The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant – Matthew 18:23-35

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.

Scrooge McDuckThe 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!)

Denarius of Denarius, Octavian and Mark Antony (Ephesus in 41 B.C.)

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.

Pointing Out Someone’s Sin – Matthew 18:15-17

So far in Matthew 18 Jesus dealt with those who cause a little child to stumble (18:6-9) and the person who has wandered away from their faith (the one who has stumbled, 18:10-14). In this paragraph, Jesus addresses another related issue, a brother or sister in Christ who has some fault but has not yet stumbled and wandered away from the faith. As suggested by Craig Keener, this person may very well be a stumbling block to others, therefore they need to be addressed before they cause others to stumble (Matthew, 452).

Jesus is concerned his followers should discreetly confront those who are beginning to wander and bring them back into the flock as gently as possible. The earliest communities were very small house churches in the Jewish diaspora. As more gentiles were attracted to the Gospel, it is likely these house churches had to deal with serious conflicts between disciples of Jesus.

Total MoronThere are several difficult issues in 18:15-20. Jesus appears to lay down a process for church discipline, and Matthew’s use of church seems anachronistic. There was no church prior to the resurrection, although it is possible the word can refer to the community of Jesus followers, something like the yahad at Qumran. If this is the case, is there a direct application of the process to modern Christians as they confront one another over their faults?

Davies and Allison (Matthew 2:783) point out first that this is a serious and intentional sin, rather than a one-time insult, something which can be overlooked as a mistake or misunderstanding Second, this is a sin committed against a brother or sister in Christ. This does not apply to people outside of the church since they are not part of the family. Third, this is a private sin, rather than a public offense. If it were known by the community, then it should be dealt with by the whole community.

The disciple of Jesus should attempt to deal with personal offenses privately. The verb is the typical one expected for sin (ἁμαρτάνω, aorist subjunctive). There is nothing here which implies this is offending someone’s preferences. For example, this is not about confronting someone for wearing a bolo tie and cowboy boots to church, nor is this about coming to church with a face full of piercings and tattoos. These things are matters of (good or bad) taste and not personal sin which is damaging to one’s spiritual life.

The phrase “point out their fault” (ESV) is a single word, ἐλέγχω. This verb can have the connotation of “to scrutinize or examine carefully, bring to light, expose” (BDAG) as in Ephesians 5:13. But it is sometimes used for “express strong disapproval of someone’s action” (BDAG), to reprove or to correct someone (as in 2 Tim 4:2, “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching”).

Jesus describes an escalation from a private confrontation to a semi-private meeting, and finally to a public meeting with the church. Two or three witnesses are likely drawn from the Law (citing Deut 19:15, cf., Num 35:30). No court matter could be established by a single witness, at least one or two other witnesses were required. Paul also used this principle of two or three witnesses in 2 Corinthians 13:1 (although Paul himself was the second and third witness) and 1 Timothy 5:19 (dealing with the sin of an elder). The Second Temple document Testament of Gad also recommends a private meeting, “speaking to him in peace.”

Testament of Gad 6 Now, my children, each of you love his brother. Drive hatred out of your hearts. Love one another in deed and word and inward thoughts. For when I stood before my father I would speak peaceably about Joseph, but when I went out, the spirit of hatred darkened my mind and aroused my soul to kill him. Love one another from the heart, therefore, and if anyone sins against you, speak to him in peace. Expel the venom of hatred, and do not harbor deceit in your heart. If anyone confesses and repents, forgive him. If anyone denies his guilt, do not be contentious with him, otherwise he may start cursing, and you would be sinning doubly. In a dispute do not let an outsider hear your secrets, since out of hatred for you he may become your enemy, and commit a great sin against you. He may talk to you frequently but treacherously, or be much concerned with you, but for an evil end, having absorbed from you the venom. Even if he denies it and acts disgracefully out of a sense of guilt, be quiet and do not become upset. For he who denies will repent, and avoid offending you again; indeed he will honor you, will respect you and be at peace. 7But even if he is devoid of shame and persists in his wickedness, forgive him from the heart and leave vengeance to God.

