NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verses 26-27: But the subject fell on his knees and begged, ‘Be patient with me. I will pay you everything I owe.’ His master, the king, felt sorry for him. So he told the subject he did not have to pay. He let him go free.”
Certainly, those listening to Jesus must have caught by now the subliminal thought here linking debt to sin, and the king to God. As we’ve already mentioned, when examining what is called “The Lord’s Prayer,”1 this was part of what the Rabbi’s taught about debts are God’s record of sins committed. As far as equating God as King, this came only after Israel was given a king, and king David addressed God as: “my King, and my God;”2 “the LORD is King forever and ever;”3 and one of the more famous rendering: “O gates, proudly lift your heads! O ancient doors, open wide, so the glorious King may come in.”4
We read in Jewish literature that Rabbi Isaac once said: “When anyone commits a transgression in secret, it is as though he thrust aside the feet of the Divine Presence, for it is said: Thus saith the Lord: The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool.5”6 One only speaks of a throne in reference to a king. So we can see how Jesus used a parable that contained metaphors which the Jews could easily decipher and understand that He was talking about forgiveness of wrong doing and God’s grace. If there are any two hallmarks in the message Christ brought to the people of Israel in His ministry, they were love and forgiveness.
Early church preacher Chrysostom in one of his messages states: “Do you see again how generous the king was? The servant asked only for an extension of time, but he gave him more than he asked for, remission and forgiveness of the entire debt. He wanted to give him this from the start, but he did not want the giving to be on his side only. He wanted the servant to learn from it and to ask for mercy, in order than he not be under an illusion of innocence. For the Lord’s way, as a whole – even if the servant fell on his knees and implored – was demonstrated as a motive for remission, for it says, ‘Out of pity the lord released him.’ In this way, he also wanted the servant to take some responsibility, to prevent him being too embarrassed so that he might learn from his own case and be lenient to his fellow servant, and be schooled by his own mistake.”7
Verse 28: Later, that same subject found another subject who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him around the neck and yelled, “Pay me the money you owe me!”
Whether Jesus was telling a satirical version of some known event or projecting a scenario from His own mind, the ingratitude and selfishness of this forgiven subject in his ill treatment of a fellow citizen is despicable, to say the least. But our Lord knowing provided such an illustration because He knew that this tendency to be forgiven but not to forgive was prevalent among the people, especially the religious leadership. So the best way to get His listeners to pay attention was to make it worse than it really was.
Early church apologist Cyril had this to say: “The God of all releases us from the difficulties of our faults, according to the parable. This is what is meant by the ten thousand talents. But this happens on the condition that we ourselves release our fellow servants from the hundred denarii, that is, from the few minor faults they have committed against us. The angels who stand over us, and are under the same yoke of service as we are, make accusations before God. They do not speak to God as if God does not know—for God knows everything. Rather, in the interest of justice, they demand the proper punishment for those who choose to despise and dishonor the command that we love one another. When we get what we deserve, we either receive punishment in our present life, such as being visited with some pain or trouble or infirmity or if not, we will certainly be punished in the future life. God punishes the obstinate, stubborn person with a view to improving and changing him for the better. This is easy to see. Holy Scripture is pertinent here, in these wisely spoken words: ‘the Lord disciplines those He loves, and He punishes everyone He accepts as a son,’8 and again: ‘Follow instruction.’9”10
Verse 29: The other subject fell on his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me. I will pay you everything I owe.”
Chrysostom has a lot to say about this in his sermon, so here’s an excerpt of what he preached: “In speaking of our sins, I will distinguish between those we commit against God and against other persons. I will set forth not each person’s own but what are common. But then I will ask individuals to add their own sins according to an examination of their conscience. I will do this, having first set forth the good deeds of God to us. What then are God’s good deeds? He created us from nothing; He made the whole visible world for us, the heaven, the sea, the earth, animals, plants, and seeds. I must be brief because of the infinite number of His works. Into us alone of all that are on earth he breathed a living soul. He planted a garden for us. He gave us a helpmate and set us over all the brute species, and He crowned us with glory and honor. And yet after all this, when humanity turned out ungrateful toward its benefactor, He thought us worthy of an even greater gift—forgiveness.”11
Verse 30: But the first subject refused to be patient. He told the judge that the other subject owed him money, and that subject was put in jail until he could pay everything he owed.
