis hepta).
“Lord, how often shall my brother” (v. 21a). Elsewhere, Jesus deals with relationships beyond the church (“But I tell you, love your enemies”—5:44), but this text is about forgiving Christian brothers and sisters.
“and I forgive him?” (v. 21b). Peter’s question hearkens back to verses 15-20, where Jesus gave detailed procedures to effect reconciliation when a Christian sins. Peter raises a very practical issue. How far must disciples go with respect to forgiveness?
In Luke’s version of this story, Jesus says, “Be careful. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in the day, and seven times returns, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). In that version, forgiveness is conditional on repentance. In Matthew’s version, Jesus does not mention repentance. However, verses 15-20 clearly require repentance and changed behavior, and the parable that Jesus uses to illustrate forgiveness (vv. 23-35) is a story of two debtors whose plea for mercy constitutes a sort of repentance. It seems fair to assume that we are dealing here with a repentant sinner.
“Until seven times?” (v. 21c). Rather than listening for Jesus’ answer, Peter proposes his own—seven times. Seven is generous. The rabbinical standard was three, based on Amos 1-2—”For three transgressions … for four, I will not turn away its punishment”, a phrase repeated several times in those chapters. The idea is that God forgives three sins and punishes the fourth. Peter senses that Jesus wants the disciples to extend themselves even further, so he doubles the standard and then adds one for good measure.
Also, seven is a holy number to Jewish people, symbolizing perfection or completion (Lockyer, 968). It has overtones of infinity—i.e., the seven days of the week constitute an endless cycle—so Peter’s proposal may be even more generous that it seems at first blush.
“I don’t tell you until seven times, but, until seventy times seven” (hebdomekontakis hepta) (v. 22). Jesus’ answer demolishes Peter’s careful construct. The Greek, hebdomekontakis hepta can mean either seventy-seven or seventy times seven (490 times). The KJV says “seventy times seven,” but “seventy-seven” is probably the better choice (see France, 701, footnote 1).
Regardless, Jesus is not inviting us to keep careful records, but is setting a standard that makes record keeping impractical. He does not give us a math-lesson, but a grace-lesson. Who can truly forgive seventy times seven—or even seventy-seven times—while keeping track? Who can forgive habitually without becoming a forgiving person? Who can forget the other person’s sins while putting chalk marks on the wall? To keep track is not to forgive but is rather to record progress toward the day when we can quit forgiving. A person keeping records of forgiveness is like a rogue banker whose motive is foreclosure.
Jesus proposes something quite different. “Seventy times seven” is four hundred and ninety: We can ‘do it in our heads.’ But (what Jesus proposes) is celestial arithmetic: We must ‘do it in our hearts'” (Buttrick, 475).
The numbers seven and seventy-seven may have their roots in Genesis 4. There God pronounces sevenfold vengeance on anyone who kills Cain (v. 15), and Lamech expands it to seventy-seven-fold for anyone who might kill Lamech (v. 24). If the numbers seven and seventy-seven in Matthew 18 are derived from Genesis 4, they provide an ironic twist. In Genesis, the numbers refer to vengeance. In Matthew, they refer to forgiveness.
The problems raised by Jesus’ response are both serious and numerous. Does Jesus require that we place ourselves completely at the mercy of an uncaring and unrepentant sinner? Does he eliminate “tough love” solutions to such problems as alcoholism, addiction, and abuse? Does he require the kind of passivity that would make us an easy mark for unscrupulous people? We find the answer to such questions in verses 15-20, where Jesus outlines a rigorous process for dealing with an unrepentant brother or sister—a process that can lead to excommunication. Jesus clearly intends for us to take serious problems seriously and to take tough corrective action where needed. The goal of the discipline in verses 15-20 is the restoration of the unrepentant sinner. The goal of verses 21-35 is the forgiveness of the repentant sinner.
Matthew 18:23-27. HE RELEASED HIM, AND FORGAVE HIM THE DEBT
23“Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who wanted to reconcile accounts with his servants. 24When he had begun to reconcile, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand (Greek: myrion) talents. 25But because he couldn’t pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, with his wife, his children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26The servant therefore fell down and kneeled before him, saying, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will repay you all!’ 27The lord of that servant, being moved with compassion (Greek: splanchnistheis—a bowel-deep feeling of compassion), released him, and forgave him the debt.”
“Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who wanted to reconcile accounts with his servants” (v. 23). This is a kingdom parable. In kingdom parables, Jesus gives us a glimpse into a very different world—a world that operates according to principles that are often the opposite of those with which we are familiar—a world that functions as our world was intended originally to function—a world where God is king, reigning in the hearts of his subjects.
This parable is not an allegory (a story in which things have a hidden or symbolic meaning: i.e., a=one thing; b=the second thing, etc.). We will distort Jesus’ meaning if we press its details too far. For instance, the king represents God, but some of his behavior—i.e., the order to sell the slave’s wife and children—is not Godlike.
“When he had begun to reconcile, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand (myrion) talents” (v. 24). The debt—ten thousand talents—is a measure beyond measure—like our word zillions. A talent is the largest unit of money in New Testament times—equivalent to 6,000 denarii—a denarius being a day’s wages for an ordinary laborer (20:2, 13). Ten thousand (myrias) is the largest number for which the Greeks have a word. When Jesus says “ten thousand talents,” he multiplies the largest unit of money by the largest Greek number, and the result is unimaginably large—the equivalent of a working man’s wages for 60 million days or 200,000 years–far more than King Herod’s realm would gain from taxes in a year (Boring, 382).
But it matters not whether it is one talent or ten thousand. No slave has any hope of paying either of those amounts. When one is in hot water over one’s head, it matters not whether the depth is a hundred feet or ten thousand. Both are deadly!
In this Gospel, Jesus also equates sin to debt in the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our debts (Greek: opheilemata—something owed, morally a fault), as we also forgive our debtors” (6:12).
“But because he couldn’t pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, with his wife, his children, and all that he had, and payment to be made” (v. 25). The king orders the slave to be sold, along with his wife and children—a common enough practice in that day, but not by Jews. The revenue would be applied to the debt, but would be a drop in the bucket. In the case of a more modest debt, relatives and friends might collect money to redeem the offender, but that would not be possible with a debt so large.
“Lord, have patience with me, and I will repay you all” (v. 26). The slave’s response is a desperate grasping for straws. He knows that he can never repay the debt, but he is biding for time. Every day of freedom is one less day of misery, and who knows—the king might change his mind—or the king might die—or some unforeseen event might redeem the situation. The situation is hopeless, but who can blame the slave for hoping.
“The lord of that servant, being moved with compassion (splanchnistheis—a bowel-deep feeling of compassion), released him, and forgave him the debt” (v. 27). The miracle happens. The king goes far beyond what the slave has asked. He grants, not just a little more time, but forgiveness of the great debt.
Matthew 18:28-30. HE CAST HIM INTO PRISON
28“But that servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, who owed him one hundred denarii, and he grabbed him, and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’
29“So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you!’ 30He would not, but went and cast him into prison, until he should pay back that which was due.”
“But that servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, who owed him one hundred denarii” (v. 28a). The hundred denarii debt is tiny compared with the ten thousand talent debt, but becomes significant when immediate payment is required. One hundred denarii represent a working man’s wages for one hundred days (see Matthew 20:2, where a denarius is a day’s wages). What ordinary worker has that kind of cash immediately available?
“and he grabbed him, and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe'” (v. 28b). Seizing the debtor by the throat is rough treatment—intended to intimidate.
“So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you'” (v. 29). The second debtor uses exactly the same words that the first debtor used in verse 26 to persuade the king to give him a chance to repay the debt. However, there is a big difference. The first debtor had no chance of ever repaying his ten-thousand talent debt, but it is quite conceivable that the second debtor will be able to repay his hundred denarii debt. All that is needed here is a little patience, and that is all that the second debtor is asking.
