The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.

Please read Matthew 18, especially v. 21-35.


a. Matthew 18 is apparently one long private conversation between Jesus and his disciples, and the gospel values here are certainly at odds with the ways of the world. This chapter is concerned with a fascinating variety of topics about Kingdom life and community, including:

  •  The sanctity, vulnerability and humility of children. Woe unto those who try to harm them;
  •  The entrance to heaven is so low that only a child-like spirit can walk through it;
  • God will go to the ends of the earth to find a little one who is lost;
  • Don’t be afraid to cut something out of your life if it’s causing you to sin, for it’s better to go to heaven cut down to size than go to hell whole and untouched;
  • A divine tutorial on forgiveness and reconciliation, in which if you are offended by someone, go directly to that person and work it out in a spirit of forgiveness and accountability. If that didn’t bring reconciliation, bring along a couple of trusted friends to this person and try it again. If that didn’t work, go to the church and try reconciliation that way. Hopefully the offender would have sought forgiveness by then. In other words, if you are offended, don’t complain to someone else, don’t start a rumor mill, don’t just sit and stew over it, don’t nurse a grudge, and don’t seek revenge. Seek reconciliation at all costs, face-to-face, up close and personal;
  • In the context of church discipline, a seemingly random statement of Jesus makes sense. Whatever we forbid on earth must be that which is already forbidden in heaven, and that which we permit on earth must be that which is already permitted in heaven;
  • Finally, Jesus promises his presence whenever two or three meet together for his purposes… prayerful, reconciled, intentional.

b. Then along comes Peter. You have to hand it to him, he asks questions that everybody else is probably afraid to ask. In this case, he asks how many times he is supposed to forgive someone. A popular rabbinic tradition during that time is that if someone offended you, you should forgive him two times. But if this person offended you a third time, the offender did not need to be forgiven. Peter thought he was extremely generous and magnanimous by offering to forgive someone up to seven times. Jesus surprisingly tells Peter he was setting the bar too low. You  are supposed to forgive someone 70 times 7, Jesus says! In other words, you forgive and keep on forgiving so much you’ll lose count. Are you able to keep track of 70 times 7? No, so don’t even try to keep score. Just keep on forgiving. There are no limits. And then by way of illustration on the nature of forgiveness, Jesus tells a story.


If there was any doubt as to the importance and extent of forgiveness before the story, those doubts were answered and then some by the time he got to the end. Unsurprisingly, there were no follow-up questions afterwards.

There was a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. One of those servants owed the king the equivalent of several million dollars. A ridiculous amount. Hopelessly in debt. No way that servant could pay that back, ever. After much begging and pleading, the gracious king relieved this servant of his debt. The king forgives that unpayable debt, knowing full well that the servant was in a hopeless situation. Right after that monumental act of forgiveness, that forgiven servant went to another servant and grabbed him by the neck, demanding this other servant to pay him what he owed, which was just a few dollars. So the ungrateful servant threw the other servant into prison until he paid up, even after the servant begged and pleaded for forgiveness. Well, the king found out, called in the unmerciful servant, and it was one big wake-up call. The king pointed his finger at that servant and said he was wicked. A strange predicament… he was forgiven but wicked? “I freely forgive you for your mountain of debt, and you couldn’t forgive that little mole hill of a debt? That’s disgusting! March yourself to prison, and you’ll stay there till you pay me in full for your old debt, which, by the way, is never.” Jesus closes the story with an observation… Dear disciples, this is your lot in the life to come if you don’t genuinely forgive someone who has offended you.

The King. There is no doubt about who the king signifies in the story… the King of the Universe, the Father in heaven, and Jesus Himself. This is his first appearance as king in all his parables, and it’s a self-portrait. This king holds people accountable, but also is deeply compassionate and merciful.

The Servant. The servant was probably one of the king’s magistrates who had authority over finances. This poor man was utterly bankrupt, with an inconceivable amount of debt. The king knew it, the servant knew it. If the talent was silver, the debt was 3 million dollars. If the talent was the legal Jewish talent, the debt was 10 million dollars. If the talent was gold, the debt was 150 million dollars. The servant couldn’t pay it back in several lifetimes, obviously. All the servant could do is beg for mercy. There was no hope. Amazingly, the king forgave the servant’s debt. We should picture each of ourselves as that servant. We stand before a holy God, we are born into sin and we continue to be sin-oriented, and so we have a hopeless amount of spiritual debt to the King. But through Christ we have been forgiven of that inconceivable debt. Because of Jesus, we plead for mercy at the throne, and God amazingly redeems us and sets us free. It was a gift freely given by the King, it was sheer mercy. Our response would logically be gratitude, adoration, and faithfulness in return.

b. But what does that forgiven servant turn around and do? Did he pay it forward to continue the example of the king? Did he want to show the king his gratitude by living into his state of forgiveness? No, he was unmerciful to an extreme. Unbelievably, he is given a reprieve from a huge debt, and he couldn’t offer mercy for a teeny-tiny debt. He was forgiven much, and he couldn’t even forgive a little. In other words, the amount of forgiveness we owe to our brothers and sisters is nothing, it is microscopic, compared to the forgiveness God offers to us. Forgiveness of others should reflect gratitude to God. Forgiveness seems to be a divine process, whereby forgiveness of others is how we live into God’s forgiveness of us. Whatever someone else can do to us is as nothing compared to the level of our indebtedness before God. The bottom line seems to be that God is expecting us to work out His forgiveness of us by our forgiving others.

