Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35
When Jesus taught (as often as not) he taught in parables.
He did this in part to meet the “prophetic” declaration of Psalm 78 to open the mouth in parables and “dark sayings of old” (Psalm 78:2, cf. Matthew 13:35), and in part because it was a means of separating those with ears to hear and those with hardened hearts (cf. Matthew 13:10-17). But some parables, apparently, are less unclear than others.
This particular parable in Matthew 18:23-35, which compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who is intent on settling his debts, is neither opaque nor particularly difficult to translate for the modern context. God as banker, parent, or even loan shark, works to convey the same harsh irony of the story in which a king forgives much but the one of whom much is forgiven forgives nothing. This parable is in no way unclear, or difficult to comprehend (unlike the parable of the lost sheep which is counter-intuitive; the parable of the sower which needs explanation in the text of the gospel itself; or the treasure hidden in a field which is almost nonsensical).
This may be because it is directed to the inner circle of disciples and is not meant to confuse or challenge the thinking of the crowds. Or it may be because it is in direct response to Peter’s question about the nature and need for forgiveness which opens the selected passage. Whatever the rhetorical reason(s) may be, this parable is relatively clear. We are exhorted to forgive as we have been forgiven. The parable itself needs little if anything in the way of explanation, and the preacher’s most challenging task may be to simply let the parable speak for itself without trying too hard to open, interpret, or expound upon it. Let the text be what it is.
With that in mind I offer two different thoughts about forgiveness in conversation with the parable of the unforgiving servant.
First. Forgiveness in this parable is both an extravagant and a precious thing. An equation of the respective debts that are in play here can be helpful. A “talent” is a measure of weight, close to about 130 lbs, which could be used for gold and silver (and presumably other precious metals). In monetary terms then the talent has to do with a weight of (most likely) silver, and was roughly equal to about 15 years worth of wages for the typical worker. The king in our parable is owed 10,000 talents, or about 150,000 years worth of income, which works out to more than 3,000 financial life sentences.
This is no little debt. A denarius (plural = denarii) is a small silver coin that was roughly the daily wage for the typical worker. The slave in our parable is owed 100 denarii. This is no trifling debt, but neither is it earth-shattering. As the parable is essentially comparative, comparing the relative values of debts owed might serve to bring the point of parable more sharply to bear.
One talent is equal to 5,475 denarii. In the backwards thinking of the king the equation looks like this: T x 104 < FS; where FS is the life of the forgiven slave, and T is the talent, the wages of sin. In the kingdom of heaven forgiveness is exponentially powerful. Even 10,000 talents worth of guilt and debt are counted as nothing compared to the new life of the forgiven sinner.
In the backwards thinking of the unforgiving servant the equation is reversed when it is applied to someone else: US < d x 102; where US is the life of the unforgiven slave, and d is the denarius, the debt the first slave clings to as his right. To put the comparative equation simply, in the eyes of the sinner 100 coins are more precious than the life of another human being; in the eyes of God 54,750,000 coins (the equivalent value of 10,000 talents in denarii) are nothing to be considered next to the fate of the sinner. Forgiveness, as laid out in this parable, is extravagant in the extreme, and more precious by far than the wages of sin.
Second. Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew is not only relational it is reciprocal and reliant. When teaching his disciples to pray Jesus would have us say, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). This fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is echoed in the lesson of this parable about the kingdom, reflecting it back in reverse. We ought to forgive as our King has forgiven us, Jesus says.
In answering the disciples’ request for help in praying Jesus teaches them that forgiveness — both the giving and the receiving of it — is reciprocal, one cannot have it without doing it. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). In answering Peter’s request for help in understanding how far forgiveness needs to go Jesus teaches that God’s forgiveness surpasses both our deserving and our comprehension of it; we who have first been forgiven must, therefore and thereupon, forgive those who have wronged us so much more lightly.
The point of this parable is clear, and its demands both in the context of the Gospel of Matthew and its application in our congregations today is urgent. Forgiveness lies at the heart of our faith in God and our love of one another. Forgiveness, which we receive from God our King in the person of Jesus is what our King expects from his subjects in their dealings with each other.
Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors; as a prayer this puts the emphasis on what we will receive in turn for the forgiveness we have offered. Forgive your brother or sister from your heart; the parable turns the tables, teaching us that we have been first forgiven and encouraging us to forgive in turn. Taken together, this is a composite picture of the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom we practice, both of which are driven by forgiveness.