Commentary on Matthew 18:15-35
This section directs a preacher’s attention to the complicated yet ever-present relationship issues of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Matthew 18 has emphasized six community “best practices:” renouncing the quest for greatness (18:1-5), embracing the powerlessness and marginality of a child (18:4-5), not causing others or oneself to stumble in sin (18:6-9), not despising others (18:10), restoring community members who stray (18:11-14). Now it adds a process of reconciliation (18:15-20) and exhorts forgiveness (18:21-35).
For many of us, reconciliation and forgiveness are more easily said than received or offered. Matthew 18:15-17 specify a multi-step process for reconciliation. If we interpret the references in verse 17 to Gentiles and tax collectors as requiring continuing efforts, the process never ends. Surely that’s a recipe for sustained stress, continual awkwardness, and relational hostility.
The focus then moves to another dimension of reconciliation — forgiveness. Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother or sister who has wronged him (18:21). Peter does not elaborate any details. Is he asking about forgiveness for an offender who has repented and “received” the reproof offered in Matthew 18:15-17? Does the question concern forgiving an unrepentant offender? Or are both scenarios in view where the presence or absence of repentance is irrelevant?
Peter answers his own question, suggesting seven times. Jesus raises the stakes, “seventy-seven times” or as it can also be translated, “seventy times seven.” Whatever the number, whether 77 or 490, most interpreters understand that limitless forgiveness is to be the practice of Jesus-followers.
The sermon might engage questions about forgiveness that are unasked and unanswered in this brief Q-and-A. Is repentance necessary before forgiveness is extended? Is forgiveness to be offered automatically? Are any actions unforgiveable? What role do power relations and doing justice in restitution play in forgiveness?
It doesn’t get much clearer in the parable of verses 23-35. The initial “therefore” of verse 23 links the parable to the exchange between Peter and Jesus concerning limitless forgiveness (18:21-22). The parable compares the workings of the reign/empire of the heavens, manifested in Jesus’ life (see 4:17), with a typical powerful king. The fit, though, is not easy.
The parable has three scenes. In the first (18:23-27), the king has slave-officials with administrative and financial skills. They are charged with collecting tax and tributes. The amount of ten thousand talents is a large but not unrealistic amount from a district. But the slave-official cannot assert the king’s authority to raise the money (18:25a). This failure exposes the king as weak.
The king reasserts his authority (18:25b). He harshly punishes the slave-official, his wife, and children. But the slave-retainer knows how to work the system. He falls before the king and begs for time to accomplish the task (18:26). The king relents, shows mercy, releases him, and cancels the debt to be collected (18:27). The act is more self-serving than altruistic. The king retains the slave-official’s expertise, and renders him more “indebted” and submissive.
Act two (18:28-30) focuses on this slave-official’s behavior (18:28-30). Now the roles are reversed. He has the opportunity to forgive a subordinate who has failed to pay a much lesser debt but who begs for another chance. Instead of forgiving him, he imprisons him.
In the third scene (18:31-34), other slave-officials protest this behavior to the king. The king acts swiftly, summons the “evil slave,” and rebukes him for not extending mercy. The king withdraws his forgiveness, hands him over to be punished by torture, and reinstates his obligation to repay the debt (18:34).
What happened to the never-ending forgiveness of Matthew 18:22? The king is not behaving like God in dispensing never-ending forgiveness. Here, forgiveness is calculated, self-benefitting, and limited. The king forgives initially (18:27), but refuses to forgive a second time after just one failing (18:32-33). He then withdraws his forgiveness and replaces it with punishment (18:34).
But verse 35 is surprising. Jesus now declares that God does imitate the behavior of the tyrant king. God will treat disciples in the same way that the king treated his slave if they do not forgive. God will not forgive if a person does not forgive others. The God who indiscriminately loves has disappeared (5:45).
The basic point seems to be clear: God, who forgives, expects Jesus-followers to forgive one another; if they don’t, there will be terrible (eschatological) consequences (18:35). The same connection has been made previously in Matthew 6:12, 14-15. In popular spiritualities, God is understood to forgive freely, abundantly, repeatedly and unconditionally. That is God’s job description. Certainly, readings of this parable that identify the king as God who forgives the first slave so generously contribute to this picture.
But the rest of the parable offers two caveats. One is a connection between divine and human forgiveness. The second is that divine forgiveness is conditional. People must forgive other people to know God’s forgiveness. The parable has contributed a widespread understanding especially among Christian groups that people are to forgive offending people freely and unconditionally. In popular parlance, “forgive and forget” is common advice. Forgiveness has come to be seen as beneficial for victims and perpetrators.
The sermon might indicate it is not that simple for several reasons. Emotions are not easily tamed and there are other issues of power and justice. The parable frames forgiveness only as a top-down phenomenon from the more powerful to the less powerful. The king forgives the slave-official who should forgive his less powerful slave-official. But it does not present a scenario of a lower-status person injured by a higher-status or more powerful offender. What role do repentance and restitution (justice) play?
Is forgiveness obligatory? Discussions of intimate partner violence, whether enacted by a male or female, identify several actions for the offender: confess; evidence repentance; make restitution (justice); undergo a change of heart or identity. Then, and only then, does the abused person have one obligation, to forego revenge with forgiveness. Without the offender’s verifiable actions, the offended or abused person has no obligation to forgive.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Forgiving God, as your encouraged your people to forgive, you modeled forgiveness by releasing us from our bondage to sin. Help us to forgive others, so that we might live in harmony with all your children. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
The glory of these forty days ELW 320, H82 143
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy ELW 587, 588, H82 469, 470, UMH 121, NCH 23
Forgive our sins as we forgive ELW 605, H82 674
Lord for thy tender mercy’s sake, Richard Farrant