Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 18.21-35
Proper 19 - Year A

Other texts: 

This text has two major sections:

1. The question by Peter and Jesus' answer (vv. 21-22)

2. The three-part parable and conclusion (vv. 23-35)

a. The king and the servant (vv. 23-27)

b. The servant and fellow servants (vv. 28-31)

c. The king and the servant (vv. 32-34)

d. Conclusion (v. 35)

The larger context of these sayings is that of "Matthew's advice to a divided community" (a phrase from William Thompson's book, Matthew's Advice, quoted by Bernard Brandon Scott in Hear Then the Parable). Scott goes on: "The first verse, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' sets out the theme of chapter 18" [p. 268]. These verses are not in the context of a Christian's relationship to the world, but a Christian's relationship with others in the fellowship. This "insider" context is supported by adelphos = "brother [and sister]" = "fellow members of the community/family" in Peter's question; and by syndoulos = "fellow slave or servant" in the parable, implying that there was some kind of connection between the slaves -- probably working for the same lord =? servants of the same God.

This "insider" context suggests that these verses are not really applicable to the context of terrorists and 9/11. Peter is not asking how many times we should forgive them, but since this text occurs on 9/11 this year, preachers should probably deal with the issue of forgiveness and terrorism. How should believers respond to evil people in the world?


There is a parallel passage in Luke 17:3-4 with some significant differences: "Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive."

First of all, in Luke, Jesus is not answering a question from Peter. He just speaks to his disciples. However, the situational context of his words are the same -- how to respond when a member of the community sins. (Note that it doesn't say, "Against you," as in Matthew)

Secondly, Matthew says nothing about rebuking the sinner nor the need for the sinner to repent prior to forgiveness!

This raises a pertinent question: Does repentance need to precede forgiveness? I find that this is extremely important with abuse victims/survivors. Some cannot find it in their hearts to forgive the abuser. My response in such cases has been to state that we do not have to forgive the unrepentant. Until abusers (or any sinner) has "re-thought" (a definition of metanoia) their actions and come to recognize them as sins against God and against others and felt grief over those sins, I'm not sure that the sinned-against person needs to be forgiving.

On the other hand, I've read articles that state the opposite -- that as Christians we need to be forgiving towards all who have sinned against us whether or not they are repentant. Our attitude of forgiveness is not for the other person's sake, but for our own well-being. This seems to be Matthew's emphasis. Holding deeply held grudges affects me more than the begrudged person. Forgiveness heals me. It can remove my inner turmoil and desires for revenge. Forgiving the other doesn't restore the relationship, but it needs to precede any chance of reconciliation.

In addition, there is a sense where the promise of forgiveness is needed prior to repentance. If we assume that we will be punished for making mistakes; we are much less likely to admit to the "punisher" that we've made mistakes. We will hide them. We will find ways to spin a positive slant to our actions -- or just lie about them. The only time "repentance" (metanoia) is used in Romans, it has the order of kindness preceding repentance: "Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" [2:4b]

What does it mean, "to forgive"? Literally, aphiemi means "to send away" or "to make apart". A graphic image I've used is if sin is "missing the mark" -- not hitting the perfect bulls-eye, forgiveness is "removing" or "taking away" all the errant arrows that have missed perfection. Nothing imperfect remains. They have been "sent away" -- "removed".

In terms of reconciliation, we might say that forgiveness "sends away" whatever has been keeping people apart. This doesn't mean that the people will be reconciled. One may keep holding a grudge -- keeping up the barrier that separates the two.

Forgiving one's self is being released from whatever keeps one "bound". Anger or feelings of vengeance are "sent away." By forgiving, one is no longer under the control of that past sinful act he/she suffered. In recent years I have defined forgiveness as "Not letting past sinful behaviors (whether my own or what was done to me) determine how I will act and feel in the present." It is being released from the control those past events and feelings had over me.

Forgiveness also implies that there is something to forgive. The conversation, "What's wrong." "Oh, nothing!" doesn't lend itself to forgiveness. Forgiveness implies that someone has sinned. Someone has failed another in some way. It might be disobedience. It might be hurting one's feelings. It might be little failures, e.g., forgetting a special day or the assigned ushers and greeters failing to show up at worship. Whether it's something big or tiny, the need for forgiveness means somebody has done something wrong.

There is a play I have based on this text called, "Seventy times Seven Equals Four-Hundred-Ninety, But Then...POW!" In the play the husband has a chalkboard in their apartment where he is keeping count of the number of times he has forgiven his wife. Every time she would do something that would upset him, such as having scrambled eggs on Sunday, when she knows that Sunday is the day for eggs sunny-side-up, the husband would yell a little bit, then take off his glasses, walk over the board, but on a white glove, pick up the piece of chalk, place another mark on the board, and say, "I forgive you." Then he puts down the chalk, takes off the white glove, puts on his glasses and exuberantly walks back to where he was.

