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Exegetical Paper: Matthew 18:21-35

Course: Hermeneutics
Teacher: Rev. Dr. Moses Wong
Semester: 2015 Spring
Grade: A-


I. INTRODUCTION……………………………………………………….. 1

Statement of Problem…………………………………………………….. 1
Statement of Purpose ……………………………………………………. 1
Methodology and Sources………………………………………………..1


Greek Text and English Translation ……………………………………. 3
Literary Form and Structure ……………………………………………… 4
Historical Context ……………………………………………………………. 4
Character Studies ………………………………………………………………6
Textual Criticism ……………………………………………………………….6
Verbal Study ……………………………………………………………………..7

III. Theology …………………………………………………………………… 9

Bibliography/Woks Citied

I. Introduction

Statement of Problem

If a man comes from Chinese culture background, he might be very familiar with an old proverb ” Where possible, be forgiving towards others” (得饶人处且饶人). If you widely search French, Russian, and any other literature workings, you are able to find same concepts about “forgiving” in such culture backgrounds. Obviously, no matter in which culture, forgiving is a good virtue. But when comes to the Scripture context, the concept of forgiving does not just conveys a “forgiving” meaning. In order to discover the original intention of the passage, the author of the paper will analyse “the unforgiving servant” in a framework of biblical theology and to find out how does the passage relates to Jesus Christ.

Statement of Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to reveal the forgiving grace of the Lord our God and human’s responsibilities of being disciples, which role does this thought-provoking parable play in the redemptive history of God and how does it apply to our Christian lives.

Methodology and Sources

The author of this paper will use an hermeneutics study of the texts in issue, a Historical-Grammatical method. Greek NT, study Bible, academic commentaries, and other works will be referred, studied and considered.

II. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant: Matthew 18:21-35

Greek Text and English Translation 1

21 Τότε προσελθὼν ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Κύριε, ποσάκις ἁμαρτήσει εἰς ἐμὲ ὁ ἀδελφός μου καὶ ἀφήσω αὐτῷ; ἕως ἑπτάκις;
22 λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Οὐ λέγω σοι ἕως ἑπτάκις ἀλλ᾽ ἕως ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά.
23 Διὰ τοῦτο ὡμοιώθη ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ, ὃς ἠθέλησεν συνᾶραι λόγον μετὰ τῶν δούλων αὐτοῦ.
24 ἀρξαμένου δὲ αὐτοῦ συναίρειν προσ­ηνέχθη αὐτῷ εἷς ὀφειλέτης μυρίων ταλάντων.
25 μὴ ἔχοντος δὲ αὐτοῦ ἀποδοῦναι ἐκέλευσεν αὐτὸν ὁ κύριος πραθῆναι καὶ τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ τὰ τέκνα καὶ πάντα ὅσα ἔχει, καὶ ἀποδοθῆναι.
26 πεσὼν οὖν ὁ δοῦλος προσεκύνει αὐτῷ λέγων, Μακροθύμησον ἐπ᾽ ἐμοί, καὶ πάντα ἀποδώσω σοι.
27 σπλαγχνισθεὶς δὲ ὁ κύριος τοῦ δούλου ἐκείνου ἀπέλυσεν αὐτὸν καὶ τὸ δάνειον ἀφῆκεν αὐτῷ.
28 ἐξελθὼν δὲ ὁ δοῦλος ἐκεῖνος εὗρεν ἕνα τῶν συνδούλων αὐτοῦ, ὃς ὤφειλεν αὐτῷ ἑκατὸν δηνάρια, καὶ κρατήσας αὐτὸν ἔπνιγεν λέγων, Ἀπόδος εἴ τι ὀφείλεις.
29 πεσὼν οὖν ὁ σύνδουλος αὐτοῦ παρεκάλει αὐτὸν λέγων, Μακροθύμησον ἐπ᾽ ἐμοί, καὶ ἀποδώσω σοι.
30 ὁ δὲ οὐκ ἤθελεν ἀλλ᾽ ἀπελθὼν ἔβαλεν αὐτὸν εἰς φυλακὴν ἕως ἀποδῷ τὸ ὀφειλόμενον.
31 ἰδόντες οὖν οἱ σύνδουλοι αὐτοῦ τὰ γενόμενα ἐλυπήθησαν σφόδρα καὶ ἐλθόντες διεσάφησαν τῷ κυρίῳ ἑαυτῶν πάντα τὰ γενόμενα.
32 τότε προσκαλεσάμενος αὐτὸν ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ λέγει αὐτῷ, Δοῦλε πονηρέ, πᾶσαν τὴν ὀφειλὴν ἐκείνην ἀφῆκά σοι, ἐπεὶ παρεκάλεσάς με
33 οὐκ ἔδει καὶ σὲ ἐλεῆσαι τὸν σύνδουλόν σου, ὡς κἀγὼ σὲ ἠλέησα;
34 καὶ ὀργισθεὶς ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ παρέδωκεν αὐτὸν τοῖς βασανισταῖς ἕως οὗ ἀποδῷ πᾶν τὸ ὀφειλόμενον.
35 Οὕτως καὶ ὁ πατήρ μου ὁ οὐράνιος ποιήσει ὑμῖν, ἐὰν μὴ ἀφῆτε ἕκαστος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν καρδιῶν ὑμῶν.
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.
24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.
25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.
26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’
27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’
29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’
30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.
31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.
32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.
33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’
34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Literary Form and Structure

