The parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35 is a carefully constructed literary unit whose meaning is best discovered in the broader context of its place in the narrative, as the Evangelist draws together prominent themes from the Gospel to amplify the message of the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus. I will note the major thrust of the parable as Matthew presents it, as well as its relation to the rest of the Gospel, before going on to consult a major critical commentary to learn (by comparison) what a scholarly reading of the text finds therein.
The context of the passage has multiple layers. The first is what bounds the set of stories, teachings, and healings that surround this parable. I suggest a structural bracketing beginning with 16:13, just after the second feeding of the multitude and the lessons learned from it, and ending with the final approach to Jerusalem in 21:1. This section is four and a half chapters long (consisting of 142 verses), and approximately a seventh of the size of the whole Gospel.
This section bears four primary indicators of its thematic character. The first is the cross: herein we find all three of Jesus’ predictions of his trip to Jerusalem, crucifixion, and resurrection on the third day (16:21-21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19). Moreover, the section as a whole begins with Peter’s rebuke of Jesus’ first such prediction and Jesus’ own subsequent rebuke of Peter, leading to discussion of a related subtheme, that of discipleship. Thus we find Jesus’ teaching that to follow him as a disciple is to take up one’s cross (16:24-26), to take on the status of a child (18:1-5), to forgive to the umpteenth offense (18:21-22), to forsake all for his sake (19:27-30), and to relate to one another through servanthood rather than domination (20:25-28).
Similarly related to the theme of discipleship is that of the “little ones” (18:6), seeming to include children on a literal basis (18:1-5; 19:13-15), the weakest members of the community (18:6-7), and, on the broadest level, all of Jesus’ disciples (cf. 25:31-46). And this mention of community life brings us to the final thematic subject of the section: the ekklesia. The only times the church is referenced in any of the Gospels are found here: once in 16:18, in Jesus’ blessing of Peter’s confession of faith, and twice in 18:17, all three residing in passages about “binding and loosing,” whether in the prerogative of Peter or of the entire church community.
Thus, from Peter’s pronouncement of Jesus as Messiah to the arrival at Jerusalem (16:13–20:34), Matthew weaves together scenes of action and speech concerning the character of discipleship as it relates (on the one hand) to Jesus’ approaching cross and (on the other) to the future church as an apostolic community marked by servanthood and humility.
Now to the passage at hand. The parable of the unforgiving servant in 18:23-35 follows immediately from Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer regarding forgiveness in verses 21-22, thus expanding on Jesus’ response. The tale is straightforward: a king seeks to settle the astronomical debt of a servant, but has pity on him when he pleads patience; the servant goes out and seeks to settle the miniscule debt of a fellow servant, but deals with him ruthlessly when he pleads for patience. And so the king: “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleased with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (vv. 32-33). “Hand[ing] him over to be tortured” until the debt is paid, Jesus says that God will do the very same “to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (vv. 34-35).
Taken thematically and literarily, the parable is filled to the brim with Matthean topics, concerns, and language. An immediate connection is to the Sermon on the Mount. In the prayer Jesus offers his disciples as a paradigm, one of the petitions asks that God “forgive [aphes] us our debts [opheilemata], as we also have forgiven [aphekamen] our debtors [opheiletais]” (6:12), and Jesus’ only elaboration on the prayer’s meaning expands on this part: “For if you forgive [aphete] others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive [aphesei] you; but if you do not forgive [aphete] others, neither will your Father forgive [aphesei] your trespasses” (6:14-15). The parable’s language is identical: the debtor (opheiletes; v. 24) is forgiven (apheken; v. 27) his debt, yet refuses to forgive the fellow servant who owes (opheilen; v. 28) him. Furthermore, the final image of the king throwing the servant into prison until the entire debt is paid (v. 34) matches in detail Jesus’ warning in 5:23-26 of reconciling (debts!) quickly on the way to court, lest one be handed “over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and [eventually] thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
These intertextual echoes offer commentary backwards onto the Sermon—namely, that Jesus really is talking economics. To “forgive” is first of all, whatever else it means, to absolve another of the financial slavery of debt. No community can be faithful to God’s kingdom which fosters indebtedness over against one another. Moving back to the parable, however, we see that, while the call to pardon is irreducibly economic, it does also include forgiveness “from [the] heart” (v. 35), such that the community must also be one of interpersonal absolution and “letting go” of sin—just as Jesus’ immediately foregoing teachings on how the church should address sin (vv. 15-17), on binding and loosing on earth/heaven (vv. 18-20), and on forgiving “seventy times seven” (v. 22) indicate. In this way the community of discipleship will share in the character of the Father’s mercy (vv. 32-33; cf. 5:7, 43-48; 6:14-15) and exemplify the reign of heaven (v. 23).
