Matthew 18:23-35 – The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Do you recall the background to this story that Jesus told to His apostles? After He instructed them about what one should do if his brother sins against him, Peter asked, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21). Jesus’ response to Peter’s question was two-fold. He first said, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (18:22). To drive home His point, He then told a story, one we call “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.”

The story focuses our attention on three people: a king and two of his servants. When the king started to settle accounts with his servants, one of them was brought who owed the king ten thousand talents (18:24). That was such an enormous debt that the servant would not have been able to pay it off in a whole lifetime. Yet, when he begged his master to have patience with him and give him a chance to pay it off, the master was moved with compassion and forgave him the debt (18:26,27).

At that point, another servant enters the picture. The first servant (the one whose huge debt was forgiven by the king) went and found a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller debt. Though the second servant made the exact request that the original one had made of their master [“Have patience with me, and I will pay you all” (18:29,26)], rather than show his fellow servant mercy like the king had done with him, he had the poor fellow cast into prison until he could pay off the debt. Wow. That is why we label that guy as “the Unmerciful Servant.”

Do not miss the king’s response to the unmerciful servant’s attitude and conduct. He told him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you? And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him” (18:32-34).

So, what does it all mean? Whom do the people and actions represent? The king/master symbolizes God. The two servants represent children of God who are spiritual brothers one to another (18:35).

The parable is a message about debt and forgiveness of it. The servant’s debt to his master points to our debt to the God of heaven. Each of us has a great debt to God because of our sin against Him. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). We come to Him with nothing to offer as a payment for our debt/sin. We are blessed, though, that God has pity on us like the master did on his servant. Thank God that He is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4).

The parable is a message about showing mercy and forgiveness when others have a debt to us. That is the whole point of the story, is it not, that the Lord wants us to learn how to have a forgiving spirit? Look again at the language used to describe the king in his dealings with the servant who had a huge debt. The master “was moved with compassion” (18:27) and “had pity on” him (18:33). God wants me to learn from Him and imitate Him. If I do not show mercy and extend forgiveness to those who sin against me, then I am not being like my heavenly Father.

It hurts us, sometimes with deep cuts, when others sin against us. We must learn to develop a forgiving heart. Our willingness to forgive others, or a lack of it, shows to what extent we are grateful for the forgiveness we have received from the Lord. A key thought in the parable is to understand why the master called his servant “wicked” (18:32). The reason is not difficult to recognize, is it? He called him a “wicked servant” because he failed to emulate the king’s pity and forgive one who had a debt against him. A disciple of Jesus might love his family deeply, attend every service of the church, and live a life that is free from immorality’s stain. But, if amidst it all he has a heart that is unwilling to forgive those who sin against him, in God’s sight he is “wicked.”

The parable is a message about a servant’s relationship with his king being dependent, in part, on his willingness to forgive his fellow servant. The king was not happy with and even punished the servant who refused to show mercy on his fellow servant. Are you ready for the punch line? “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (18:35). Those words were Jesus’ “add-on” statement to the parable to make it clear just how serious it is when I am not willing to forgive others. If I will not from the heart forgive those who sin against me, then my Father in heaven will not forgive me. “But what if a stubborn, heartless brother will not forgive me when I seek his forgiveness?” That is his issue to handle; regardless, I still must be forgiving.

“For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13). Again, “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

— Roger D. Campbell

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