It is undoubtedly that the general literature type of The Unforgiving Servant is parable
(the Greek word which used in Gospels is παραβολη) in Gospels Literature. According to Klyne R. Snodgrass, the form of the parable of the Unforgiving Servant is double indirect narrative parable 2. The parable of the Unforgiving Servant is unique in that it only occurs in Matthews while other parables might be found in other three gospels.

By and large, this passage of Matthew can be divided into two main scenes, the former one is verse 21-22, its intention is to forgive over and over again, while the latter one is verse 23-35, a metaphor of a pitiless servant. The former is independent of the parable. Mat 21 is the first scene, it is also the introduction sentence of verse 21-35. After Peter’s “self-righteous” question , Jesus begins to say his long parables to his disciples. The interesting thing is that the verse 22 is both the beginning of these long parables and the ending of the first scene. More precisely, the parable of the unforgiving servant can be outlined as below:

Verse 23-25 introduces the first minor scene, verse 26 is a line (if you look the servant as an actor) and verse 27 is a concrete action. The introduction of the second minor scene is verse 28 and these lines are verse 29 and the second part of verse 28 while verse 30 concludes the second minor scene as the concrete action. In the closing minor scene, i.e. the third minor scene, the introduction is verse 31 and the lord speaks his lines in verse 32-33. His angrily delivered the debtor to the jailers is the action and conclusion to the passage as a whole. John Crossan in his book In Parables expresses that verse 35 is an explanation. 5

Historical Context

Obviouly, Church tradition primarily concerns Apostle Matthew as the author of the passage, whereas the identity of the true author is controversial. This text of the exegetical paper occurs under a geographical setting where Jesus talks with Apostle Peter during their staying at Galilee and the audience are his disciples, not the general public. Under Judaism social setting, Peter regards seven as a sufficient number to show off his “forgiving spirit”, but Jesus replies by using an overstated parable “ten thousand talents” and “ten thousand talents” can be an incalculable number at that time. In the ancient world, selling all belongings often as a punishment for those whose debts could not possibly be repaid 3. The forgiveness in Mat 18:26 seems could not be accomplished according to Mat 18:24 4, as well as the lord’s release. Since the insurmountable debt, no one but the lord can release the debtor from the prison. This is the last parable which Jesus gives before he leaves Galilee.

Character Studies

When you pick up the Scripture and read the passage, you could find that there are two real characters (Jesus and Peter) and four fictional characters, the unforgiving servant who owns ten thousand talents, his Lord, one of his fellow servant, and his other fellow servants, their role, however, is relatively insignificant. Apart from these characters, there is a jailer in verse 34 who does not say a word or act. Apparently, the Lord is in a privileged position in society and others are in an inferior social position. But there is also an interesting point here: the unforgiving servant from verse 24 to 26 acts as a Lord from verse 28 to 30.