I am fairly certain that forgiving 490 times (or 77 times) and then...Pow! is not what Jesus had in mind. Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) writes: "Whoever counts has not forgiven at all, but is only biding his or her time (1 Co 13:5)" [p. 380]. Not all translations will capture the connection in the reference 1 Cor 13, which is literally: "[love] does not keep a record of wrong." Love does not keep count.


In contrast to the above paragraph, the parable begins with a king who has kept a record of debts and wants "paybacks". He keeps count.

There are a number of indications that this is a Gentile king.

1. The huge sum of money (10,000 talents) could only be explained as being tax revenue from a very powerful king. It is much more than King Herod received each year from all his territories (around 900 talents).

2. The king is "worshiped" by the slave (v. 26), something impossible for a Jew.

3. Jewish law prohibited the wife and family from being sold into slavery.

4. While Jewish law allowed a man to be imprisoned for debt, it didn't allow him to be tortured [basinistai in v. 34 is literally "torturers"].

At the beginning of the story, points 2 and 3 above could feed Jewish prejudices about the heathen Gentiles who have false worship and cruel punishments. The other side of degrading the others in the story is the feeling of Jewish superiority.

However, the hearers' expectations of punishment are not realized when the king "has pity" (splagchnizomai) on that servant. Elsewhere in Mt, this emotion is only shown by Jesus (9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34).

There are two results of this pity:

The king "releases" (apoluo) the servant, which is closely related to luo -- the "loosening" that we can do on earth (v. 18). In this context, I think it refers to canceling the order to have him and his family and his property sold. He was "free" to return home and resume his servant duties.

The king "forgives" (aphiemi) the loan -- the same word used by Peter in asking how many times he should "forgive" in v. 21. In this context, it means canceling the debt, (although it is called "a loan" in v. 27). Note also that the word in v. 24 for "debtor" or "one who owed" (opheiletes) is only found elsewhere in Matthew at 6:12 -- in the Lord's Prayer where it is also connected with forgiveness.

Does the king represent God? Yes, in the sense that God is merciful and forgiving. However, those attributes can be misunderstood.


Comparing the first two scenes:

first second
king & servant servant & fellow servant
unpayable debt payable debt (1/600,000 the size of the first)
forgiveness punishment

The "superior" Jewish hearers, like us, would probably pass judgment on the forgiven but unforgiving servant. They and we are likely to identify with the other fellow servants who are greatly distressed and report what had happened to the king. They "tattle" on their fellow servant. We might ask about them and us, "Have they/we acted properly?" The next section suggests, "Maybe not."


The situation in this section is almost unthinkable. Scott (Hear then the Parable) writes:

The punishment's harshness creates a disturbance for consistency building. It corresponds to the extremeness of the debt. Both the punishment and the size of the debt shatter the everyday and are parts of the literary pattern of defamiliarization. But the excessiveness is compounded because an oriental king has gone back on his word: he has taken back his forgiveness and has reinstated the original debt. In the Hellenstic world such an act threatens to destroy the ordered world. With the solidarity of the patron and client violated, the king moves outside the law and all are at risk.

... If a king can take back his forgiveness, who is safe? But the disturbance goes deeper. The fellow servants' reporting is like the first servant's own activity. In the end the fellow servants have behaved in the same way he did; they failed to forgive and demanded punishment. [pp. 277-8]

Thus the earlier question: "Have those servants acted properly?"

Does the analogy of the king and God still hold up? Would God ever take back forgiveness? If the king does take back forgiveness, then he really didn't cancel the debt. He is keeping count, contrary to v. 22. It also means that he did not really forgive the servant. He didn't really cancel the debt. He didn't tear up the IOU and throw it away.

It may be that the key to this section is the necessity of showing mercy as the king had shown mercy (v. 33). That is a theme throughout Matthew.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (5:7).

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice." (9:13; 12:7)

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices -- mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law -- justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former" (22:23).

However, "showing mercy" is not always a simple matter. In the parable, being merciful for the one servant would mean that he forgave the other servant's debt and his own debt had been forgiven.

What does "being merciful" mean for the other fellow servants?

They were not merciful towards the unforgiving servant. Their actions resulted in eternal punishment for him. However, if they had been merciful towards the unforgiving servant and not reported his unmerciful cruelty, it would mean not showing mercy towards their fellow servant who had been thrown into prison. Could they overlook what had been done to their fellow servant -- even if the punishment was just and deserved?

What does it mean that we are to be merciful towards fellow church members as God has been merciful towards us? How do we do justice and show mercy? I think this parable puts us in a very messy situation.

The king's emotion of "pity" (v. 27) becomes "anger" (v. 34). On one hand, this is an unacceptable emotion: "But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment" (Mt 5:22). On the other hand, it is the same emotion of another king in another parable when the guests invited to the wedding banquet refuse to accept the invitation (Mt 22:7). The actions of the enraged kings in the parables seem excessive -- eternal torture in our text; destruction and murder in the other.