Chromatius puts what happens here in this verse in perspective. He says: “When Peter asked this, the Lord commanded that the sinning brother should be forgiven not seven times but seventy-seven times. He then added a parable, making the comparison of a king and his servant. The servant, though unworthy, had received such mercy from his master that even an immense debt was forgiven him. But he himself refused to show mercy to a fellow servant for his small debt. So, quite rightly, he was handed over to the torturers and received the just punishment of condemnation. For what would such a wicked servant not deserve to suffer? Though he had experienced such pity from his master, he was himself unjust and cruel to his fellow servant. By this example, we are clearly instructed and advised that if we do not forgive our fellow servants – that is, the brothers who sin against us – the debt of their sins, we will be condemned with similar punishment. And though the comparison may seem to have been introduced for the present occasion, yet the parable itself has within it an integral logic and manifest truth.”12
Verse 31: All the other subjects saw what happened. They felt very sorry for the man. So they went and told their master the king everything that happened.
There is an intrinsic moral to this story. It appears from the narrative that one need not first be forgiven of his debt before he is under any obligation to forgive the debt of others against himself. Thus, to forgive others while you yourself have not been forgiven is an option, but to forgive others after you yourself have been forgiven is an obligation.
Here’s a simple way to look at it: A store owner owes $2,000 to a manufacturer for products delivered for sale. An employee of that same store owner owes him $1,500 for advanced wages so that he would pay for automobile repairs. Meanwhile, this employee is owed $1,000 by a relative who borrowed it from him to pay medical expenses. So, the manufacturer decides to write off this $2,000 as a gesture of kindness because they know this store owner’s business is not going well. In gratitude, the store owner then cancels his employee’s debt, who in turn cancels his relative’s indebtedness. The end result is that there are three now debt free for the price of one gift! This would make everyone a winner. But how greedy and avaricious would that store owner be if he still insisted on the employee to pay up because they would give him an unearned profit? Under such circumstances, it would make everyone a loser.
When we think that by one death on the cross that paid the full price for the forgiveness of our sins, we should be glad to let that one payment have the same forgiving domino effect through our life into the lives of others. But that was not the case here, and this was the central point in Jesus’ teaching. We can see that this was already part of what Moses taught the children of Israel, “At the end of every seven years, you must cancel debts. This is the way you must do this: Everyone who has lent money to another Israelite must cancel the debt. He should not ask a fellow Israelite to repay the debt because the LORD said to cancel debts during that year.”13
But apparently this man did not get the message that he should show the same leniency and compassion to his debtor as the king showed to him. I would be willing to propose that this servant caused the man who couldn’t pay him to be put into the same prison where he would have been incarcerated had the king not forgiven him. So his spiteful and ungrateful act was doubled in its maliciousness. Little did he know, that when his malicious conduct was reported to the king, that the hangman’s noose that had been put away would be figuratively restrung just for him. This parable reminds me so much of the story about Haman and Mordecai in the Book of Esther. We do not know, but this may have been the inspiration for the parable on retribution Jesus used here.
1 Matthew 6:12
2 Psalm 5:2
3 Ibid., 10:16
4 Ibid., 24:9-10 (See also: Psalm 44:4; 47:2, 6-7; 48:2; 68:24; 74:12; 84:3; 95:3; 98:6; 149:2; Isaiah 6:5; 41:21; 43:15; 44:6; Jer 10:7; Zechariah 9:9; 14:17; and Malachi 1:14
5 Isaiah 66:1
6 Babylonian Talmud, op, cit, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Chagigah, folio 16a
7 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 61.3
8 Hebrews 12:6; Proverbs 3:12
9 Proverbs 4:13; cf. Proverbs 19:20, Sirach 41:14
10 Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary fragment 216
11 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 61.1
12 Chromatius: Tractate on Matthew 59.4
13 Deuteronomy 15:2