7 May 2013

Matthew 18:23-35

“Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’” (vv. 32-33)


The parable in today's passage again begins with Matthew's typical introduction: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to …". On the face of it this parable is about an earthly king whose middle manager has bungled the public accounts to the extent that an overwhelming debt has accrued. The amount the king seeks to recoup is not just a big debt, but greater than all the taxes for the regions all around Judea added together. It is a greater amount of money than several thousand workers would earn in a lifetime.

In our own time when massive debt and yearly deficits blight national economies, we can perhaps identify with the desperation of the servant and the anger of the king. This is a truly unpayable debt. The servant has no choice but to beg forgiveness, which the king gives.

The debt of the second fellow-slave is also a large amount, but equal perhaps to the earnings of 100 days of work for a labourer. To pay it would be within the realm of possibility, at least. However Jesus' parable condemns the unmerciful servant nonetheless. It seems that in Jesus' teaching, the amount is not as important as the lack of gratitude of the forgiven debtor. This should give rise to compassion and mercy for his fellow slave.

So the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a place where the public conscience of the other slaves (who reported to the king what had happened, in verse 31) enforces an expectation that gratitude at our own forgiveness will lead us to compassion for others. If it does not, then forgiveness may be withdrawn.

Matthew's Gospel adds an allegorical sentence at the end of the parable: "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart" (v. 35). The interpretation of this passage as describing the relationship of forgiven sinners to God, reinforces the earthy message of the parable.

To Ponder

  • How far should public figures be made an example of, if what they have done cannot be fixed?
  • In your view, is it fair to demand that forgiveness be granted? Why?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jennifer Smith

Revd Dr Jennifer Smith is a Methodist minister, and superintendent of the Ealing Trinity Circuit in the London District. Though resident in the UK since 1993, she is a US citizen and continues to observe US political and religious culture with interest.