A similar punishment and situation is found in 5:25-26: "Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny."

Carter (Matthew and the Margins) interprets the king's actions as one of protecting his honor:

The king's reaction has to be understood in the same context of imperial power. The slave's ruthless act has shamed the king by exposing him to be somewhat soft. While the king's forgiveness of the debt served him well, it could also be interpreted as weakness. In contrast, the slave's act is quite unambiguous. The slave has shown himself to be better at, more ruthless at, the imperial game than the king. Doing so of course dishonors the king. The slave has now twice exposed the king to ridicule. His act is a challenge to the king's honor. The king's response is clear. He revokes his "pity" and tortures the slave, the perennial punishment of tyrants. Removing the slave prevents another such situation and shows that the king is not weak but powerful and ruthless. [p. 374]

I ask again: Does the king represent God? Again, I think that the answer is yes. If we begin to think that God's mercy and forgiveness implies that anything goes or that God is soft, we are mistaken.

The real focus in the parable is "on forgiveness between people, on how disciples who have encountered God's reign treat one another" [Carter, p. 371].

Why did the slave treat his fellow-slave in the way he did? Didn't he understand the mercy and forgiveness he had received? Carter, using ideas from Herzog (Parables as Subversive Speech, 143-44), suggests that the real issue was power not money. (If the slave even had a small percentage left of the 10,000 talents, he would not have needed the small amount the other slaved owed him.) This first slave, by begging for pity from the king, had become vulnerable; he was weak and worthless before the king. He had no power or authority when standing there, deep in debt before the king. He regains power by demanding repayment from the fellow-slave and imprisonment when he cannot pay. He will not give up this power over others. It would seem that if he wants to play a "power game," the king will always win.

In earlier notes on this text, I had written, "While I am not in favor of the tactic of 'scaring the hell out of people' to encourage them to become believers." However, that is not what this text is about. It's not about making converts. It's about how believers are to live together. There is the possibility of punishment for improper conduct -- even for believers.

I think that contemporary congregations do not take seriously enough the type of life its members are to have with each other -- which should be different than the way we relate to "outsiders". In our parable, the analogy is that the punishment is for a servant of God who fails to act properly towards a fellow servant. (The question still remains whether or not the other servants acted properly by "tattling" on the unforgiving one.)

The emphasis on the community's relationship is underscored by the last verse where the punishment is promised to those who do not forgive their "brothers and sisters" from their hearts. We are obligated to forgive our fellow believers from our hearts. Whereas the opening of our text with Peter's question centered on the quantity of forgiveness, this last verse centers on the quality of forgiveness. It has to be real. It has to be more than just words.

Carter's closing comments on this passage are:

Forgiveness is a normative practice within the community of disciples....

God's empire is like any other reign in that there is accountability and punitive consequences for disobeying the ruler. To ignore Jesus' teaching on forgiveness means eschatological consequences. [p. 375]

A struggle that I have encountered is with people who have been so hurt by another person that they don't want to be forgiving towards them. Some have admitted that they should, but they just can't. I haven't come up with a good response to them. Are they threatening their eternal destiny by failing to forgive?

Another struggle I've had to deal with in the past is with reimbursement expenses that the church I was serving had been unable to pay me -- some of which went back more than a year. Should I be merciful and forgiving -- and let them off the hook for this financial obligation? Should I continue to press the issue that they need to live up to their financial obligations? I've known pastors who have not received a full paycheck when their congregations were short of money. Should they forgive that "debt"? Should they demand what is due to them? What is the proper way for a pastor to act towards a congregation in such a circumstance? What is the proper way for the members to act towards the pastor? There is also the additional concern about the proper way for me to act towards the unknown pastor who might follow me?

A related issue many clergy face is compensation packages that are below guidelines or inadequate. What are the proper actions by laity and clergy in such situations? How do we manage the tension between justice and forgiveness? Is it right for us to "tattle" on congregations who are not being just in their financial compensations? Or should we just forgive them?

Is forgiveness, e.g., the canceling of a financial obligation, always the appropriate response of a Christian towards a fellow believer? (We had a family who had to file a lawsuit against another member for failure to pay for the remodeling that he had done. The family had taken out a loan for the remodeling, but spent it on other things, then failed to pay the contractor. Was he right to seek the compensation that he was owed? Should he have just forgiven this "debt" from a fellow member?) Can forgiving another's sin be letting them "off the hook" too easily -- that they don't learn to be responsible for their own actions and the pains they may cause? As I said earlier, this parable makes life in the church quite messy.

In many ways, this text raises more questions than it answers concerning our life together as children of God. Perhaps the basic application of this text is to indicate that all of us fail to be as merciful and forgiving as God requires of us towards each other. We are not superior to any other believers. There are no "greatests" in the kingdom of heaven. We cannot "lord" it over others. However, this sinfulness exposed in us is precisely why we are in need of God's never-failing mercy and forgiveness.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901