Relationship is an integral and crucial part of our human becoming. We are interconnected beings whose continual emergence happens not apart and in isolation from God, the other, the community, the world and the rest of creation. Nevertheless, our relationship must be an empowering relationship that promotes life and growth. Relationship ceases to be when it anchors itself in deception, insecurity, dominance, rapacity, and greed and deprives the other access to better [human] living. The latter plagues our present world. Today, we live in an up-and-coming world inhabited by “People of the Lie”(1) and their victims: suffering, broken and wounded people and nature. Situations and people are hurting and everything, everybody get hurt, raped, smashed and killed. The cosmos cries out for healing and wholeness. What have gone wrong? What have become of us? Did not God create everything beautiful, unique, interconnected, gracefully complementing one another and enormously endowed with riches for its flourishing? Did not God give us the power to re-create beauty to continue to reveal God-self?

The woe in the world ranging from small to wider relationships awfully disturbs me and oftentimes catches and leaves me off guard. I wish to be enlightened and to assist me is the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18: 23-35).

In this study, I invite the reader to delve with me into the meaning conveyed by this parable about relationships and the [kind of] God that is being presented to us. With the aid of redaction criticism and the scholars’ viewpoint and commentaries, I shall go through Matthew’s editorial and literary works and purpose and try to present the parable as Jesus shaped it. From there I will dig deeper on the possible existing meaning of the parable that I hope would illumine what I want to bring to the fore. Lastly, I shall pose a challenge to be brought home, pondered and gave birth to.


< < < < < < < < < < < < < <> > MARK 9:50 – LUKE 9:50

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23[“Therefore] [the kingdom of heaven may be compared] to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; 25and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; 33and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till 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.”]

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (18: 23-35), not traceable either from Mark or Luke, is a Matthean sondergut taken from the special material of Matthew in his tradition or community.(3) It is located at the close of Matthew’s community discourse (chapter 18), which is the fourth among Matthew’s gospel discourses. It is written right after Peter’s question about forgiveness (18:21-22) and before the beginning of the narrative on Authority and Invitation (19:1ff).

Verse 35 is parallel to 6:14-15 and appears to be Matthew’s conclusion to chapter 18. It gives a command, a rule or a law that Matthew leaves for his audience. I noticed Matthew’s use of formative words and expressions reflecting Semitic language and rabbinic usage like ‘Kingdom of heaven’ (v. 23) and ‘heavenly Father’ (v. 35) in the parable. The mention of “wife and children” (v. 25) to be sold with the servant and all his properties evokes in me an opposing reaction having reminded of patriarchy that treats children and women as male’s properties.

I observe the first and the second servants’ use of the same words in verses 26 & 29 as well as the huge difference between the two debts in verses 24 & 28. Furthermore, it is the action of the king towards the first servant (v. 27) and the first servant’s response to the second servant (v. 30) and the fate that befalls the former (v. 34) that catch my attention most. It seems to me that the emphasis moves from the king’s action to the first servant’s action and fate to the audience.

Commentators like Manson, Dodd and Crossan, encountered tension and difficulty on the connection between verses 21-22 and 23-35. Crossan for instance, sees the inconsistency of God’s action (v. 34) in the parable to the exhortation to forgive “seventy-seven times” in v. 22.(4) B. Viviano, in addition, sees the parable as loosely attached to the teaching about Genesis 4:15,24 and a homiletic midrash on Mathew’s instruction in 6: 12, 14-15.(5) Nevertheless, Herzog says that majority (i.e. Donahue, Oesterley, Fuchs, etc.) had less difficulty and easily recognized the complementarities of the two.(6) Matthew situated the parable in its present context and used the connective “Therefore” (v. 23) to place the parable and connect it to the preceding text. Matthew shifts the focus on forgiveness from its quantitative nature in verse 22 to a qualitative precondition, and at the same time, of the parable’s meaning by adding the introductory formula “the kingdom of heaven may be compared…” (v. 23), and verse 35 that reflects Matthew’s tendency to frame the parable in terms of law.(7)

With that, the parable must not be taken out of the context where Matthew placed and purposely intended it because it has a sound and potent tendency to condition and measure God’s forgiveness and contradict and nullify Jesus’ teaching in 18:21-22 and 5:44-5.(8) Matthew’s editorial comment (v. 35) is directed as a warning for his community. This clearly exhibits his primordial and pastoral concern about his community, who is vulnerable to painful division and factions and like a ‘ship beaten by waves’ (8:23-27).(9) Matthew is [known] as an ecclesial Gospel (16:18-19, 18:18, 20:20-21) and the Church officially claims it as such.(10)

At this point, allow me to treat the parable one step backward from Matthew’s editorial and literary works and purpose and look into how Jesus himself probably shaped the parable.

