Matthew 18 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Forgiveness

On verses 21-22, compare Luke 17:4. This parable's point is that our fellow disciples (vv. 28-29) are Christ's representatives no less than we are (vv. 5-6), and God will avenge their harsh treatment at the hands of those who claim his mercy for themselves.

Our Forgiveness Should Be Unlimited (18:21-22)

Judaism also stressed forgiveness, though some teachers saw the need to limit forgiveness to three instances of premeditated sin, pointing out that repentance was otherwise not genuine (ARN 40A). But Jesus here reverses the principle of 490-fold (compare Gen 4:24 LXX) or seventy-sevenfold (Gen 4:24, where LXX uses the exact phrase; Carson 1984:405) vengeance, demanding unlimited forgiveness toward the truly repentant.

God's Grace Is the Model for Forgiveness (18:23-27)

Jesus portrays the magnitude of God's grace in terms that would have stretched his hearers' imagination: each of us owes God more than we could ever repay. Galileans were quite aware of some features of royal courts outside Palestine, and Jesus presents such a setting to emphasize the severity of the punishment (Derrett 1970:35). Later Jewish parables frequently include a king as a symbol for God's majesty (for example, t. Berakot 6:18; Johnston 1977:583). No one can offend our moral sensibilities as much as everyone offends the moral sensibilities of a perfect God!

Servants could refer to the king's high officials, like provincial satraps (Jeremias 1972:210, 212; Via 1967:138). Then again, servants could also be tax farmers working for the king; in earlier days some Gentile tax farmers would bid on collecting taxes for the king and could generally turn a profit-provided everyone paid their taxes (Derrett 1970:37; B. Scott 1989:270). Because tax farmers were responsible to collect the taxes for the king, they could become quite ruthless in their efficiency. Business documents from Jesus' day sometimes depict peasants with such overwhelming tax indebtedness that they fled their own land (N. Lewis 1983:164-65; Avi-Yonah 1978:216; M. Grant 1992:90).

At the appropriate time of year the king wanted to settle accounts with his servants. Although the talent's worth varied in different periods, ten thousand talents represented between sixty and one hundred million denarii, or between thirty and one hundred million days' wages for an average peasant-a lot of work. The combined annual tribute of Galilee and Perea just after the death of the repressive Herod the Great came to only two hundred talents (Jos. Ant. 17.318; Jeremias 1972:30); the tribute of Judea, Samaria and Idumea came to six hundred talents (Jos. Ant. 17.320). This fact starkly reveals the laughably hyperbolic character of the illustration: the poor man owes the king more money than existed in circulation in the whole country at the time! The man was a fool to get so far in debt, and the king had been a fool to let him get away with it. Jesus could compare God with a father (Lk 15:12) or landowner (Mt 21:33-37) so merciful that hearers would consider him shamelessly indulgent. So here he compares God with a king who let a subordinate get too far into debt to ever pay him back. The grace of God is so deep and unimaginable that it repeatedly bursts the bounds of Jesus' metaphor.

Selling the man into slavery would recover virtually none of the loss, though it might abate some of the king's anger: the most expensive slave recorded would sell for only a talent, the average being one-twentieth to one-fifth of that (Jeremias 1972:211). Jewish custom prohibited the sale of women and children, but Jesus' hearers recognized that a pagan king wouldn't care about such just technicalities (compare m. Sota 3:8; t. Sota 2:9; Jeremias 1972:180, 211; Derrett 1970:38; Via 1967:138-39). In all, the king was bound to lose at least 9,999 talents (as much as 99,990,000 days' wages, or roughly 275,000 years' wages for an average worker) despite the sale. Perhaps this was one reason the king canceled the debt at the pitiable sight of the fool offering to pay it all back.

Unforgiveness Toward a Fellow Servant Betrays Arrogance (18:28-30)

When poor crops or other circumstances forced a ruler to forgive taxes, he did so with the understanding that his people would respect his benevolence. If he released his subordinate ministers' debts, they in turn must release the debts of those indebted to them. This principle was widely known, and the first servant should have understood it (Derrett 1970:42); but as we have seen, this servant is a fool.

Although creditors could come up with money quickly by demanding immediate payment on loans (Stambaugh and Balch 1986:72), the sum the other man owes the first servant is impossibly small compared to what that higher official owes the king. Perhaps the sum is so small that the first man previously overlooked it. Yet this first servant, perhaps still determined to repay his debt to the king, has now decided to become ruthlessly efficient in exacting what is owed him-a sum less than one-fifth of the minimum he himself would have fetched on the slave market. In other words, the forgiven servant has failed to embrace the principle of grace.

Once the unforgiven man is jailed, he is unable to settle his own debts with the king (it is still the time of accounting-Derrett 1970:41); he also is away from his active duties, costing the king more money. Further, he must depend especially on his relatives and political allies-and perhaps the king himself, as his patron-to pay his way out.

The Consequences of Unforgiveness (18:31-35)

Although the other servants offer no money to release the imprisoned man, they are distressed or "grieved" (the same Greek term as in 17:23; 19:22; 26:22) and do not hesitate to report the forgiven servant's act, which has now cost the king (and thus ultimately them) still more money (Manson 1979:214). Ancient documents indicate that this practice of imprisoning debtors was legal-and that officials could severely punish those who abused it (Deissmann 1978:269-70).

The first servant's debt is reinstated, and he is handed over to the torturers. Jewish law forbade torture-though exceptionally cruel persons were known to practice it (as in Jos. War 2.448)-but pagan rulers customarily employed torture against tardy officials to extort money from their friends (Jeremias 1972:212). Yet who would be so politically naive as to come to the rescue of one who had obviously fallen from the king's favor? The magnitude of the debt was simply unpayable by any means, and the man would never escape the torturers.

Forgiveness must issue from the heart (18:35)-it must be sincere (compare Is 59:13). God has forgiven us; if we fail to show grace to others who have repented-guilty parties in a divorce, former gang members, adulterers, homosexuals, gossipers, crafty politicians-then this text simply promises us hellfire (compare Mt 5:7; 6:12, 14-15). One need not agree with all of Marcus Garvey's views to appreciate his indictment of professed Christians who reject Christ's teachings on love and forgiveness: "If hell is what we are taught it is, then there will be more Christians there than days in all creation" (Garvey 1923:27).

Previous commentary:
Addressing Stumbling Blocks Seriously

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