The final step is a public confrontation with the whole congregation. In the context of the earliest followers of Jesus, this would not be a large assembly. Gatherings were small groups of believers worshiping in homes or other semi-private places. This is not a public tribunal before a crowd of hundreds. If after the first confrontation the person does not listen (μὴ ἀκούσῃ) the semi-private meeting is necessary. But if he refuses to listen (παρακούσῃ, to ignore something which has in fact been heard, BDAG) to the two or three witnesses, a public meeting is necessary. Anyone who refuses to hear a word of correction from two or three fellow disciples implies the person caught in a sin disagrees they are in sin. They do not believe their behavior (or belief) is a fault which must be corrected. Looking ahead on what “binding and loosing” means in the next saying, the person may disagree with the community decision to consider something behavior (or belief) to be sinful (or not).

If a person does not recognize their sin, the final step is to treat the offending person as a Gentile or a tax-collector. This appears harsh since the Jewish people avoided contact with Gentiles (or those who worked for them, like a tax-collector). When the disciples visited the villages of Galilee, those which rejected the disciples were treated like Gentiles (shake of the dust of their cloaks). When Paul is rejected in a synagogue, he often does the same thing to indicate he will treat those who have rejected his teaching like a Gentile.

The problem is how this works out in real life. Some people really do enjoy pointing out another person’s fault. The Internet is full of people who have nothing better to do than argue about theological issues and condemn someone’s practice of their Christian faith. Some of those issues may be legitimate, but most of the time there is condemnation without any real engagement.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about how one confronts a fellow disciple because of a sin. The disciple ought to deal with their own sin, the “log in your own eye,” before confronting someone over a minor sin, the “speck in their eye.” If the disciple of Jesus is busy dealing with their own spiritual life, then they will “see clearly” (Τότε διαβλέψεις). In Matthew 7:3-5, Jesus says the one who has dealt with a particular problem is able to gently correct a fellow disciple. To “gently correct” is the guiding principle in Matthew 18:15 as well.

Do Not Despise the Little Ones – Matthew 18:10-14

Jesus commands his followers not to despise, or “look down on,” the little ones. Although this seems fairly straight forward, there are several issues with this saying. Does Jesus teach that children have guardian angels?

First, what happened to Matthew 18:11? In the King James Version, the verse reads “For the Son of Man came to save the lost.” At some point a copiest added Luke 19:10 in order to enhance the connection between verse 10 and verses 12-14 (Morris, Matthew, 464). Most modern translations do not include the verse.

Second, the verb translate do not despise” (καταφρονέω) has a wide range of meanings, such as “not to be concerned with.” But Luz points out it is not synonymous with σκανδαλίζω, the verb used in the previous passage (cause to sin). He considers this verb “much weaker” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 440, note 27). There is therefore a shift away from causing a child to sin to simply ignoring children as unimportant.

Third, are the “little ones” in this paragraph the children from verse 5? Jesus used a word which means child in v. 5 (παιδία) but on verses 5-6 he uses a more generic term (μικροί). It appears Jesus has actual children in mind in this saying rather than his disciples.

Eh… no.

The reason no one should despise a little one is that they have an angel before the father. Does Jesus imply children have guardian angels? One problem with Christian thinking about angels is we are more influence by popular culture than the Bible. In the Bible, angels are in fact concerned for the believer, but they never are portrayed as “Harold the Angel” who is trying to earn his wings.

There is a hint of guardian angels in the Old Testament and the literature of the Second Temple period. In Psalm 91:11-13, for example, angels guard every way of the psalmist. This is the verse Satan himself quotes during Jesus’s temptation. There are several stories in the Old Testament in which people see angels (Jacob in Gen 24:7, 24:40, 48:16). There are a number of Second Temple allusions to something like a guarding angel. In Tobit 5:4-22, Tobit sees the angel Raphael, Raphael then travels with him and protects his on several occasions.

Most modern discussions of guardian angels range from sober recognition of the protection of God to new age psychobabble. For example, Ulrich Luz concludes guardian angels are part of an outdated worldview. “I am of the opinion that a modern interpretation of Matt 18:10 can simply try to take seriously the substance of the concern expressed in the language of an earlier age.” He therefore abandons “the concrete idea of guardian angels, since it is no longer self-evident to the modern mind.” But he also observes that even Martin Luther believed “it is proper and necessary to preach about the good guardian angel of children who wears a white robe and sits at the child’s crib” (Matthew 8-20, 440, note 28). This verse is sometime used to defend infant baptism, although that is a particularly theological reading of this difficult verse.

