Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35
Chapter 18 of Matthew presents the fourth of five major discourses of Jesus in this Gospel. The chapter offers practical wisdom on relationships within the community of disciples Jesus is forming. The culture of this community will feature humility (verses 1-5), mercy or forgiveness (verses 12-14, 21-35), and accountability (verses 6-10, 15-20, 23-35). The interplay between the demands of mercy and justice forms an intriguing challenge for the interpreter and preacher who works with the parable of the forgiven, unforgiving servant (verses 23-35), together with its narrative setup in a dialogue between Jesus and Peter about the limits of forgiveness (verses 21-22).
Unlimited forgiveness? Matthew 18:21-22
Peter has just heard Jesus sketch a process for holding members of the disciple-community accountable for actions that have brought harm. Commitment to justice-seeking is important, but Peter wonders how far mercy should extend: should I forgive my sibling (fellow community member) as many as seven times? Jesus replies with a summons to radical forgiveness: not seven times but seventy-seven (the phrase may also be translated seventy times seven)—which is to say, stop keeping count! Compassionate mercy defines the ministry of Jesus, as it does the character of God, and it is to be emulated by persons and communities of faith. However, like the preceding passage, the parable that follows Peter’s Q & A with Jesus balances the radical summons to forgiveness with an insistence on accountability and just relations.
Mercy versus justice? Matthew 18:23-35
Verse 23 introduces the parable and its king as somehow illuminating the character of God’s reign (“heaven’s realm,” as Matthew often puts it). The king (who is also called kyrios, “lord” or “master”) undertakes a review of the account books of all his enslaved servants. But the focus is on one servant in particular, evidently a highly placed administrator who has managed to accumulate a financial obligation of staggering size. His debt of 10,000 talents combines the largest monetary unit and the largest numerical value in his world. We might think conservatively of billions of dollars today. The story unfolds in four scenes, with surprises at every turn.
- Extravagant compassion (verses 24-27): the servant, unable to pay what he owes and facing imprisonment (and even the forced sale of his family and possessions), pleads for more time. The master stuns servant—and reader—by canceling the debt! Compassion, not harsh judgment, prevails.
- Compassion denied (verses 28-30): immediately after his unexpected escape from catastrophe, the forgiven servant accosts a fellow servant who owes him a modest debt (100 denarii, amounting to something like four or five months of wages for a laborer). Despite the debtor’s plea for more time (the same line that worked on the king-master), the creditor-servant refuses even this request and has the man imprisoned.
- Whistleblowers (verse 31): this withholding of mercy distresses the other servants, and they file a complaint with the king.
- Reckoning (verses 32-34): The king-master’s compassion gives way to rage. He summons the heartless servant and reinstates the unpayable debt in full. The story had every chance to have a happy ending, but it ends in (well-deserved) disaster, in the abusing hands of the torturers (think of the tormentors of incarceration in Harry Potter).
Verse 35 offers Jesus’ commentary on the parable. He reinforces his earlier caution (6:14-15) that any who expect forgiveness from God are to be already practitioners of mercy themselves. Each one of us is called to forgive from the heart—soulfully, from the center of our being.
The preacher’s dilemma
This a difficult parable! Readers may experience whiplash as the narrative swings back and forth between extreme mercy and severe judgment. Underneath it all, perhaps, is a simple reality: forgiveness is not easy. Wise and pastorally sensitive preaching on this passage will not pretend that it is. To be sure, Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes the importance of forgiveness in the lives of individuals and for the health of communities: blessing comes to those who are merciful (5:7). Yet justice matters too. There is and needs to be accountability for harmful actions and abuses of power.
Matthew tells us that in some way this parable shows us the reign of God. But how so? If we follow uncritically the cues that lead us to identify the parable’s king with God, then we have a theological problem! Does God expect us to forgive and go on forgiving, while God harshly punishes the unmerciful? How do communities of faith practice both mercy and justice? Recent and contemporary models may offer constructive pointers. Perhaps the most powerful and instructive model is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, guided by Bishop Desmond Tutu. Reconciliation entails both the offer of forgiveness and the naming and acceptance of responsibility for wrongful, wounding conduct. This approach to mercy and justice is congruent with Jesus’ call in Matthew 18 as a whole: while the faith community prioritizes grace and mercy, it also holds its members accountable for what they do to others.
The incongruous action of the forgiven yet unforgiving servant in this parable does make some sense in a culture in which reciprocity of obligation structured social relations. Yet the servant doesn’t realize that his experience of radical generosity obligates him not toward the master but in relation to others. What is now asked of him? To extend grace outward to others. He is to pay it forward, not back! Whatever quibbles we may have about this parable and the God-image Matthew seems bent on hammering home, we do have this as a take-away: as those who have benefited from the generous mercy of God, we are called to extend generous mercy to others. It’s important.