Matthew 18:21-35

Unforgiving Servant Detail The Unforgiving Servant Unforgiving Servant Detail
"The Unforgiving Servant" by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube.


There is a serious difference between Stoeckhardt and Kretzmann on the one hand, and Lenski on the other hand, with reference to verses 15 and 21. With reference to verse 21 we quote Stoeckhardt.

Stoeckhardt: Now the Lord deals with an opposite case, how we are to deal with a brother who has sinned against us, but repents of his sin and apologizes, even without us admonishing him.
Kretzmann: The entire discourse (verses 15-20) had really concerned the question of dealing with an  erring brother. The need of saving the brother, if there were any possibility of doing so without denying the truth and bringing dishonor upon God, had been emphasized. But Peter now (verse 21) wanted to know whether there is any limit to the number of times one should forgive a repentant brother.

But Lenski identifies the brother of verses 15 and 21.

Lenski: This remission on the part of the wronged brother is an entirely separate thing and is not to be confused with the remission God may grant. We must at once forgive every wrong, whether the wrongdoer repents and makes acknowledgment to us or not. That clears us. We hold nothing against the man who has wronged us. But he has his sin to settle with God. It is to help him settle it aright with God, so that God, too, will remit and dismiss his sin, that Jesus orders the procedure outlined in verse 15 etc.

This is a serious difference. The whole point of verses 15-18 is that when Christians withhold forgiveness of sins from an impenitent sinner, so does God, and when Christians forgive a penitent sinner, so does God. When Christians use Law and Gospel properly, in keeping with the Word of God and for the purpose of saving the brother, they are acting in God's stead. As Luther said:  "This is as valid and certain in heaven also as if Christ, our dear Lord, dealt with us Himself." But in verse 21 nothing is said about convicting a brother of his sin.

Stoeckhardt and Kretzmann are surely right in saying that verse 15 speaks of an impenitent brother while verse 21 speaks of a repentant brother. What caused Lenski to go awry here? It is another instance of error caused by his denial of objective justification. There is only one justification, reconciliation, atonement, accomplished by Christ FOR ALL MEN. Christ is the Lamb of God Who took away the sins of the world. Man's impenitence is the only thing which renders this ineffective. For Lenski to say that we forgive, whether a brother is repentant or not, and then to have him settle his account with God, makes shambles of the Office of the Keys.

Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked,  "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" 

"Then" obviously immediately after verse 20. The disciples must have been deeply impressed by what Jesus had said. They were learning but needed more instruction. The whole point of Peter's question centers in the words "how many times?" "Is seven times sufficient?" 

The commentaries point out that the Rabbis, on the basis of Amos 1:3; 2:6 and Job 33:29.30, limited forgiveness to three times, a plain misapplication of these passages. Peter was more generous than the Rabbis but his generosity amounted to limitation which destroys it all. This passage involves no limitation.

Matthew 18:22 Jesus answered,  "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

"I tell you" denotes the divine authority of Jesus. Compare the beginning of verses 18 and 19.  "But quite to the contrary."

The lexicons are ambivalent on the words "seventy-seven."  These very words appear in the LXX at Genesis 4:24 where NASB and RSV translate "seventy-sevenfold" and AV has "seventy times seven." Eight of our translations read Matthew 18:22 as "seventy times seven." Only NIV and JB read "seventy-seven times." We think the eight are correct.

In any case, Jesus is not setting a limit. He means "without limit." Note Luke 17:4:  "And if, during the day, your brother sins against you seven times and seven times turns to you saying 'I'm sorry' you will forgive him." The point is that forgiveness toward a repentant brother must be limitless, no matter what the sin.

Matthew 18:23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.

"Therefore" because unlimited forgiveness in disposition and action is expected of Jesus' disciples. "The Kingdom of Heaven" here is the kingdom of grace, the church on earth.

As king he had a perfect and just right to call them to account. Note that no limitation is placed on "his servants." We think Lenski goes too far when he says that "satraps not household slaves" are meant. The point here is that these people have no will of their own but are completely subject to another.

Matthew 18:24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.

The first four words are a genitive absolute. Whether this man was the first is not stated, nor need it be. "There was brought" is passive voice. He did not come on his own. That is important in the interpretation. People do not give account on their own. The Law of God alone brings them to account. The last four words of this verse are elliptical for  "one slave who owed him ten thousand talents."

Bengel: The Greek language cannot express by two words, as a distinct and continuous quantity, a larger sum than this.

Correct. We are not told whether these were silver or gold talents which differed in value. Furthermore, the value of silver and gold, as today, fluctuated constantly. Therefore it is impossible to give an exact figure. This is deliberately done by Jesus to show the vast amount.

Bengel: A talent contains about 6000 denarii; therefore a thousand talents contain 60,000,000 denarii.
Lenski: 600,000 times as much as was due this debtor by his fellow.
Fahling: The case was hopeless.

How he incurred this debt, we are not told. Nor need we be told.

Matthew 18:25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

The first five words are a causal genitive absolute,  "because he was unable to pay back." Utterly hopeless. "Ordered" denotes the justice of the king. Here he is called "master", the lord who acts justly. "To repay" does not mean that the sale would cover the ten thousand talents. But it is significant that the lord does not throw him in prison. Nor is anger mentioned here.

Matthew 18:26 The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.'

"In view of the lord's command." Every word in this verse pictures contrition. The grovelled in the dirt before the master. He asks only for patience and mercy. The last clause in this verse is an overstatement, in view of 25a. He was unable to repay but said that he would. All honest Christians can identify with this delusion. When they see their sins in all their awfulness their first reaction is a promise to repay all, but that is impossible.

