The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

by P. G. Mathew

To drive home his teaching about unlimited forgiveness, Jesus told a parable to his disciples. (Matt. 18:23-35) There was a king, representing the King of heaven, to whom people owed great debts. A man who owed 10,000 talents was brought before him. The words used to describe this debt demonstrated its enormity. Ten thousand was the highest number in daily use, and the talent was the highest unit of money. Although it is not specified, we can also assume that the talents were made of gold. In his book, The Parables of Jesus (Moody Press, 1983, p. 183), Dr. James M.Boice figured the debt in today’s values: if there were ten thousand talents, each talent weighing seventy-five pounds, and if each pound was 12 ounces and each ounce of gold would be worth about $400, then this man’s debt would be about $3.6 billion. The idea is this: that this man’s debt was infinite, and he was absolutely incapable of paying it. In the same way, the debt we owe God is of infinite proportion.

This man could not pay up, and the great king commanded that the servant, his wife, his children, and all he owned be sold to cover the debt. The man fell down before the king. “‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.'” (Matt. 18:26) Of course, he could not do that. It was impossible, and the king knew it. We are told, though, that the king was moved with compassion to release the man and forgive him all his debt. The man was free! He owed absolutely nothing. Through the king’s great mercy alone, he was forgiven his infinite debt.

But in Matthew 18:28 we see the forgiven man looking for a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii, which would today equal about $4,000 (Boice, Parables of Jesus, p. 183). Compared to his own infinite debt, this was nothing! But when he found the man, he grabbed him, choked him and demanded his money. This other man also fell down and begged for patience. But the forgiven servant was not moved by any kind of compassion. His heart had not been changed in any way by his master’s merciful actions. Even though the debt was comparatively nothing, he showed no mercy and threw the man into prison until the debt could be paid.

The great king was told about this wretched man’s cruel behavior. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?'” Then the master dealt with the unforgiving man according to law instead of mercy. “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” That represents eternal hell. Then Jesus made this stunning declaration: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matt. 18:32-35) In effect, Jesus answered Peter’s question: “You have received unlimited mercy from God through me; therefore, you must demonstrate unlimited mercy.”

So we see that there are two bases for dealing with sin: one is mercy and the other is justice. Both are reflected in Exodus 34:6-7: “And [the Lord] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.'” That’s mercy! But it continues: “‘Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.'” That’s justice.


What can we learn from this parable?

  1. All are God’s debtors. The Bible clearly teaches that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) And again it says, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” (Rom. 3:10) In Psalm 40:12, we read, “For troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me.” This is a good description of our situation. We are born sinners. We practice sin every day and commit an unmeasurable amount of sin during the course of our lifetime. All are debtors to the infinite, personal, almighty, all-holy God. Even one sin by a creature against the infinite God is infinite, and worthy of infinite punishment in hell.
  2. There is a day of judgment. “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” (Heb. 9:27) St. Paul spoke about this in Acts 17:31, “For [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.” This man is Jesus Christ. In Ecclesiastes 12:14 we read: “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” In Deuteronomy 32:35 God says, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.” Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan theologian, preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God,” from this passage. And in Revelation 20:12, we find the Judge opening the books, and dealing with every person who will not bow down before God now and beg for mercy. They will see him then as Judge, dealing with everything on the basis of justice.
  3. There is a great King, who is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ humbled himself, became man, and died the death of a criminal. In so doing, he received upon himself the totality of the wrath that was against all who trust in him. God exalted this Jesus and made him Lord and Christ. To him was given a name “that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9,10). Jesus Christ is the King.
  4. No one can pay back this infinite debt. It is impossible! As it says in Psalm 49:7-8, “No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him-the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough.” God says in Jeremiah 2:22, “Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abundance of soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me.” Romans 3:20 states, “No one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” These scriptures demonstrate that our sin against God is an infinite debt that we cannot possibly pay back.
  5. There is only one way of settling this debt now. In his mercy, God sent his Son to redeem us from our infinite debt. We see this way of mercy in Matthew 20:28: “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Romans 3:24 speaks of “the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” We were ransomed, we were redeemed by Jesus Christ. He offered himself as a sacrifice of propitiation which turned away the wrath of God from us. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21) In Isaiah 53, we read how the Lord put all of our sin upon his suffering servant, allowing him to be crushed. His blood atoned for our sin. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” but at the same time, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”(Heb. 9:22, 10:4) It is only the blood of Jesus Christ that is able to cover and blot out our sins forever and ever.

    If a person repents and believes in Jesus Christ, his sins shall be forgiven in totality, forever. Only the religion of the Bible tells us of a God who will forgive us all our sins and clothe us with his righteousness. No other religion has this message. Oh, the beauty of forgiveness based on repentance and faith in Christ! As it declares in Psalm 103:12, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” Isn’t that wonderful? Isaiah 43:25 says, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” He blots them out! And in Psalm 130:4, the psalmist says: “But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.” Micah declares, “Who is a God like you, who pardons sins and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18-19)

  6. We need to be merciful. No one who has truly received forgiveness from God will act toward others based on justice. We will fear God and live on the basis of mercy. This is taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matt. 5:7) If you are a Christian, you have received infinite mercy from God. You did not want him to deal with you on the basis of justice, but you pleaded for mercy, and he showed mercy. So also you must live, not on the basis of justice, but in mercy toward those who may sin against you.

