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Kingdom Forgiveness
Verse Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35

Jirair Tashjian

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 seventy-sevenfold forgiveness.

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 story.

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 and there.

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 5:45).

-Jirair Tashjian, Copyright © 2013, Jirair Tashjian
and The Christian Resource Institute - All Rights Reserved
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