When comes to the degree of salience of the character description, there seems a pair of parallel lines throughout the passage, one line is the Lord, the other is the unforgiving servant, both of the two descriptions of the two characters are complex result from the dramatic change of attitude before and after verse 27-28. The description of the fellow servant who owns a hundred denarill is not as complex as the Lord and the unforgiving servant. Finally, the role of the crowd of these fellow servants is almost like a passenger, it seems that the conversation is none of their business.

Then the writer of the paper will explore the relationships between the characters. The protagonistic of this passage is the Lord, the antagonistic is the unforgiving servant and the other servant. If you take verse 21-22 into account and look the passage as a short question and a long answer between Peter and Jesus, the protagonistic is Jesus.

Textual Criticism

Although the writer of the paper chooses ESV as the comparison version from page 2 to 3, some versions (NIV, NASB, NKJV) which are widely used in evangelical Churches should be listed and analysed here.

In general, NIV is a free translation version, either it adds or omits some elements. For instance, in Mat 18:21, the koine word “ἀδελφός” (brother) is over translated in NIV version, it adds “or sister” after the word “brother”, whereas there are no koine words means “sister” in this verse. In 22, “λέγω” means “say, speak”, but NIV translates it as “answer”, NIV also deletes “ἕως”. In 23, “ὡμοιώθη” is aorist passive, however, NIV uses present active (is like).

Since the narrative is so long that the writer of the paper cannot translate the 15 verses passage from the beginning to the end and compare different versions, in order to show the translation concept of the writer, a one-verse-translation example is presented below 6 :

1 S NP+G S V+D
2 Οὕτως καὶ ὁ πατήρ μου ὁ οὐράνιος ποιήσει ὑμῖν ,
4 thus also the father my the heaven will do to you
5 Thus my heavenly father will also do to each of you,

1 V+D NP+G Prp NP+G
2 ἐὰν μὴ ἀφῆτε ἕκαστος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν καρδιῶν ὑμῶν.
4 if not may forgive each the to brother his from the of heart your
5 If you do not forgive your brother from your heart.

Verbal Study

At first, a noteworthy and significant writing style of Matthew is that he always use a
participle at the beginning of a sentence. In this 15-verse-passage, 10 verses begin
with a participle: προσελθὼν (21, VPAA-NMS 7); ἀρξαμένου (24, VPAM-GMS);

ἔχοντος (25; VPPA-GMS); πεσὼν (26, 29; VPAA-NMS); σπλαγχνισθεὶς (27, VPAP-NMS); ἐξελθὼν (28, VPAA-NMS); ἰδόντες (31, VPAA-NMP); προσκαλεσάμενος (32, VPAM-NMS); ὀργισθεὶς (34, VPAP-NMS). In koine Greek grammar, if a participle is at the beginning of a sentence and there is no article before it, the participle phrase may be adverb and it is the main verb of the sentence.

Another feature of the passage that should be mentioned here is a phrase in verse 22 “ἕως ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά”. Seven is regarded by many people as the perfect number in Scripture. ESV and NIV translate it as 70+7 (77) times while NASB and NKJV adopt 70×7 (490) times as well as the Chinese Union Version. Actually either 77 times or 490 times is disputable, however, the Scripture is not primarily a mathematics textbook or a law document, the function of the phrase is not to express an exact data but to point out the theological meaning. To some extent, “ἕως ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά” is used to express a level or a degree, as in Genesis 4:24 “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”

Third, it can be noticed that in verse 35, i.e. the translation example in the former page, a verb “ἀφῆτε” in the former part of the verse is worthy for us to discuss, the verb is subjunctive aorist active second person plural, moreover, there is a word “ἐὰν” before the verb, it shows that it is a conditional statement, “ἐὰν μὴ ἀφῆτε ἕκαστος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν καρδιῶν ὑμῶν” is a protasis, “Οὕτως καὶ ὁ πατήρ μου ὁ

The explanation of the abbreviation, for instance: VPPA-NMS stands for Verb, Participle, Present tense, Active mood, Nominitive case, Masculine Gender and Singlar form.