“He would not, but went and cast him into prison, until he should pay back that which was due” (v. 30). We cannot imagine the first slave’s lack of compassion, given his recent narrow escape, but we must keep in mind that this is a contrived story in which everything is exaggerated for effect. The point is the dramatic contrast between the large and small debts—and between the king’s compassion and the first slave’s lack of compassion. The king, even though an important man faced with many great issues, was able to relate to the first slave’s hopeless situation and willing to make allowances to remedy it. The slave, ironically, sees only the small debt owed him and willing to make no allowances. The second slave’s plea in verse 29 is nearly a copy of the first slave’s plea in verse 26, but the first slave refuses to hear it.
Matthew 18:31-34. HE DELIVERED HIM TO THE TORMENTORS
31“So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were exceedingly sorry (Greek:lupeo—full of sorrow), and came and told to their lord (Greek: kyrios—a word often used for Jesus as Lord) all that was done. 32Then his lord called him in, and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt, because you begged me. 33Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?’ 34His lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due to him.”
“So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were exceedingly sorry” (lupeo—full of sorrow) (v. 31). Those who have little (such as these servants) often feel compassion more acutely than those who have much. They are also more sensitive to injustice, because they know how it feels to be the victim of injustice. Also, there was an unwritten rule in those days that obligated those whose debts were forgiven to forgive those who owed them money (Keener, 292). These servants would expect the forgiven servant to abide by that rule, and would be highly offended when he failed to do so.
And so the fellow slaves, “exceedingly sorry” (lupeo—full of sorrow), report the injustice to their lord (kyrios—a word often used for Jesus as Lord).
“Then his lord called him in, and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt, because you begged me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?'” (vv. 32-33). This verse explains why Jesus would require Peter to forgive “seventy times seven” (v. 22). Peter has received mercy from God, and will require another massive dose of mercy once he has denied Jesus three times (26:69ff).
As the writer of Ephesians puts it, “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
“His lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due to him” (v. 34).
If we wondered earlier if Jesus’ ethic of forgiveness leaves any room for accountability, this verse assures us that it does. The unforgiving servant will suffer at the hands of his tormentors until he repays the king all that he owes—ten thousand talents—an enormous debt that he has no hope of ever repaying. In other words, he can expect to suffer at the hands of his tormentors throughout eternity.
We enjoy salvation by the grace of God, but this parable warns that God expects us to manifest at least some small portion of that grace in our relationships with our Christian brothers and sisters. Our eternal security is at stake.
This parable tells of free grace—but not cheap grace.
Matthew 18:35. SO MY HEAVENLY FATHER WILL ALSO DO TO YOU
35“So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds.”
Suddenly Jesus is no longer telling a story about a distant king but is speaking directly to his disciples—and to us. He repeats the warning that he issued earlier in his Sermon on the Mount. There he taught us to ask God to forgive our trespasses, but warned, “But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (6:15).
Now he says that we must forgive from our hearts—not superficially or half-heartedly. That is the kind of forgiveness exudes warmth—that is likely to end in an embrace—that celebrates the end of the rift. There is nothing stingy about this forgiveness.
How can we manage to forgive like that, especially when we have suffered a grievous injury at the hands of the offender? Forgiveness from the heart is possible only by the grace of God. First, we need to understand at a deep level how God has forgiven us. Second, we need to pray for God to imbue us with his grace so that we can forgive the person who has sinned against us.
• If we forgive our brother or sister from our heart, how can we keep tabs to justify getting even later?
• If we forgive our brother or sister from the heart, how can we claim to forgive but not forget?
• If we forgive our brother or sister from the heart, how can we demand recompense for that which we have forgiven?
• If we forgive our brother or sister from the heart, how can we do anything other than to love them and to find pleasure in the reconciliation that our forgiveness has made possible?
A major purpose served by this radical requirement for forgiveness is harmony within the church. In verses 15-20, Jesus required us to seek out any Christian brother or sister with whom we had issues in an attempt to resolve those issues. Now he requires us to forgive our Christian brothers and sisters over and over and over again. Just imagine how frequently the cause of Christ is set back by our grudges and resentments. Just imagine how much more effective the church’s witness would be if we Christians practiced these two disciplines—seeking to resolve issues with fellow Christians and forgiving fellow Christians. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if we would do that!
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Long, Thomas G., Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
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Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992)
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