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The Meaning of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

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The parable of the unforgiving servant, one of many parables of Jesus, teaches a lesson on forgiveness, one of the very important principles greatly lacking in the church and unbelieving world today. In this article, we will unveil the meaning of this parable Jesus Christ told to his disciples by exploring its context, representation, and ultimately the lesson we are meant to learn and apply in our lives today. 

drawing of the king and servants with the text the parable of the unforgiving servant

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

The parable of the unforgiving servant, also referred to as the parable of the unmerciful servant, found in Matthew’s gospel, is as follows:

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.

So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him his debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’

He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.

And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Matthew 18:23-35 (ESV)

To summarize, a servant owes his master ten thousand talents. The servant is unable to pay so the master orders him and his family to be sold. Of course, the servant didn’t want this to happen so he begs his master to be patient with him and give him time to pay the debt. The servant’s master is gracious and forgives him of the entire debt.

However, when this forgiven servant is owed something much smaller than the huge amount he owed his master by another servant, he does not show the same mercy. Instead, he meets his fellow slave with aggression, putting him into prison after he begged the same way the servant did to his master in the beginning. 

Whenever the servant’s master is made aware of this horrible situation, he imprisons the wicked slave and re-instates his entire debt of ten thousand talents, asking “should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33).

Context of the Parable

Earlier in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus lays out the bones of what we call church discipline; a system designed by God for approaching a situation where a brother or sister in Christ is living in sin. The system of church discipline (bringing the sin to the attention of the sinner, then a group, then the elders, then the whole church) is designed to maintain unity and oneness in the body of Christ through the repentance of the sinner. 

This teaching arises what seems to be concern in Peter, as he asks “How often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” To us, forgiving a person seven times sounds like a lot, because at that point, they have clearly offended us a number of times. However, Jesus’ answer to Peter is “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22), followed by the parable of the unforgiving servant to help put this principle of forgiveness into perspective for Peter.

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Let’s unpack Jesus’ response to Peter. 

Who is Who?

So who represents who this specific one of the many parables of Jesus?

Let’s first look at the servant with the debt of ten thousand talents. This character in Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant represents us and our enormous debt of sin that we owe to God. Our sin debt is something we could never repay, and so we are sentenced to eternal damnation separate from God just as the servant was to be sold and imprisoned. 

The master of that servant who forgave the servant of his debt and freed him of his punishment represents none other than Jesus Christ and his unlimited forgiveness. In the manifestation of God’s grace and mercy, Jesus gave his life to bring God’s forgiveness to us, paying our huge debt of sin and freeing us from our sentence of eternal separation from God. All of this was done through no work of our own, but as a gift of God.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)

Lastly, the second servant, who owes a debt to the original slave, represents those who sin against us. After the servant’s master reinstates the first servant’s debt and punishment because of his unforgiveness to the second servant, Jesus ends the parable with a warning:

So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” If a brother or sister in Christ sins against us, we should meet them with the same grace and mercy that Christ Jesus met us with on the cross. 

graphic of the king and the servant for the post on the parable of the unforgiving servant

What can we Learn?

The main lesson of the parable of the unforgiving servant is that “The first servant had been forgiven all, and he then should have forgiven all. In like manner, a child of God by faith through Christ has had all sins forgiven.

Therefore, when someone offends or sins against us, we should be willing to forgive him from a heart of gratitude for the grace to which we ourselves are debtors.” ). 

If we, as followers of Jesus Christ, have been forgiven of our entire debt without having to do anything for it (seriously, not a single thing) but refuse, in our selfish pride, to forgive our neighbor of a small debt, then we are nothing more than a hypocrite.

The same even goes for something that is not necessarily a small debt because whatever we may encounter on this earth is still nothing compared to our sin debt. We are to forgive no matter the size of the debt. 

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Something important to note at the very end of the parable Jesus told to his disciples is “from your heart.” Whenever we forgive, it should not be for show or to just move on and get it over with. But rather, our forgiveness should come from a true heart of grace and mercy; a grace and mercy that we only know because it was first shown to us.

Whether we have been sinned against by a brother or sister in Christ, or an unbeliever, forgiving with God’s grace and mercy is showing God’s love. 

Whenever we have faith and are forgiven of our enormous debt by the mercy of God, we are engulfed with the Holy Spirit. This is the only way that we are able to then forgive others with the forgiveness of God. 

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”

Galatians 5:22-25 (ESV)

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

Colossians 3:12-13 (ESV)

We must crucify our flesh and walk in the Spirit to truly forgive from our hearts. 

You may enjoy this explanation of The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant by Strength in Scripture.

Or one of these recommended resources for further study on the parable of the unforgiving servant.

Parables: The Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Revealed Through the Stories Jesus Told by John F. MacArthur

The Parables of Jesus: A 12-Week Study (Knowing the Bible) by Douglas Sean O’Donnell 

ESV – “Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

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