οὐράνιος ποιήσει ὑμῖν” is an apodosis. According to NT Greek grammar, there is no conditional sense in apodosis clause, if a people does not forgive his brothers from his heart, it is undoubtedly that the heavenly father must not forgive him (if one would like to say it in Chinese, the most appropriate idiom should be “以其人之道,还治其人之身” 7 )

III. Theology

At first, as the title refers, the topic of the whole passage is about forgiving and unforgiving. God is forgiving, as a consequence, he is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8, ESV), God is unforgiving (that sounds strange but is true) so that he is fair and righteous, he is unforgiving only in the case of facing an unforgiving servant.

Then there is a controversial (at least among some people) problem, why God is merciful but he puts his servant into the prison at the same time? Is the grace of God be removed when God’s judgment upon someone? Certainly the natures of God not only include mercy but justice. However, in order to explore the confessional belief and orthodox teaching of Scripture, everyone should take the “grace” topic into consideration in accordance with a biblical frame. Through verse 34 readers can see that the unforgiving servant is put into the prison by the Lord finally, it is quite clear for readers to realize that the servant is not be saved at last. Obviously, God’s grace is irresistible 8, hence does God call the unforgiving servant into salvation? Every sober-minded man will not address a “Yes” answer. All saints elected by God cannot lose his or her salvation. If one perishes, that means he does not choose or saved by God from the start 9 but remains in his sins as a “wicked servant” in verse 33, nevertheless the predestination is a mystery.

To some extent, the passage exists to continue and unite with the former parable from verse 15 to 20 “If Your Brother Sins Against You”. It is can be seen that both of the two parables begin with a sentence “brother sins against” .”Sin” means someone against another person and “forgive” means the people forgive him. This is a completed process. For example, if the passage is removed from Chapter 18, the whole structure will be fragmented.

Finally, since the obscure image of Christ in this passage, i.e. the author does not spend any words on Jesus Christ. Even though it is true, one should remember the Trinity and three offices of Jesus, he is the prophet, King, and priest. On the one hand, it is not permitted to separate the work of Father and the work of Son in traditional Christian theology, on the other hand, Jesus also possesses the sovereignty of the Kingdom. As D. A. Carson refers, “at best the parable is an allusion of the Christological Thought but not an emphasis of Christology.” 10
1 This Greek Text is taken from UBS while the English translation is ESV
2 《主耶稣的比喻》,Klyne R. Snodgrass, 145
6 The Greek-English translation method which called “Five Lines Analysis” is designed by Dr. Andrew McCafferty, you can find it in his NT Greek textbook Greek in 17 Lessons.
3 Esv Study Bible
4 《新约圣经背景注释》,季纳(Craig S. Keener)著,刘良淑译,校园书房。
5 Hagner outlines the parable of the unforgiving servant as follows:
I. The King and His subjects (vv 23-27)
A. The King’s Decision to settle Accounts with His subjects (v 23)
B. The Servant with the Impossible Debt (v 24)
C. The Decision to Froce Payment (v 25)
D. The plea for Mercy (v 26)
E. The Canceling of the Debt (v 27)
II. The Servant and His fellow Servant (vv 28-31)
A. The Servant Forcing His Fellow Servant to Pay a Small Debt (v 28)
B. The Plea for Mercy (v 29)
C. The Refusal of Mercy (v 30)
D. The Report of the Servants (v 31)
III. The King’s Response (vv 32-34)
A. The Rebuke from the King (vv 32-33)
B. The Renewing of the Original Debt (v 34)
IV. The Application of the Parable by Jesus (v 35)
7 The idiom is from 朱熹《中庸集注》第十三章:“故君子之治人也,即以其人之道,还治其人之身。”
8 The fourth point of TULIP: Irresistible Grace
9 The fifth point of TULIP: Perseverance of the Saints
10 《主耶稣的比喻》,Klyne R. Snodgrass著,林秀娟译。172 pp
Bibliography/Woks Citied

ESV Study Bible. Published by Crossway. Wheaton, IL

《主耶稣的比喻》,Klyne R. Snodgrass著,林秀娟译,潘秋松总校订,South Pasadena, CA. 美国麦种传道会。

《新约圣经背景注释》,季纳(Craig S. Keener)著,刘良淑译,校园书房。

In Parables. John Crossan


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