Most modern discussions of angels sounds more like new age psychobabble. In modern new age, mystical Christianity the guardian angel idea has grown into a wild eco-system of demi-gods who allegedly can be contacted, evoked and manipulated into giving you good fortune and wealth. “Guardian angels watch over you throughout your lifetime. Guardian angels provide protection, guidance and encouragement. Your guardian angel is praying for you and delivering the answers to your prayers. Your guardian angel also keeps a record of the choices you have made in your lifetime.

This is not at all what Jesus is saying! He says that the little ones have an advocate before God’s throne. By using a small child as an illustration in Matthew 18, Jesus is making a lesser-to-greater argument. If even a child receives justice before God, how much more the follower of Jesus. If there are “angels in heaven” pleading the case of little children, how much more should the true disciple of Jesus care for the lowest in their society?

This is a particularly important principle for global Christianity. In the west, there is a general sense that children are vulnerable and need to be protected, including proper health care and education. Even where this is woefully inadequate, most western countries understand the need to care for children. But in countries where care for children is not an important cultural value Christianity must take the lead and care for the child, especially those who are orphaned or have special needs.

Crippling Yourself for the Kingdom of God – Matthew 18:8-9

What does Jesus mean when he says “if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” in Matthew 18:8? Does Jesus really what his followers to cripple themselves for the Kingdom of God? One of the more disturbing sayings in the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus’s command to his disciples to cut off a hand, foot or eye is better than being sent to hell. Also he has already said it is better to pluck out an eye (5:29-30) than to enter hell with two good eyes. In that context I suggested Jesus meant “don’t let your eyes make you sin.” Jesus’s command to “cut off your hand” is an intentionally shocking saying by Jesus, although most modern readers take these commands to maim oneself as warnings intended to catch the reader off-guard and shock them.Dexter Cleaver

Was mutilation used as a punishment in the Second Temple Period? Josephus refers to the amputation of hands for forgery: “Galileans had cut off his brother’s hands on a charge of forging letters prior to the outbreak of hostilities” (Life, 177). Rather than execute a man for treason, Josephus substituted cutting off a hand: “To his urgent request to spare him one hand I grudgingly consented; at which, to save himself the loss of both, he gladly drew his sword and struck off his left hand” (Life, 34, 173, cf. JW 2.21.10; see Morna Hooker, Mark, 233).

Anyone in the Jewish audience would have been shocked at the suggestion one ought to mutilate themselves in order to avoid sin especially as a way to enter into the kingdom of God. Although there is an “eye for an eye” principle in the Law, it was not intended for self-control. Given what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount about the source of sin, would cutting off a hand or foot actually control the thoughts and desires which motive one to steal or physically harm another person?

Why the hand, foot and eye? John Nolland suggests these are the three body parts which mediate our contact with the world (Matthew, 739). The ear could be included, since it hears; the tongue is the source of much sin in the Wisdom literature, but it shows what is inside a person.

Jesus says it is better to be maimed than to enter hell, where “the fire never goes out and the worms never die. ”Gehenna” refers to the valley (ge in Hebrew) of Hinnom. Manasseh used this valley to sacrifice humans to Moloch. Josiah destroyed these altars and turned the valley into a garbage dump (2 Kings 23:10). Because fires burned continually, it became a metaphor for hell. The fire in verse 44 is “unquenchable” (ἄσβεστος), the same word used in Matthew 25:41, for the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. John the Baptist described the messiah as having his winnowing fork ready to gather the wheat into his barn and the chaff to the unquenchable fire.

Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:24, the final line of the book describe a scene of apocalyptic judgment. The metaphor appears in Judith 16:17 (probably quoting Isaiah and applying it to judgment on Assyria) and Sirach 7:17 (the ultimate punishment of the ungodly). Like all metaphors for hell, it is difficult to know how literal the image of constantly burning flesh should be taken.

Isaiah 66:24 (NRSV) And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.

Judith 16:17 (NRSV) Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the Day of Judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.

Sirach 7:17 (NRSV) Humble yourself to the utmost, for the punishment of the ungodly is fire and worms.

This gruesome metaphor is a vivid contrast to the goodness of entering into the life of the kingdom of God. But “the work of a physician who may have to amputate parts of a body” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 436).