Matthew 18:27 The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

"Pity" is consistently used in the New Testament of the compassion of the Lord, whether used directly of Jesus or, as here, in parables which direct us to Jesus.

Bengel: 'Loosed' as the servant had besought him to do. 'Forgave' which the servant had not dared to ask. He had prayed for one kindness; and he obtained two.

It is implied that the servant continued to maintain his position and retained his wife and property. His slate was as clean as if he had never incurred a debt. The master let him off.

Matthew 18:28 But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.

"But when" indicates action immediately after that of verse 27.

Kretzmann: Hardly had he left the presence of the king when this happened. . . . 'He found' not accidentally, but after deliberate search; the malice of the deed is brought out.

We do not agree with Lenski who says: The one stood high in the realm and could owe the king 10,000 talents; the other occupied some humble position at the court.

The text does not say that. An application that leads to distinguishing higher and lower fellow Christians, a dangerous distinction.

A Old Testament denarii is worth about twenty cents, a day's wage in those times. A hundred Old Testament denarii amounts to about twenty dollars.

The last clause in this verse denotes violent language. He grabbed him and began choking him. Verse 26 pictures contrition, honest acknowledgment of sin verse 28 pictures the haughty opposite in the same person.

Bengel: Before the accounts had been examined, he treated his fellow-servant more tenderly; the very joy of recovered liberty, or restored healthy, etc., is accompanied by a greater danger of sin. Compare John 5:1; 2 Kings 20:13.

His actions and words were the direct opposite of what he did and said in verse 26. There is nothing so wonderful as the contrition and absolution of a sinner. But there is nothing so frightening as the subsequent haughtiness and refusal to forgive others, in that same person. This verse brings out the horror of an unforgiving spirit.

Matthew 18:29 His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'

Note the similarities, but also differences, from verse 26. Notice the complete and total difference of the attitude of the first debtor.

Matthew 18:30 But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

This verse is the direct opposite of what Jesus requires at Luke 6:36. The forgiven should be like their Father in heaven, merciful. This man is merciless. The master had not imprisoned the first debtor but the debtor did just that to his fellow debtor.  "Until he should pay the debt." Who can repay a debt while in prison? He made it impossible for his fellow slave.

Matthew 18:31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

"Now, after they fully realized what had happened they were utterly pained " 

Lenski: Jesus is speaking of the members of his church. . . . To them great grief is attributed, to the king anger. . . . Thus God's reaction is his holy and righteous wrath, but ours great grief. . . . In the church we often reach the end of our resources and must turn 'what has occurred' over to the Lord who still rules in his church and knows how to proceed with the wrongs occurring in its midst.

By the way, verse 31 does not contradict verse 15. The latter denotes a situation in which there is hope. The former a hopeless situation.

Matthew 18:32 Then the master called the servant in 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.

"After being informed"  The first half of this verse denotes the patience of the master. But the second part denotes the glaring inconsistency of the first debtor. "Wicked" means "actively evil."

Matthew 18:33 Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?'

He is mad.

This verse is a question which demands the answer "yes." "Was it not necessary " not only theologically but also logically. The unforgiving man, who was forgiven, violates not only theology but also simple logic. The first part of the sentence ought be the logical result of the second part of the sentence.

God does not forgive us because we forgive others. It's the other way around. Both Matthew 6:12 and 18:33 plainly show that our forgiveness should be commensurate with that of God toward us, not as to amount, but as to spirit. The mercy of God, in Christ, is the very heart of Scripture. Read Luke 6:36 again. By nature I am merciless. By grace I am merciful. As said the publican (Luke 18:13):  "God be merciful to me, THE sinner," which denotes true contrition and faith.

Matthew 18:34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

Here we see how he handed him over. Not only to prison but to the tormentors. This denotes the judgment of God now over the unforgiving person, not just in hell. "Until" does not denote possibility but total impossibility. Who could repay a vast debt, or even a little one, while being tormented? It denotes the total impossibility caused by the impenitence of an unforgiving person.

The Catholics say that this verse denotes the possibilities brought about in purgatory. Thus they try to find Gospel where there is nothing but Law. But if the conscience smites, as it probably did in the case of the disciples and as it probably does for the person who is reading this, the Gospel offers forgiveness of even these sins.

Matthew 18:35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." 

With the words "this is how" Jesus introduces the point of comparison. Note that Jesus says  "MY heavenly Father " for if we refuse to forgive He is not our heavenly Father. Note how Jesus proceeds from the plural to the singular. It is an individual matter. Repentance is an individual matter. The resultant forgiveness toward others is an individual matter.

"From your hearts" is a prepositional phrase denoting manner, meaning "genuinely" as opposed to "superficially." How easy to say:  "I'll forgive but not forget." How easy to go through the motions of forgiveness but not to do it heartily!

Peter, the disciples, and all of us are like the Rabbis who counted sins, who set limitations. How easy to refuse to send someone a Christmas card when one was not received!

Ylvisaker: We must ever be prepared and willing to forgive; for we live always by the grace of forgiveness. This is the main theme in the parable of the unmerciful servant, which needs no comment apart from the explanation which is found in the parable itself.
Bengel: Those who have experienced the mercy of God, ought to be very careful of exciting His anger.
Stoeckhardt: The unforgiving man denies and forfeits God's grace and mercy, to him will be counted his former guilt, the righteous wrath of the Lord burns over him, upon him will finally come His unmerciful judgment, and will be delivered into an agony from which there is no deliverance.

What a warning against non reconciliation!

Kretzmann: Any man that is unmerciful, hard-hearted, unforgiving toward his fellowman thereby denies and repudiates God's grace and mercy. His former debt is again charged to his account.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Matthew-John Sundays After Pentecost Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1981, pp. 59-62. Used with permission.

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