c. And what is forgiveness, exactly? Forgiveness is a sign of mercy. I’ve heard it said that forgiveness is the process of giving up the right to punish. If someone wrongs you, to forgive that person would be to give up the right to punish that person in your heart. Forgiveness is giving up the right to hold a grudge, to keep score, to seek revenge, to stand in ultimate judgment of that person. Because of Jesus, God gave up the right to punish us. In His mercy, He forgave us. God is forgiving, and since we are made in His image, we are to be forgivers as well. Every person, no matter how depraved or guilty, has dignity and sanctity because of His image. God hates divorce, says Scripture. Which means God hates division between the people He has made. Ideally, forgiveness is a part of that process of reconciliation, which involves confession, forgiveness, accountability, and resolution. Forgiveness is one way to honor the dignity of the other person, it is one step in the healing of the inevitable woundedness between people. Forgiveness heals two hearts: the wronged and wrong-doer. The wronged will have a difficult time getting over the offense, and the wrong-doer will continue acting out of woundedness until forgiveness occurs. Forgiveness is a big part of the healing process for both parties, and unforgiveness hardens the heart of both parties. Forgiveness opens a space in each heart for the Spirit to operate. If you are wronged too deeply to forgive, only God can do the forgiving through you. Actually, God is needed throughout the whole process of forgiveness.

The King

So the righteous and just king decides that this unmerciful servant needs to pay his debt after all, from prison, a hopeless situation. Evidently, this is how the Father will treat someone who is forgiven much, but forgives little. And the forgiveness we offer must be genuine, from the heart, and not merely lip service.


a. It seems we don’t have the luxury of watering down these words of Scripture. Instead, we take them to heart and ask for God’s help in this process of forgiveness.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matt. 5:7)

“Forgive each other, just as in Christ God has forgiven you.” (Eph.4:32)

“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”  (Mark 11:25).

“If you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others their sins against you, neither will your Father forgive your sins.” (Matt. 6:14-15).

“Forgive us the wrongs we have done as we ourselves release forgiveness to those who have wronged us.” (Matt. 6:12).

b. If there is one parable that will bring us to our knees, it’s this one. It’s not just difficult, it’s impossible. Why did Jesus have to go and tell this story? We have already demonstrated that we can’t possibly do this. Down through the centuries of the human story, is there one quality that is obviously lacking in humankind? Forgiveness is everyone’s one big blind spot. It’s the opposite of our inclination. Yes, it’s the secret of what love looks like, but we still can’t seem to do this consistently, or from the heart. Forgiveness is love distilled to its basic element, but nonetheless we can’t get it through our thick skulls, or is it our hard hearts, to do this the way God wants us to. If there’s anything that reflects God’s character, it’s forgiveness. And it’s the one thing we have so much trouble doing. Sometimes all we can say is… we believe, help our unbelief. What’s impossible with us is only possible through God, with God’s help. O Lord, turn our hearts of hard, unforgiving stone into hearts of soft, forgiving flesh, forgiving others as you have forgiven us. Transform us into forgivers, just like Jesus on the cross who said, “Forgive them…”

c. Forgiveness is so near and dear to the heart of God, it is so intertwined with the essence of God’s character and purpose, that when genuine forgiveness is offered, something supernatural happens. When forgiveness is released to an offender, a space is created in which the Holy Spirit can operate. When forgiveness is offered, the Holy Spirit is released into that spiritual space. When Stephen was forgiving his killers in Acts 7, Saul was standing in their midst, approving of the execution, holding the coats of those doing the stoning. I believe the Spirit of Jesus started His work on Saul’s soul at that time, when Stephen released the Spirit to operate during the act of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the first domino to fall during the process of transformation, the holy work of God Almighty. On the other hand, I further believe that the withholding of forgiveness actually hinders the work of God’s Spirit.


a. Is there any conflict between these quotes and the idea of eternal security and once saved-always saved? Do you agree with these quotes?

“Where God’s forgiveness produces a readiness to forgive, there God’s mercy grants forgiveness of debts again at the Last Judgment; but he who abuses God’s gift, faces the full severity of Judgment, as if he had never received forgiveness.”  (Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus)

“If ours has been a mere intellectual acceptance of the doctrine of the forgiveness of sin, but conduct and character remained unchanged and our heart is hard toward others, the Lord will deliver us to the tormentors.”  (Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible)

b. Chew awhile on this piece of meat.

“To be merciful and to obtain mercy are profoundly related to forgiving and being forgiven. But here again we face a paradox that is like a diamond. An attempt to force a diamond to shed all its light in one direction would destroy it. In like manner the paradox of giving and receiving mercy/forgiveness has to do with three questions: (1.) Do we forgive others as God forgives us? (2.) Or do we forgive others first so that God will then forgive us? Or finally (3) does God forgive us and then we are able to forgive others? All three of these ideas are available in the New Testament in the following texts. (1.) The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 asks that God forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others against us. It sounds as if the two forms of forgiveness happen in parallel; (2.) But the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:4 reads, ‘Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us’. This reading of the Lord’s Prayer affirms that we must forgive others before we can approach God seeking forgiveness for ourselves; (3) Finally there is the story of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35, who was first forgiven by his master but then refused to forgive another servant. For his failure he was condemned. As 1 John 4:19 affirms, ‘We love, because he first loved us.’  In the ever-changing challenges of striving to be faithful, all three mysteriously make sense. They do not fit together logically, but whoever claimed that mercy and forgiveness are logical? All three are important for Christian faith and life.”  (Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 82).

Do you agree that all three alternatives are equally believable and acceptable? On the one hand this, on the other hand that, and still on the other hand that? All three hands?


In addition to the books already cited, the Passion Translation by Dr. Brian Simmons has also been helpful.