I take the position that the connective “Therefore” and the formulaic introduction “the Kingdom of heaven may be compared…” (v. 23), plus verse 35 are Matthew’s authorial works and additions to the original text. Yet, others opine that without them, the heart of the parable of Jesus can still be read and explored.(11) Crossan holds that the emphasis lies on the servant’s lack of mercy and stupidity of showing it (vv. 28, 30) rather than on the master’s mercy (v. 27) while Hare takes the latter.(12) Herzog, using the positions of Eta Linnemann and Jeremias as springboard, presents that the meaning of the parable can be examined from the point of the king’s action and verdict (vv. 27, 34) which emphasizes God’s forgiveness and the first servant’s shifting fates (27b, 34) which stresses human response and responsibility.(13)

I, on the other hand, closely following the perspectives that Crossan, Hare and Herzog put forward, would like to underscore two views in the context of relationship that I am trying to present. After understanding Matthew’s authorial works, the first major view, is the king’s action (v.27) toward the first servant because it generates an awesome atmosphere and response and foremost, it is a good point to open and ground my position that everything comes to us as a gift. Gift here means life wrapped in surprise freely given from the ‘Being’ of the Giver who from the beginning wants to unite and reunite us to Her/Himself, completely restore us and bring us wholeness. This is the premise that leads to a demanding question: how must we live by it? The diverse action of the first servant (v. 30), emphasized most by the huge difference of the two debts (vv. 24, 28) and the same words used in verses 26 and 29(14), evokes in us a violent response and condemnation as in v. 34. This is the crucial view but fittest to blow off the heart of Jesus’ parable. Before I proceed, let me pose a warning that I am not talking of allegory here.(15) We are deeply and enormously endowed with a gift but this does not mean power and superiority over the other. The gift must be received with open eyes and awareness, must make us humbler and change us to persons capable to effect restoration, healing and wholeness for others as well. The gift must move us to decide and act at the full service of life, freedom and the fulfillment of the gift itself. The parable shows us that consequences inevitably result from the decisions and actions we make.(16) Decisions and actions that, if done at the expense of freedom, [human] life, growth and becoming of every creation, are first and foremost self-destructive isolating us from the movement of life and the rest of all creation.

In summary, redaction criticism plus the scholars’ point of view helps me to read and understand the parable in two ways: as Matthean interpretation and as Jesus’ parable. I come face to face with Matthew’s important role as author of the parable who takes it from his special material and makes editorial works (“Therefore” “the kingdom of heaven may be compared…” v. 23) and concluding moral (v. 35) in order to place it in its present context (community discourse) and stress his pastoral concern (v. 35). I also tried to understand the parable as Jesus shaped it first by presenting three positions of different scholars on where the key to Jesus’ parable lies: a) the first servant’s lack of mercy and foolishness by showing it, b) the king’s mercy and c) the king’s action and the first servant’s shifting fates. Then, following similar fashion, I present the king’s action and the first servant’s opposing action and fall and ground it in the context of relationship highlighting our God-given-ness and the inevitability of result of the decision and action that we make.

I believe that The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (18:23-35) is appropriate, exact and central to all our relationships – with God, other, creation, and ourselves. This, however, does not limit the parable to itself. The parable [and the other parables] could be approached in and through multi-perspectives. They never run dry of meaning in the evolving time and history. Thus, clarity of the context of the text and the perspective where we view the same text are vital in the act of reading and understanding. This enables us to gain focus on the message that we want to study and convey.

Following are the four interlocking implications that I hope would benefit us with profound understanding of our life and spirituality and an inspiration to live by them.

First, basic to every one of us is the awareness of how much we are enormously endowed by God with a gift that knows no limit. From this awareness, the God who Jesus proclaimed is manifest, the God who can only create and wills flourishing (5:45, 6:25-34, 8: 1-4, 5-13, 28-34,9:1-818-34,12: 1-8, 11-12, 18:27 NAB)) and fulfillment of all that were created (27: 45-56, 28: 1-8, 16-20 NAB). The knowledge that everything comes to us as a gift is a key to a life of humility and growing and healthy relationships.

