A King Settling Accounts

king settling accounts

b) Matt 18:23–27: Jesus illustrated why we must forgive others through this parable (Matt 18:21–35).[1]

No one can come close to offending us to the extent that our sins provoke our holy God.[2] Therefore, a community of forgiven people who internalize the depth of our pardon can freely extend grace and mercy to others.[3]

To explain to Peter how the kingdom of God operates, Jesus told a story about a Gentile king and his slaves, using “debt” as a metaphor for sin.[4] In Jewish thought, sins were debts to God (Cf. Col 1:13–14). Indeed, the same Aramaic word applies to both.[5]

Christ began by saying, “For this reason, the kingdom of heaven is like [the case of] a king who desired to settle accounts with his slaves.”

Rulers performed this reckoning at a certain time each year.[6]

Unlike in American society, slaves in the ancient world could serve in positions of authority,[7] even as provincial governors (Dan 1:1–5Dan 3:1–2, 12).[8]

Most likely, these slaves worked as tax collectors—also known as tax farmers— for a Gentile king.[9]

The Roman historian Livy (59 BC–17 AD) wrote this:

A great many men were slain or captured there, an ill-organized mass, however, of rustics and slaves. It was the smallest part of the loss that, along with the rest, the prefect was captured, who was responsible at that time for a reckless battle, and had previously been a tax-farmer possessed of all the dishonest devices, faithless and ruinous both to the state and to the companies.[10]

Jesus said, “And when he began to settle [the accounts], there was brought to him one debtor of ten thousand talents.”

A talent was a unit of weight, rather than an amount of money.[11] It usually referred to silver.[12] Ten thousand talents weighed 665,797 pounds.[13] An Israeli laborer could expect to earn a denarius for a day’s wages (Matt 20:1–2).[14]

Ten thousand talents equaled 60 million denarii,[15] five hundred times more than the average person earned in a lifetime.[16]

Josephus (37–100 AD) reported that Caesar Augustus (27 BC–14 AD) appointed Herod’s son over the territories of Judea, Idumea, and Samaria in 4 BC.[17]

He wrote, “The tribute-money that came to Archelaus every year from his own dominions amounted to six hundred talents.”[18]

On the other hand, ten thousand served as the largest numeral in typical Koine Greek,[19] while a talent consisted of the greatest unit of currency.[20]

Therefore, Jesus may have meant that no one could calculate such an astronomical debt,[21] akin to saying, “a gazillion dollars.”[22]

This larger-than-life imagery would have elicited gasps of astonishment from those listening to this parable.[23]

The debtor owed more money than the amount circulated in the entire country. How could a man foolishly incur such debt?[24]

Jesus continued, saying, “But not having it to repay, the king commanded him to be sold, and [also] his wife and his children and all that he had, and to be repaid.”

In the Old Testament era, slavery often resulted from owing money (Exod 22:2; 2 Ki 4:1; Neh 5:3–5; Isa 50:1).[25]

Since the Roman Empire remained at peace during Christ’s ministry, most slavery ensued from being unable to pay a debt, rather than as a consequence of war.[26]

By Christ’s lifetime, Jewish rabbis forbade the sale of women and children to repay debts incurred by theft (m. Sotah 3:8).[27]

While Jewish people abhorred the practice,[28] a Gentile king could act with impunity.[29]

Indeed, Livy reported this senate declaration: “For the Capuans, family by family, decrees were passed…the property of some of them was to be confiscated, themselves and their children and wives sold, except the daughters who, before they became subject to the authority of the Roman people, had married into other communities.”[30]

The amount of money raised by the sale of the family in this parable would amount to a minuscule fraction of what the slave owed his master.[31] During that era, a person could purchase a young male with average skills for about four tons of wheat.[32]

Josephus recorded that a century earlier, “Hyrcanus…came to the merchants privately, and bought a hundred boys that had learning, and were in the flower of their ages, each at a talent apiece; as also he bought a hundred maidens, each at the same price as the other.”[33]

Consequently, people typically considered being sold into slavery as a punishment, rather than a means of repayment.[34]

Jesus said, “Falling, therefore, the slave prostrated (proskuneō) himself to him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and all I shall repay to you.’”

In the New Testament (NT), to fall prostrate implies worship. The object of that obeisance is always divine (Matt 8:2; Matt 9:18). Here we see a hint that the earthly king in this parable represents the Lord.[35]

The slave made a ridiculous appeal to the king for extra time to repay his debt.[36]

The phrase “I shall repay” (apodidōmi) frequently appeared in Greco-Roman business documents.[37]

Appian of Alexandria, a Greco-Roman historian (95–165 AD), wrote, “Now that Antony is vanquished and Hirtius dead…I am about to pay the debt of nature…

The army that you yourself gave to us should most properly be given back (apodidōmi) to you, and I do give it. If you can take and hold the new levies, I will give you those also.”[38]

The great Athenian orator Demosthenes (384–322 BC) recorded this speech concerning a loan to ransom some slaves:

“Do you, therefore,” he said, “provide for me the amount which is lacking before the thirty days have passed, in order that what I have already paid, the thousand drachmae, may not be lost, and that I myself be not liable to seizure. I shall make a collection from my friends,” he said, “and when I have got rid of the strangers, I shall pay you in full whatever you shall have lent me. You know,” he said, “that the laws enact that a person ransomed from the enemy shall be the property of the ransomer, if he fail to pay the redemption money.”[39]

Failure to repay the loan to release people from slavery in a timely fashion would result in his own enslavement.

Despite the outrageous nature of the debtor’s request in this parable, “Moved with compassion [was] the lord of that slave. He released him and the loan forgave him.”

