Jesus illustrates his view of unending mercy with a parable demonstrating how the real disciple has experience unlimited forgiveness and therefore should extend unlimited forgiveness to others.
In the story, a king forgives a great debt owed him by his servant (v. 23-27). The details of the parable are hyperbolic: a servant owes his master far more than he can possibly repay. The context may be the “court of the Gentiles” rather than the Galilean Jewish context of Jesus (suggested by Keener, Matthew, 457). This does not take away from the authenticity since most Jews would have a general knowledge of the way things usually went in a Gentile court.
The person who owes the great debt is a slave. Most modern readers wonder how a slave could incur such a massive debt. Although the word can refer to court officials and people with power, something that can always be turned into wealth. Perhaps Jesus has in mind a corrupt Herodian bureaucrat who has used his position to make himself wealthy, but has instead lost the Herod’s court a massive amount of money. Slaves could be in important roles in the Empires, so that they could accumulate wealth and power, even if they were in a master-slave relationship with the Emperor.
The debt is unimaginably large: ten thousand talents. A “talent” is a standard weight, so this might be a talent of gold, silver, copper, etc. Most scholars assume a talent of silver here, which was worth approximately 6,000 denarii. Since he owed ten thousand talents, the debt is sixty million denarii. If a denarius was the standard wage for a day laborer, then this debt represents nearly 200,000 years of labor, if interest on the debt, then the average laborer could not possibly work enough to pay off the debt.
Even if we assuming the slave was in a position to invest, take bribes, sell favors, etc., he could raise more money, but the debt is intentionally so large even the wealthiest person could not possible pay it back. If Bill Gates owed ten trillion dollars he could not pay off the debt!
In verse 27 Matthew uses a word which usually means a loan. It is possible the man took money from his mater, invested it badly, lost the capital and then accrued massive interest on the loan. John Nolland points out the annual income of Herod’s kingdom when he died in 4 B.C. was about 900 talents, to be divided between his sons (Nolland, Matthew, 756). This servant’s debt is more than ten times the value of Herod’s kingdom. In fact, the word translated as ten-thousand is often translated, “myriad,” an uncountable number. Maybe a modern gloss would be to say he owed “a bazillion dollars.” Bazillion is a made up word that simply means an uncountable, hyperbolic number.
The master responds as any wealthy Roman would, he intends to sell everything the slave owns, including his family into slavery. This is an entirely believable, appropriate, and fair response in the Roman world! The man’s wife and family were probably already slaves owned by the master, if he were to sell them on the open market, he might generate 500-2000 denarii each (Jeremias, Parables, 211). The slave may not own very much property himself, so the threat to sell everything will not come close to covering the debt.
The servant “fell on his knees,” or better, “did obeisance.” Imploring (προσκυνέω) does not express the depth of this man’s actions before the master. Although it often means worship, it can used “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG). In Matthew, this is the word used in the temptation of Jesus, Satan demands Jesus worship him (Matt 4:10, Luke 4:8), but also the wise men who want to worship Jesus (2:2), but also the disciples who witness Jesus’s control of the storm (14:22, “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” In Matthew 28:9, after the resurrection, the disciples once again fall to the ground in worship of Jesus.
The servant cries out, “Have patience on me” (μακροθυμέω). This is a plea for more time to pay off the debt. Since there is no earthly way to pay off this debt, the man is asking for a “stay of execution” (Nolland, Matthew, 757).
His plea is successful, the master releases the servant from his debt. In Matthew 18:27 the debt is called a loan (τὸ δάνειον). Since the word is only used in this passage, it might be a variation of vocabulary, or it might be a hint of how the man got into such deep debt in the first place. In either case, this is an audacious act of mercy, one which would have surprised the audience of poor Galileans! People who own debts do not usually forgive them. (Imagine calling up your bank and explaining you have no way to pay your mortgage. He banker may try to help you find a way to pay, but they will probably not forgive what you owe. They will seize your house and resell it to recoup the debt!)
The servant has therefore experienced an audacious act of mercy and has been released from the bondage of his debt. Does this make any differences in his attitude toward those who owe him a debt?
The servant who received audacious grace went out and found the servant who owned him money. This is not a random encounter, he went out of his way to find the servant and force him to pay the debt. The verb “found” is common, but Jesus used it in 18:13 or the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep and finds him. When he found someone who owed him money, he seized the servant and began to choke him (imperfect used for the beginning of an ongoing action). The image is also hyperbolic, imagine the unmerciful servant grabbing him around the neck to strangle him in order to make him pay. (I imagine Homer Simpson choking Bart!)
The fellow servant asks for forgiveness, using the exact same words as the unmerciful servant. He also asks for more time to raise the cash to pay the debt, the unmerciful servant is not willing to extend him additional time to pay. The debt is large, but not unmanageable. One hundred denarii would represent about three month’s wages for an average day laborer. But debt is relative, for someone making virtually nothing, one hundred denarii is impossible to repay. Since the servant cannot pay his debt, the unmerciful servant has his put in the same prison in which he was going to go if he had not been shown mercy by his master.