Second, sharing the gift received and gratitude are the appropriate response because “To receive without giving is self-destructive”(17) and detrimental of a wider reality as well. Possession of gifts ruins and kills relationships and the process of becoming both of the oppressor and the victims.

Third, forgiveness is fundamental in all relationships (18:21-22, 27, 5:7, 43-45). It “is an order of existence: this shatters our legalistic understanding of life.”(18) If we allow forgiveness to touch us, we will be healed and able to truly forgive and repair broken relationships between the offender and the offended.

Lastly, we are interconnected and all of our living is interpersonal. Real living is acting in a true relational, responsive and human passion and in solidarity and fellowship with the totality of creation, ever faithful to the movement of life. “Love and Relationship…is the nature of God and therefore of creation”(19) Left with us is the massive challenge and constant call –

…to conversion, transformation, the favor of God and graceful living, calling us to be human, to be words and actions of God, in turn, forgiving, restoring, doing restitution, repairing the world, encouraging and giving hope and speaking a word that heartens and draws forth life even in the face of despair and death, sin and evil… to heal, reconcile, forgive do justice, gather into our heart and community, do the works of mercy and worship our God with Jesus in the Spirit’s grace…to worship and to honor God by being human, just, merciful and compassionate, non-violent, embracing our enemies and making friend of strangers and aliens. …to be words of God, children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, driven by the Spirit, sent by God, missioned to heal the broken world and the broken-hearted people and set loose the power of the resurrection shared with us in the story that seems never to end and to grow more unbelievable with each telling.(20)


1. M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie (London: Arrow, 1990).
2. B. Throckmurton, Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels (New York/Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc. Publishers, 1979), 100.
3. W. Herzog, “What If the Messiah Came and Nothing Changed?,” In Parables as Subversive Speech (Louisville/Westminster: John Knox Press, 1994), 131; J. D. Crossan, In Parables (San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1985), 105.
4. W. Herzog, 132.
5. B. Viviano, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” In The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1993), 662.
6. W. Herzog, 132.
7. W. Herzog, 132-3; B. Lovett, The Language of Jesus (2001), 5; D. Harrington, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 269.
8. W. Harrington, Parable Told by Jesus (New York: Alba House, 1974), 70-1; J. D. Crossan, 105.
9. W. Harrington, 70-1; J. D. Crossan, 105; W. Herzog, 133; W.Harrington, Key to the Bible 3 (Makati City: St. Paul Publications, 1990), 42; T. Long, Matthew (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 209.
10. W. Harrington, 42-3; M. Bourke, et. al., 1057, 1059; B. Viviano,632.
11. W. Herzog, 135; J. Crossan, 107; W. Harrington, Parables, 70.
12. J. Crossan, 107; D. Hare, Interpretation: Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 218.
13. W. Herzog, 134.
14. J. Crossan, 106.
15. See D. Hare, 217.
16. B. Lovett, 3.
17. Ibid., 5.
18. Ibid., 6.
19. C. Fintan, The Stepping-stone of God: Creation (Ireland: St Pauls, 1995), 52.
20. M. McKenna, Parables: The Arrows of God (Makati City: St. Pauls, 1997), 161-5. Italics mine.


Bourke, M, et al. The New American Bible. Manila: Philippine Bible Society, 1991.

Crossan, J. D. In Parables. San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1985.

Fintan, C. The Stepping-stone of God: Creation. Ireland: St Pauls, 1995.

Hare, D. Interpretation: Matthew. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993.

Harrington, D. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew. Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

Harrington, W. Key to the Bible 3. Makati City: St. Paul Publications, 1990.

________. Parables Told by Jesus. New York: Alba House, 1974.

Herzog, W. “What If the Messiah Came and Nothing Changed?” In Parables as Subversive Speech. Louisville/ Westminster: John Knox Press, 1994.

Long, T. Matthew. Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.

Lovett, B. The Language of Jesus. 2001.

McKenna, M. Parables. The Arrows of God. Makati City: St Pauls, 1997.

Scott Peck, M. People of the Lie. London: Arrow, 1990.

Throckmurton, B. Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels. New York/Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc. Publishers, 1979.

Viviano, B. “The Gospel According to Matthew.” In The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. R. Brown, et al. Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1993.