Originally, the noun form of “moved with compassion” (splanchnizomai) referred to the inward parts of a sacrificed animal.[40]

The term evokes images of deep emotion coming from one’s spleen (Matt 9:35–38). Whenever this word appears elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, it always applied to Jesus (Matt 14:14; Matt 15:32; Matt 20:29–34).[41]

The king’s overwhelming pity moved him to give the unworthy slave far more than he requested. He canceled his debt and set him free,[42] exceedingly more than the slave could do for himself.[43]

Ancient Near Eastern kings were notoriously ruthless. Therefore, the original audience would have found this act of mercy just as unbelievable as the size of the debt.[44]

For example, the Assyrian king Sargon II (722–705 BC) besieged Samaria for three years after Israel’s king refused to pay the tribute exacted by his predecessor (2 Ki 17:1–6). Sargon boasted:

I besieged and conquered Samaria (Sa-me-ri-na), led away as booty 27,290 inhabitants of it. I formed from among them a contingent of 50 chariots and made remaining (inhabitants) assume their (social) positions. I installed over them an officer of mine and imposed upon them the tribute of the former king.[45]

Greco-Roman emperors behaved no better.

Suetonius (71–135 AD) described Tiberius, who ruled the empire at the time of Christ (14–37 AD), as “guilty of many barbarous actions, under the pretense of strictness and reformation of manners, but more to gratify his own savage disposition.”[46]

For rulers like Sargon and Tiberius, compassion remained a foreign concept.

In the NT, the predominant usage of the word translated as “forgave” (aphiēmi)—in which one is released from a moral or legal obligation—indicates that this absolution comes from God (Matt 9:1–8).[47]

He forgives lawlessness, sins, and offenses (Matt 6:14; Rom 4:7–8).[48]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read Matt 18:23–27. How did Jesus depict sin in this section of the parable?  Why would this story have shocked those who first heard it? In what ways are the king and God alike? What effect does an attempt to earn our salvation have?






Go to Astounding Hypocrisy


[Related posts include A Lesson on Forgiveness (Matt 18:21–22); Astounding Hypocrisy (Matt 18:28–30); Having Mercy on our Fellow Debtors (Matt 18:31–34); The Tragedy of Mercilessness (Matt 18:35); Lamech’s Ode to Himself (Gen 4:23–24); and Ancient Literature]

[Click here to go to Chapter 2: The Descent of Humanity (Genesis 4:17–24)]


[1]Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 537.

[2]Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 458.

[3]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 702.

[4]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 703.

[5]Keener, IVPBBCNT, Matt 6:12.

[6]Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 458.

[7]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 705.

[8]Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 458.

[9]Keener, IVPBBCNT, Matt 18:23.

[10]Titus Livy, History of Rome, Books 2325 (trans. Frank Gardner Moore; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940), 25.1.4, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a1999.02.0157%3abook%3d25.

[11]Wilkins, Matthew, 623.

[12]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 706.

[13]Logos 7 Bible Software, Weights and Measures Converter.

[14]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 706.

[15]Marvin A. Powell, “Weights and Measures,”  ABD 6:897–908, 907.

[16]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 706.

[17]Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 538.

[18]Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 17.1.4, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0146%3Abook%3D17%3Awhiston+chapter%3D11%3Awhiston+section%3D4.

[19]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 706.

[20]Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 458.

[21]Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 538.

[22]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 706.

[23]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 704.

[24]Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 459.

[25]Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 538.

[26]Osborne, Matthew (ZECNT; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 695.

[27]Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 459.

[28]Keener, IVPBBCNT, Matt 18:25.

[29]Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 459.

[30]Titus Livy, History of Rome, Books 26–27 (trans. Frank Gardner Moore; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1943), 26.34.3, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0158%3Abook%3D26%3Achapter%3D34.

[31]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 706.

[32]Walter Scheidel, “The Roman Slave Supply,” in The Cambridge World History of Slavery: Volume 1, the Ancient Mediterranean World (Keith Bradley and Paul Cartledge; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 300.

[33]Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 12.6.9, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0146%3Abook%3D12%3Awhiston%20chapter%3D6%3Awhiston%20section%3D9.

[34]Wilkins, Matthew, 623.

[35]Heinrich Greeven, “προσκυνεω” (proskuneō), TDNT 6:758–66, 763.

[36]Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 538.

[37]Keener, IVPBBCNT, Matt 18:26.

[38]Appian, The Civil Wars (trans. Horace White; London: MacMillian, 1899), 3.10.76, Http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0232%3Abook%3D3%3Achapter%3D10%3Asection%3D76.

[39]Demosthenes, “Oration 53: Apollodorus Against Nicostratus in the Matter of the Slaves of Arethusias,” in Demosthenes with an English Translation (trans. Norman W. DeWitt and Norman J. DeWitt; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1941), 53.11, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0080%3Aspeech%3D53%3Asection%3D11.

[40]Helmut Köster, “σπλαγχνιζομαι” (splanchnizomai) TDNT  7:548–59, 748.

[41]Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 539.

[42]Wilkins, Matthew, 624.

[43]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 706.

[44]Keener, IVPBBCNT, Matt 18:27.

[45]Sargon II, “The Fall of Samaria,” in ANET trans. Daniel D. Luckenbill, 23–6, 284–5, https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n309/mode/2up.

[46]C. Suetonius Tranquillus, “Tiberius,” in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; An English Translation, Augmented with the Biographies of Contemporary Statesmen, Orators, Poets, and Other Associates. (ed. J. Eugene Reed; trans. Alexander Thomson; Philadelphia: Gebbie, 1883), 59, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0132%3Alife%3Dtib.%3Achapter%3D59.

[47]Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, “ἀφιημι” (aphiēmi), BDAG, 156.

[48]Rudolf Bultmann, “ἀφιημι” (aphiēmi), TDNT, 1:509–12.