The Exegetical Application of Matthew 18:21-35


This exegetical paper gives the exegetical explanation of Matthew 18:21-35 regarding the parable of the unmerciful servant. It begins with the quotation taking from the passage where Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother when his brother sins against him. The answering of this question brings into the photo the parable of the unmerciful servant. Under this parable, the paper introduces the three-fold relationship. Namely, the golden rule, the reciprocal, and the God-centered relationships are highlighted in this exegetical research paper. These relationships deliberated exegetically, give the full definition of forgiveness as indicated in the parable. These relationships are encapsulated into the definition of forgiveness as defined by the parable. The paper in the process of explaining, gives a theological rational behind the parable of the unmerciful servant. It gives a case scenario of John and Rebecca’s situation and the writer counselor’s injection and recommendation in regard to the situation of marital infidelity.


(MATTHEWS 18:21-35)

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of goldwas brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.[1]

The passage in Matthew 18:21-35 is a passage on forgiveness. To better understand this passage in depth and in practicality, it is vital to understandably comprehend what forgiveness is. The meaning of forgiveness as stated in the above passage is practically applied to indicate a golden rule which states that do unto those as you would wish them do unto you. How many times should I forgive my brothers or sisters who sinned against me? Peter emphatically  asked this question when he met Jesus. The Master gave the answer to his question stating that you should always forgive your brothers or sisters who sin against you no matter how many times they have sinned against you. Scott writes, “The immediate context of the narrative is Peter’s question about how often he should forgive and Jesus’ answer seventy-seven times, that is, forever and ever. The parable furnishes an example, although a poor one, for it contains no repeated forgiveness.”[2] Is it possible always to forgive your brother or sister who continually and intentionally sins against you? It is possible to forgive your brother or sister always who sins against you through the power of the Holy Spirit. This kind of forgiveness is Holy Spirit influence carried out without considering a retaliated action against the offender. Holding the offender who sins against you makes you an offender and a slave of sin in the sight of God. In this light, forgiveness is the act of letting go someone misbehavior against you so that you too can be liberated and not be accused of being a wrong doer. This is biblical forgiveness which must be exercised with self-restraint in the face of provocation. This kind of forgiveness must be exercised with patient. It must be exercised without anger and must be associated with mercy to the offender.

The other side of forgiveness as seem in the above passage indicates a reciprocal or give-back relationship. A master arrives to settle account with his servants and found that one of them owed him some debts; consequently, he decided that everything his servant owned including his wife and children be sold to repay the debts. The servant pleaded for mercy so that everything he owed could be forgiven him without paying a dime. This forgiven servant also had someone who owed him. Instead of forgiving his friend, he threw him into prison not recognizing that he was indebted before and his master did forgive him of his debts. The other servant reported the incidence to their master. The unmerciful servant was rearrested, tortured and put into prison as the result of his action against his debtor. If someone has forgiven you before when you wrong him or her; then, you also need to forgiven someone who wrongs you as well. This is the reciprocal relationship which co-exists between the offender and the offended. We must forgive one another reciprocally in the time of conflict. This reciprocal relationship existing between the offender and the offended is the gateway to conflict resolution among believers. It works in the marital relationship and works across a broad spectrum of relationship existing in the work place and the church.

The third side of forgiveness as stated in the above passage is godly influenced and centered. It gives a flashback of the original sin committed in the Garden of Eden. When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, the entire human race universally became sinners by nature. We became offenders universally because Adam sinned against his Creator. God became the offended in this picture and he had no alternative, but sends us to hell fire. He changed his mind and then provided a token of forgiveness by sending his Son Jesus to atone for sin. Jesus came and died to establish and to mediate conflict resolution so that the human race can become a friend of God. When he died, he established reconciliation between God and the human race. If God has forgiven us when we sinned against him; then, we ought to forgive other people when they sin against us also. This is a third side of biblical forgiveness.

            Having explained the sections of this passage, forgiveness can be exegetically defined as the golden rule, reciprocal, and God centered relationships which exist in the midst of conflict resolution and becomes the gateway to mediation and resolution.