This is a radical call to holiness; how ought it work out in the life of the believer today? Sometimes we need to separate from a particular behavior because it may cause us to sin. Some of these are very obvious and most Christians have enough sense to know to avoid the “big sins.” It is possible some behavior is socially acceptable and popular, but it puts us in a place where we sin. When I talk with teens or college age people, I talk quite a bit about entertainment choices. Most Christians have the sense to stay away from the obvious sins on the internet, but if your use of social media leads to mean-spirit talk, gossip, materialism, etc. Perhaps your phone needs to be amputated from your hand in order to enter the kingdom of God.

Sometimes it is necessary to voluntarily separate from other people because they may lead you into sin. A classic example: a person who struggles with alcoholism should not hang out with friends at a bar. But if you have a friend who constantly encourages gossip, maybe it is time to amputate that person from your life.

Woe to the One Who Tempts! Matthew 18:7

The disciples of Jesus are going to face temptations. In fact, in Matthew 18:7 he says that it is necessary for temptations to come. The word translated “temptation” in the ESV (σκάνδαλον) is the same as “cause to sin” in 18:6. The NIV 2011 renders the phrase “the things that cause people to stumble” and the NRSV has “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks.”

Temptation apple

In Matthew 18:1-9 the noun σκάνδαλον refers to putting something in the way of another person to cause them to stumble. Leviticus 19:14 is a command not to place a stumbling block (מִכְשׁוֹל, LXX σκάνδαλον) in front of the blind causing them to trip. By way of illustration, a football player to throws himself at the feet of another player to cause him to trip. Causing someone to sin may not be as intentional as this, but the result is the same, a person is led into some sin by some circumstance in this world.

In Matthew 13 the same word is used in the Parable of the Sower. The seed falling on the rocky ground has no roots so it withers up when persecution comes. This is the person who hears the gospel and seems to accept it, but something happens which causes them to fall away before they have produced fruit. Their faith is “tripped up” by trouble and temptation in this world. Does this imply the person who “trips up” another is in danger of damnation? The true disciple of Jesus is careful how they live their lives so that they do not cause another to sin. As Craig Blomberg said, “a life-style characterized by causing others to sin is incompatible with true discipleship” (Matthew, 274).  

Jesus says the origin of this kind of temptation is “the world” not the disciple of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus will encounter all sorts of things in the world which may cause them to stumble. The neuter plural σκάνδαλα can be translated “things that cause stumbling.” What are “these things” Jesus has in mind? Certainly these could include the typical sins on offer in any culture, but the phrase as Jesus uses it may allude to a particular passage in the Old Testament.

In Ezekiel 14 the elders of Jerusalem have put “stumbling blocks in front of the people” by worshiping idols. The possible intertext is mentioned by Keener (Matthew, 449). I have developed it beyond what Keener does in his commentary, even if the LXX does not use σκάνδαλον. The Hebrew word translated as “stumbling block” (מִכְשׁוֹל) is a noun built from the verb כשׁל, to reel, stagger or stumble, but it is often used to describe the result of bad leaders. In Malachi 2:8, for example, the prophet rebukes bad priests who have “have caused many to stumble by your instruction.”

Similarly, in the context of Ezekiel 14, it is the religious aristocracy in charge of the Temple who are accused of consulting idols rather than God. As a result the Lord will “set his face against them” and no longer guide them at all. He will cut off the one who is leading the people astray “from the midst of my people.” If Jesus has a text like Ezekiel 14 in mind, then he may have in mind leaders who cause people under their leadership to sin. Just as the priests in Ezekiel 14 were leading God’s people into the extreme offense of idolatry, so too it is possible some leaders in Matthew’s community were leading their congregations into behaviors or beliefs which prevent them from actually hearing the Gospel.

Like a Hebrew prophet, Jesus pronounces “woe” on those who cause a little one to stumble. “Woe” expresses anguish or distress, like the old English use of the word “Alas!” It appears in Hebrew as הוֹי or  אוֹי and is used in the prophets frequently in the context of judgment. The one who causes others to sin face serious judgment (looking ahead to the hand or foot which causes one to sin).

It is easy enough to draw the analogy to later theological aberrations which understood Jesus in a way which could prevent someone from a full understanding of the Gospel, or a later behavioral aberration which is offensive to God. In a modern context. It is very easy point out examples of pastors and teachers who have been so utterly hypocritical that their congregations may never hear the simple Gospel of Jesus. All of these can be a temptation which causes the little ones to sin.

In the passage, therefore, Jesus warns his disciples they are responsible for the flocks assigned to them and they will be held responsible for their well-being.