The forgiven must forgive. Our forgiving others is the proof that we have been truly forgiven. We read about this in Luke 7:36-50. Jesus Christ was invited to dinner by a Pharisee named Simon, but he was not properly welcomed when he arrived. He was not given any water to wash his feet, nor the customary welcoming kiss, nor the anointing oil usually given to an honored guest. But while he was there, a woman who had lived a wicked life came to the house. She had received mercy and forgiveness, and when she came to Jesus, she washed his feet with her tears of joy, dried them with her hair, kissed them again and again, and poured expensive perfume upon Jesus. So Jesus asked Simon: “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” And very reluctantly the correct answer came: “The one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

We have been forgiven an infinite debt! If we understand how great that debt was, we will overflow with love and gratitude for this merciful Lord, and we will overflow with mercy towards others. How dare we not live in forgiveness and in mercy! If you are a true Christian, you will adore God for showing you mercy. You will love God and you will love his people. An unforgiving person in the church of Jesus Christ proves that he or she is false in his or her claim to be a Christian. Such a person will be dealt with on the basis of God’s justice on the day of judgment. That person will be sent to hell, because the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. (Rom. 1:18)


How can we put this teaching about forgiveness into practice? First, you must experience it yourself. If you have never received God’s forgiveness, I agree with the apostle in saying, “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). This is the gospel. Repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for all who trust in him. He will instantly pardon your infinite debt. Sin is the violation of the law of this great King, and it must be punished. Either Jesus Christ will deal with it, or you must bear it yourself. But our Lord Jesus Christ forgives your sin if you repent. He invites you to come and receive his mercy freely.

Second, practice forgiveness. If you are a Christian, always practice a spirit of forgiveness toward all; this will happen if you value Christ’s death on your behalf. As Paul told Timothy, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners- of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” (1 Tim. 1:12-16) A truly forgiven person is always thinking about the cross of Jesus Christ, upon which God displayed his infinite love. We cannot understand the length or the width or the height or the depth of it. This love is absolutely incomprehensible!

What about those who have sinned against you? Forgive them when they say they repent, whether or not you feel they repented-you are under the order of the Lord of the church to forgive others. Let God deal with the person if he is not truly repenting.

What if you have sinned against someone? Go immediately to that person, repent and ask forgiveness in Christ’s name; it will be granted. You may be old or young or a teenager; you may be highly educated or not educated at all; you may be poor or rich. Whatever our situation, we all stand on the basis of God’s grace and mercy, and need forgiveness.

Where should we practice forgiveness? Practice forgiveness daily in the home. Husbands and wives must practice it. Parents and children must practice it. As families practice this, there will not be any divorce nor will children be destroyed. Forgiveness in the home will result in healthy families.

Practice forgiveness at the work place. Do not become bitter toward your employer and fellow workers. Do not keep score of the offenses of those around you.

Practice forgiveness in the church of Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 4:3, Paul says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” If you are the offended party, go to that person who offended you and take care of the issue. If you offended someone else, go to that person and ask forgiveness. The church must maintain its unity and purity.

What about your enemies? You should practice forgiveness toward them, as well. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44) You will be amazed to see how your heart will be changed when you pray for your enemies and do good to them.

Finally, practice unlimited forgiveness. Take to heart these two verses: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32) and “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Col. 3:13). When we practice these things, then the church of Jesus Christ will experience unity and purity, and our happiness shall be inexpressible.


As you read this, do you sense bitterness in your heart towards others? I caution you, such bitterness will affect your health and welfare. When our heart is rotten, our whole body suffers. When you forgive, you will experience the truth of this wonderful promise found in Isaiah 58:8: “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.” Let me assure you, if you forgive from your heart, this will be your experience. And if you are a sinner who has never trusted in Christ, when you repent and receive the Lord’s forgiveness, this will be your experience.

We discovered in Matthew 5:23-24 that we must forgive before we pray. If we will not forgive, our prayer will not be heard. Understand that God refuses to answer us on the basis of mercy when we refuse to deal with others on the basis of mercy. But when we forgive, what God promises in Isaiah 58:9 will be true for us. “Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.” Isn’t that wonderful? God will answer your prayer. Then, as God declares in Isaiah 58:14, “you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” There is tremendous joy in the Lord for those who live by these words of forgiveness, who remember what unlimited mercy has been poured out on us through Jesus Christ and who show the same mercy toward others. This joy is as abundant, as rich and as unlimited as the Lord’s abundant forgiveness of us. It is my prayer that you would experience this forgiveness, practice this forgiveness and, in so doing, receive this joy.

Copyright © 1995, P. G. Mathew

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