I now turn to W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr.’s entry in the International Critical Commentary series, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (3 vols.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark Limited, 1988). Davies and Allison (hereafter “D.A.”) devote 10 pages to Matthew 18:23-35 (pp. 794-803), with two subsequent pages that offer concluding thoughts on the section as a whole (pp. 803-805).
Overall, D.A.’s analysis of the passage is textually perceptive, historically informed, and cognizant of scholarship, yet at the same time interpretatively stiff, unimaginative, and one-note.
On the one hand, it is clear just how deeply D.A. know the scholarship, historical context, and biblical intertextual connections. They engage Jeremias’ work on the parables (p. 794, 800), note multiple textual connections to contemporary Rabbinic or Jewish sources (pp. 799, 800), and attempt to fit the parable into its historical situation, both for Jesus’ original telling and for Matthew’s redaction of the tradition he received (pp. 794-796, 798-801). They conclude, among other things, that the parable is indeed original to Jesus, and that in his telling it was likely a straightforward tale about a master and his servants as an analogy to God as Father forgiving the debts of human beings, thereby calling for imitation of the Father’s action (pp. 794-795, 803-805). As redacted by Matthew, introducing the master as a king and ratcheting up the amount of the debt points up the analogy to God as the ruler of heaven and to God’s gratuity in pardoning (pp. 796, 698). All fine and helpful points for the historian and technical exegete.
However, there are other interests and other interested parties than these scholarly ones—for example, the preacher or teacher, or even the (Christian) student, regarding matters such as the rich literary substance of the text, or the image of the kingdom offered by it, or the broad theological vision of the first Evangelist. On such things this critical commentary pleads no comment. Proceeding verse by verse, the reader stumbles upon detail after innumerable intricate detail regarding idiosyncratic prepositional constructions and LXX parallels and Matthean redactional tendencies and academic disagreements about the parable’s original provenance—but little in the way of interpretive or textual or literary insight, that is, the sort of explosive and revolutionary ricochets such a story would and did and could have, both then and now.
Though regrettable, these consequences in the commentary are not an accident, but methodologically consistent with the approach laid out in D.A.’s 148-page introduction. As they say early on, “In this commentary, although it is informed by . . . a ‘principled eclecticism’, the more traditional historical-critical approach will be dominant” (p. 3). This is not merely due to the authors lack of expertise in the literary fields necessary to take another approach; rather, it “is due to our understanding of the central demands which the text itself makes upon the reader.” Because “a text is its history,” that history must be plunged into and plundered for the “knowledge . . . necessary for its understanding,” thereby “call[ing] for attention to source, form, and redaction criticism.” Other forms of criticism may have their place, but D.A. “cannot concede . . . that the text can be adequately dealt with in isolation from its historical character in the sense indicated” (pp. 3-4).
Most important of all, this hermeneutic approach is grounded in the fact that the “text always presupposes an historical figure, Jesus, as its raison d’être” (p. 4). Getting through the indirectness of the text to the historicity of this singular figure is therefore paramount. The authors’ “task, then, is to examine the text of Matthew so as to understand what it says,” that is, to “seek what has been called the ‘plain sense’ of the text” (p. 5).
The introduction goes on to deal extensively with critical issues of authorship (pp. 7-58), structure (pp. 58-72), literary characteristics (pp. 72-96), sources (pp. 97-127) compositional date (pp. 127-138), and local origin (138-147). However, I hope to have given a sufficiently clear account of the commentary’s methodology, of the authors’ stated reasons for employing it, and of the consequences for a close reading of a particular passage like Matthew 18:23-35, especially as set in contrast to my own brief encounter with the text above. Critical scholarship is a great gift to any reading of Christian canonical texts, and undeniably a boon to the church’s reading above all. Unfortunately, Davies and Allison seem resolutely committed to hemming in their exegesis by making what they “cannot concede”—that the text has a history, which it surely does—the sole focus of their labors, and thereby excluding all other concerns from their purview.