Today’s parable comes at the end of Matthew 18, and is commonly known as The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. First, let’s look at the context of the chapter: Jesus focuses His teaching on relationships between all disciples, meaning our relationships with one another.
Matthew 18 opens with the disciples asking Jesus, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Essentially, they were asking, “Who is the best? Who do you like most?” This questions flows into a lesson on humility, where Jesus uses children as an example of simple faith. He then warns the disciples not to be a stumbling block to others, especially to children.
Jesus talks about discipline, and says that if you see your brother in sin, go to them and have a conversation. If they don’t listen to you, bring someone along with you. And if they still refuse to listen, go before the church. The purpose of all of this is to restore relationship, in gentleness and love. Relationships are the focus in this period of teaching.
Then Peter comes to Jesus and asks the question, “Well how many times do we forgive our brother? Up to seven times?” According to Jewish custom, this was an extraordinary amount – after forgiving someone three times for the same offense, you were no longer obligated to offer forgiveness. Forgiving a brother seven times would be more than double what the law required. But Jesus responds, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22).
Jesus is overstating here, responding that the amount of forgiveness we are to show others is endless. He explains why as the chapter continues:
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. “When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. “But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. “So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ “And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. “But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ “So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ “But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. “So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. “Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. ‘Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ “And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:23-35
The parable begins with “For this reason” or “Therefore”, which connects the parable to the context of relationships, specifically to a brother who is in sin or who has sinned against you. The parable has four parts:
1. The king and the servant – The Great Divide
2. The servant and the other servant – The Great Disparity
3. The king and the exposed servant – The Great Denouncement
4. Conclusion or application – The Great Decree of Jesus and His Kingdom
Remember that the point of the parable is not specific theology or doctrine, but greater understanding of the Kingdom of God.
1. The Great Divide
There was a slave or servant who was brought before the king for an incredible debt of 10,000 talents. In the first century, a talent was a monetary amount, equal to 6,000 denarii. A denarius was one day’s wage for a typical day laborer, so one talent was equal to 6,000 days of wages, or nearly 20 years of wages!
A debt of 10,000 talents was an astronomical number, too big to ever be repaid. Yet the servant fell before the king, pleading for patience and promised to pay the debt. The king had compassion and mercy on the servant, and forgave the debt and released him. The servant’s debt was paid in full, but how did he respond? Was he relieved, grateful, lighthearted, ready to share mercy and generosity with others? Not this guy – we see his response in the Great Disparity.
2. The Great Disparity
“But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ “So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ “But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. “So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Matthew 18:28-31
The forgiven servant immediately went out and found another servant who owed him a hundred denarii (about three months’ wages), and he seized him and demanded immediate repayment. The servant pleaded for patience and promised to repay him, but he was unwilling and threw the servant in prison.
This is the great disparity: although the forgiven servant had been forgiven much more than he would ever be asked to forgive, he did not forgive his brother. The basis for all our forgiveness today is Jesus. We can forgive and do forgive because Jesus has forgiven us.
No matter what has been done to you or me does not exceed or come close to our offenses toward God. We owe the impossible debt, but God is gracious with us. Our God is incomparable, deserving of all glory, power, honor, and praise. There is none like Him and there is no flaw in Him. He is completely holy, worthy of our trust and faith.
We have offended Him from the beginning of our lives, with our thoughts, intentions, and words. We offend Him when we put our trust in other things, or when we betray Him, lie to Him, ignore Him, go against His counsel, or drag His name through the mud. And yet Christ has forgiven us – His blood covers everything that we’ve done. He went to the cross and bore our sins in His body. In His blood, He paid the debt we could never pay, and He takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
We forgive because we have been forgiven, which is why Paul said he was compelled or constrained by the love of God.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Ephesians 4:32
bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Colossians 3:13
“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. John 15:12
Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. Romans 15:7
We love and give and forgive out of God’s ability, not our own. Forgiving other people does not earn God’s forgiveness; forgiving others is the fruit of being forgiven by God and the fruit of being in Christ.
3. The Great Denouncement
The king hears about the servant and summons him back:
“Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. ‘Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ “And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. Matthew 18:32-24
The king calls the servant wicked and condemns him to torture for refusing to show mercy. There is an expectation when mercy is given and received that it will be shared. The problem is that the servant believed his own lies – he thought he could really pay back the debt, or that he was the best worker. We too forget the depth of our own depravity, which is why we are so quick to judge other people. We are all capable of sin, except for the grace of God. If we think we deserve salvation, we’ll have a hard time forgiving others.
“And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give. Matthew 10:7-8
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. Mark 11:25
Does this mean God does not forgive you if you do not forgive? Some would say yes, but that is the incorrect question. If you have been forgiven, why would you not forgive? If we really understand the cost of our forgiveness on the cross, then we will forgive others. Based on this understanding that we forgive others as we have been forgiven, Jesus pronounces the Great Decree.
4. The Great Decree
“My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:35
We need to check our hearts. Are we receiving God’s forgiveness and forgiving others? Being forgiven leads to forgiving others, and it also leads to a grateful heart.
In Luke 7, a prostitute washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and anoints His feet with her perfume. The pharisees question if Jesus is really a prophet and if He knows that she is a sinner, but then Jesus says, “He who is forgiven much loves much.” We want to be like that woman, filled with gratitude for all that God has saved us from. As we do that, the ability to forgive one another will come as we experience firsthand the forgiveness of God.