            Forgivingness has a golden rule relationship according to the passage. The rule states that do unto those as you would wish them do unto you. The unmerciful servant refused to do unto his debtor as his master did unto him. How someone who is helped by another person can refuse to extend the same perimeter of assistance to his neighbor? This is the human nature of sin perpetuated by selfishness. If God has forgiven us our debts, we ought to forgive those who trespass against us. The golden rule relationship works in scripture and Jesus himself affirmed and confirmed it. When the Pharisees met Jesus regarding paying taxes, he said unto them give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. The unmerciful servant refused to do this part of life situation. What does this part of the parable teach us? How do we interpret it? Do we look at parable based on the subjective philosophical self-understanding of the interpreters rather than the historical objectivity of Jesus and his message? These are great questions we need to answer in attempting to interpret parables of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Bailey comments on the interpretation of parables and he writes, “More recent trends have tended to see the parables as literary art at the expense of historical interpretation. Consequently some writers have returned to the approach that sees multiple meanings based on the subjective philosophical self-understanding of interpreters rather than the historical objectivity of Jesus and his message.”[3] I think parables should be interpreted based on the historical objectivity of Jesus and his message rather than philosophical self-understanding of the interpreters. We can use philosophy to align ourselves with scripture and allow the Holy Spirit to give us deeper meaning of what God is saying in a specific situation rather than relying on the comprehension of the interpreters only. Reading commentary to understand the writer’s understanding of certain facts in scripture is not wrong, but commentary can not be the finality of the matter. The Bible should be consulted and other factual historical texts that give reference to the biblical text for hermeneutical-textual interpretation of a particular passage of scriptures. Understanding these things and taking the Bible as the yardstick, allows us interpret parables. It is challenging to interpret parable if careful attention is not given to language and word-function. Carter writes, “Existing work on Jesus’ parables in the twentieth century has drawn attentions to their performative language, thou word-challenging and word-constructing functions, and their engagement of the imagination.”[4] In this passage in Matthew, Peter came to Jesus to ask him how many times he should forgive his brother when he sins against him. Jesus gives the answer to Peter and then goes on to state the parable regarding the unmerciful servant. Jesus is objectively teaching on forgivingness using the scenario of the unmerciful servant.

            To stay on track regarding the interpretation of parables, one needs to know the purpose of the parable in context. What is the parable about? What does it convey? What are the intended audiences of the parable? The Purpose of the parable of the unmerciful servant is forgivingness; however, it uses narrative form, but it is figurative in meaning; using similes and metaphors to convey truth. Customarily, parables are stated to convey moral lesson or truth. It is an expression or usage of earthly elements to convey heavenly reality. Bailey, writes, “Parables are distinguished from other literary figures in that they are narrative in form but figurative in meaning. Parables use both similes and metaphors to make their analogies, and rhetorical purposes of parables are to inform, convince, or persuade their audiences.”[5] In this parable, the unmerciful servant is the sinner and the master is God. The simile and the metaphorical use of the servant and the master are rhetorically use to inform, to convince, or to persuade the readers or listeners. Parables are stated to teach moral lesson using items that are representatives of material elements to show what God wants us to know and comprehend; therefore, parables are given meanings based on how philosophically biblical writers or preachers understand them; as the result, parables are preached from the pulpits with various meanings to indicate truth to the audience. Harrington writes, “In the history of interpretation, the Greek word for a large sum of money “talanton” came to be understood in the sense of “natural or God-given ability” and the parable became the starting point for exhortations to use one’s talents to their maximum capacity.”[6] The talents used in the parables are representatives of gifts or abilities God has given to the believers to utilize in carrying out the ministry on planet earth. Talents are simple word-pictures to indicate abilities or gifts God gives to humanity for the fulfilling of stewardship. Schwager writes, “Like the rabbis of his time, Jesus used simple word-pictures, called parables, to help people understand who God is and what his kingdom or reign is like.”[7]