When the king hears what this unmerciful servant has done, he demands the servant pay his entire debt (v. 31-34). This is the point of the parable, the other servants see what this man has done and were “greatly distressed.” This word (λυπέω) can refer to emotional or physical pain, but may have the sense of “offended” in this context. It is modified by σφόδρα, an adverb which is much stronger than “very.” Matthew just used this phrase (ἐλυπήθησαν σφόδρα) in 17:23. After Jesus predicts his impending death, the disciples were “greatly distressed.” In 19:25, the disciples are “greatly distressed” when Jesus tells the rich man to sell everything and follow him. When Jesus declares one of his disciples will betray him, they are all “greatly distressed” (26:22). At the crucifixion, those who witnessed the earthquake were “greatly afraid” (ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα, 27:54).
The master hand demonstrated extreme compassion and mercy, but now he is angry (v. 33) and condemns this wicked servant. There are a number of parables with this same language, a servant is judged for failing to do the masters will and is punished (often by being sent out into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, Matthew 25:26). Here the wicked servant is given to the punishment he always deserved, a debtor’s prison. The master became angry, as did the king in Matthew 22:7 (and destroyed the city of those who had refused the invitation to the wedding feast, both passive forms of ὀργίζω).
So it is with God! Matthew 18:35 says “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (ESV). If we have been forgiven such a great debt of sin, why would we dare to withhold mercy and grace to those who offend us! There is a threat here, if we are not forgiving to those who offend us, then the Father will not forgive us!
The context of this parable is dealing with “someone who sins against you” (18:15-20). The point of the parable is not to calculate just how much abuse you will able to take with each and every person, but to forgive everyone even if that forgiveness is socially unacceptable.
What effect will this kind of forgiveness have on a Christian community? It is possible some person will abuse mercy and offend over and over again. But coupled with the previous teaching on confronting those who sin within a congregation, Jesus’s point is not to coddle the unrepentant sinner who refuses to listen to the community (kick that person out!) Jesus wants his followers to be genuinely forgiving, merciful and gracious.
3 thoughts on “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant – Matthew 18:23-35”
The parable communicates with the remainder of chapter 18. The words of Jesus in v. 22 and the implications of non-forgiveness in the parable suggest that forgiveness can not be reduced. The parable, however, still notes that there are limitations to forgiveness. The servant reveals that he is not capable of gaining mercy by his unmerciful and unforgiving conduct toward his fellow servant. The parable holds the need to provide mercy in conflict and the circumstances under which forgiveness becomes minimal. Somehow, the parable both requires forgiveness and asserts that it is not always easy to forgive. Fellow-servants appearing in v. 31 are colleagues of the forgiven servant, as onlookers. His harsh abuse of another fellow-servant who owes him money has been observed. This would be the church as fellow servants who know of a domestic violent relationship. We would want that abuser to be punished because we know that abuse is wrong but we are not forgiving or trying to help that abuser much like the other servants who saw the unforgiving servant punish the one who owed him after the king was very gracious and merciful towards him.
Professor Long, the way that you are able to break down the true meaning of the debt of the unmerciful servant based on historical context allows me to better understand the depravity of the slave and therefore the depravity of all sinners. Prior to this analysis I am not sure that I understood the unachievable retribution for our sins when we plainly see our debt. I wonder if those who received the gospel of Matthew, who were the intended audience, understood this parable and the deep depiction of depravity. I am provoked to these thoughts as Karen Jobes’, author of Letters to the Church, writes in her introduction: “when we read the New Testament epistles, we are actually reading letters originally sent to other people who were in a much better position to understand them” (Jobes, p. 12-13). Where I fail to truly understand Jesus’ message, the severity of the burden lifted off that unmerciful servant, it is likely that the Jew and Gentile audience of The Period of Gospel Origins- The Period of Doctrinal and Ecclesial Unification (Jobes, 2-3), could better gather the situation and message of the author.
This is why it is important to be a part of the work of biblical studies. Biblical studies defined by Jobes as “a task involving a wide range of disciplines” such as “ancient languages, historical methods, sociology, classical rhetoric, and literary analysis” (Jobes, p.13). By utilization of all these tools you professor Long are able to dissect the purpose, message, and challenge of Matthew 18. The same methods may be applied to the rest of the chapter as Jesus addresses forgiveness and servanthood.
Your writing in combination with Jobes’ introduction reminds me that it is not enough to read the bible, canonical scripture, and to apply it to my life based on my own thoughts and understanding. Much more so we must look at the word through the historical lens of the time in which the passage was written to better understand the meaning and applicable principles. Without the historical context specifically related to this passage I miss the true nature of my debt (Matthew 18: 23-27), the significance of the relationship between servant and master, revelation of the nature of God, and the qualities of justice we see in God (Matthew 18:31-34). It is pivotal that we also remember that because scripture is God breath, his divine word, the way that the author writes scripture is also the way “God intended it” (Jobes, p.13).