            Forgiveness has a reciprocal relationship according to the passage. In the parable of the unmerciful servant, the unmerciful servant was forgiven by his master; likewise, he needed to do the same to his colleague who owed him. On the contrary, he did not do as he was anticipated. He threw his colleague into prison not realizing that he needed to forgive him in reciprocal manner to what his master had done to him when he owed him. Forgiveness is sometimes misunderstood by many. People who wrong us are the offenders and we become the offended; as the result, we hold dissatisfaction against those who offend us not realizing that the more we hold them responsible and refuse to forgive them, we too become the captives of our reactionary-conservative action. Illian writes, “Part of our difficulty may be in our understanding of what forgiveness is. We tend to think of forgiveness as feeling less angry about some injury to ourselves or as excusing bad behavior without insisting on consequences for the offender.”[8] Forgiving someone who wrongs us does not mean that the person who wrongs us is free from judgment or the consequences of his or her action. Forgiving the individual who wrong us is realistically putting liberation for us as offended. The unmerciful servant refusal to forgive his debtor entrapped him and put him in a situation which led him to be arrested, tortured, and put into prison. Illian writes, “If a man commits a sin against another man, the one who sinned against shall not remain in silent hate against the sinned. He who beholds his fellow stooping to sin or following an unrighteousness path, is obliged to return him toward the good, and to let him know that he is actually sinning against himself in pursuing wicked deeds for, it said.”[9] The unmerciful servant refused to forgive his debtor; consequently, the result of his action met his re-arrest by his master. If we refuse to forgive others when they wrong us, our heavenly Father will not forgive us if we sin against him. Since we all are wrong doers or sinners, we need to be tolerant and considerate with people when they wrong us. They too are fallen creatures and are subject to do wrong.

            Forgiveness has a God centered relationship according to the passage. In verse 35 of the passage, there is an allegorical interpretation of the parable of the unmerciful servant. The unmerciful servant is the Christian who refuses to forgive others. He is called the debtor. Boer writes, “By means of v 35, then, Matthew in effect invites his readers or listeners to interpret the parable allegorically, i.e., to regard the Kyrios of the parable as God, the ‘debtor’ of v 24 as a Matthean Christian to whom the merciful God has, through the atoning death of Christ, granted forgiveness of sins.”[10] In the parables, there are always elements of what one does not expect and these elements are tools which define the meaning of the parables stated. Boer, writes, “In his famous study of the parables of Jesus, J. Jeremias pointed out that they often contain “an element of unexpectedness” and that this element “was intended to indicate where the meaning was to be found.”[11] Elements stated in the parable are there to give meanings of the parables as indicated in the parable of the unmerciful servant. Peter opens up with a question regarding how many times he should forgive his brother who offends him. Jesus answers the question emphatically and states, “seventy-times seven.” He tells the narrative in parable indicating the elements of unexpectedness (the master, servant, wife, children, talents, and the attendees) to convey a moral lesson or truth. These things mentioned in the parable tell us how Christians should live with his neighbor on the daily basis to bring glory and praise to God. How can we apply this historical parable told some 2000 years ago to our present situation? Can this parable apply to us today? Of course, it applies to us today. I believe Jesus was speaking to the universal population of his time and our time as well. Since this parable has a theological and Biblical rational regarding forgiveness, how can one apply this in a situation wherein there is an unfaithfulness in marital situation where one spouse has broken the marital vow and the other spouse who has been offended decides to forgive in order to restore the marriage and the family because there are children in the marriage; unfortunately, the offender decides not to repent but to continue with her adulterous lifestyle. What can the other partner do in this situation? This scenario has not been made up, but it is a reality and factual thing which affect an individual now.


John and Rebecca traveled from Africa into the United States of America with two children born unto them. Upon their arrival after a year, God also blessed them with a son who is now six years old. John and Rebecca have had problems in their relationship regarding child training and sometimes money issues. Rebecca has not allowed her husband to train and to discipline the step children for the past years. This has led to bitter arguments most of the times in the home. Secondly, Rebecca has not been truthful in money matter. She is very materialistic and she loves money to extend that she has lied several times regarding the money matter. This has caused John to inherit insecurity in the relationship. If Rebecca can not be faithful in money matter, she can not be trusted in other mattes as well. In 2012, John and Rebecca separated due to misunderstanding in the home. Rebecca bas been communicating with her old boy friend prior and after the separation; although, they have not been divorced. During ten months of separation, Rebecca has been living with her old boy friend sexually until lastly the husband discovered and confronted her on the issue. She did admit she has been going out with this gentleman sexually but she is not willing to get out of the situation. The gentleman has promised to marry her with all these children according to the conversation. Unfortunately, he can not because he is legally married to another woman. John has reported the incidence to the wife of this man who is going out with his wife. This has caused friction in the home. He can not marry Rebecca as promised. Rebecca wants to return to her husband; unfortunately, the husband has no trust in Rebecca and he is afraid to take Rebecca back due to insecurity as the result of marital unfaithfulness. How can you handle this situation as a counselor taking into consideration infidelity in the married covenant with respect to forgiveness?

            This case scenario seems simple, but yet complicated. As a counselor, I will counsel John to use his discretion to accept Rebecca back into the home provided Rebecca is willing to make a change in her life. If Rebecca is not willing to make a change in her life to forgo infidelity and to become committed to the married covenant, John will have to decide what step to take. I personally, will not tell John to divorce his wife in this situation even though the Bible provides divorce as the result of marital unfaithfulness. Matthew writes, “It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce. But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”(Matthews 5:31-32[NIV]).[12] In counseling potential divorced couple like in the case scenario mentioned in this exegetical paper, it is necessary as a counselor to encourage forgiveness and to discourage divorce in the process. The players should be allowed to make their decisions in the process. The biblical counselor should remain focused on the scripture regarding the matter which relates to divorce. The Bible should be allowed to speak in the process and the Holy Spirit should be allowed to work in the process of mediation. In the case scenario of John and Rebecca, Rebecca has broken the marital vow by going out with another man thereby damaging the marriage. Jesus said according to scripture, under this condition, an offended is allowed to divorce the offender. When the marital vow is broken, another sexual covenant is established between the offenders who emotionally, biologically, psychologically, and spiritually exchange their emotionality and spirituality through the exchange of blood. It is a sexual covenant established which will have negative impart to the present marital relationship. If Rebecca should go back to John, the level of trust that John had in Rebecca is no more. The situation of insecurity has been created for John to have any trust in Rebecca as the result of the incidence involving marital infidelity. It takes the grace of God and the working of the Holy Spirit to fix such breakdown in the relationship. There is a tendency that the adulterous woman might return to her boy friend for another round of sex because there is a soul tie which has been created between them both during sexual encounter. Infidelity in marriage destroys the marriage and family unity.

            In conclusion, the exegesis of Matthew 18:21-35 gives a true picture of what forgiveness is and what approach God wants us to take to have true forgiveness in situation that confronts us.


Bailey, Mark L. The Kingdom in the Parables of Matthew 13, 155 no 617 Ja-Mr 1998.

Boer, Martinus. Ten Thousand Talents: Matthew’s Interpretation and Redaction of the Parable of Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:23-35).

Carter, Warren C. Resisting and Imitating the Empire: Imperial Paradigms in two Matthean Parables, 56 no 3 JL 2002.

Harrington, Daniel J. Polemical Parables in Matthew 24-25, 44 no 3-4 1991.

Illian, Bridget. Church Discipline and Forgiveness in Matthew 18:15-35, 37 no 6D 2010.

Schwager, Don. The Parables of Jesus, Updated May, 2008.

Scott, Bernard Brandon. The King’s Accounting: Matthew 18:23-34, 104 no 3 S 1985.

[1]Matthew 18:21-35.

[2]Bernard Brandon Scott, The King’s Accounting: Matthew 18:23-34, 104 no 3 S 1985, p 429-442.

[3]Mark L Bailey, The Kingdom in the Parables of Matthew 13, 155 no 617 Ja-Mr 1998, p 29-38.

[4]Warren Carter, Resisting and Imitating the Empire: Imperial Paradigms in two Matthean Parables, 56 no 3 JL 2002, p 260-272.

[5]Ibid, p 29-38.

[6]Daniel J Harrington, Polemical Parables in Matthew 24-25, 44 no 3-4 1991, p 287-298.

[7]Don Schwager, The Parables of Jesus, Updated May, 2008.

[8]Bridget Illian, Church Discipline and Forgiveness in Matthew 18:15-35, 37 no 6D 2010, p 444-450.

[9]Ibid, p 444-450.

[10]Martinus Boer, Ten Thousand Talents: Matthew’s Interpretation and Redaction of the Parable of Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:23-35).


[12]Matthew 5:31-32.