Parables of Jesus (The Unmerciful Servant)

The next parable we are going to discuss in our series is one that cuts to the core of all human relationships. The parable deals with the idea of forgiveness. This parable comes in response to a question Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, asks about forgiveness. It is a story that we can get frustrated at and judge the characters so easily. Yet, it is one that we often overlook to apply to our lives and thus lose grasp on the true meaning of the parable. We are going to explore the parable of the unmerciful servant and see how we can end up just like this servant without realizing it. Let’s begin. 

The parable takes place in Matthew 18:21-35. Let’s read it in full and then discuss it. 

“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.””

At first glance, this parable is one that we can follow easily and even predict what will happen. The servant was shown mercy. He, in turn, did not show mercy and therefore, the master took away his mercy and showed him justice. Jesus then tells us the application of this parable. He tells us that unless we forgive people from our heart, the Father will treat us in a similar way the master did after he heard about what the servant did. This parable comes in response to a question, and that question lies at the heart of the parable and the lesson. 

Peter asks a valuable question to Jesus about forgiveness. Peter’s question was this, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times”? Just before this question, Jesus had taught about what to do when someone sins against us. So this question is not all that random given the context Matthew puts it in. Peter wants to know how many times he should forgive someone. How many times is forgiveness necessary before the person crosses a boundary? Then Peter goes as far as to ask, up to 7 times? I don’t know about you, but forgiving one person seven times is pretty generous if you ask me. That’s a lot of times to forgive just one person, let alone all the other people we could offer forgiveness to. Peter is essentially asking how many times is enough? Jesus’ response to this question surprises us and I’m sure surprised Peter and the disciples as well. 

Jesus responds by saying, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times”. Depending on the translation you have, it could say something a bit different like “seventy times seven” or something like that. Either way, it is a huge number Jesus is referring to and just seems ridiculous to forgive someone that much. Then Jesus starts right into the parable about the unmerciful servant. 

Since we’ve read the parable already, let’s discuss it. Jesus describes a master who has servants that are in debt to him and he wants to settle accounts with him. A man is brought to him who owes a huge amount of money and is going to ride out justice to get his money. The servant pleads with him, the master cancels the debt and lets him go. Then the servant finds a man who owes him a measly amount compared to what he owed the master and treats him horribly until he can pay it off. The master hears about this, and tortures the servant until he can pay back his debt. 

This parable shows the justice of God but also the love and generous grace of God. The servant owed an amount that could never be paid back. It would have taken 20 years for the servant to pay back the debt! He pleads with the master and the master not only lets him go but he cancels the debt. The master doesn’t let him go and say, “Pay me back by working for me for 20 years”. He lets him go and completely erases the debt as if it never happened. When we come to know Jesus and are forgiven by His blood, we receive the same type of forgiveness. We have a huge debt of sin that can never be repaid. Instead of God letting us be apart from Him for eternity, he sent Jesus to die for our sins so that our sins could be cancelled and remembered no more in the eyes of God and we can live with God forever. What a beautiful image and illustration of God’s love for us. Just as the master cancelled the debt of the servant, God erases our sin because of Jesus. This idea is carried over into the idea of forgiveness. God has forgiven us so many times because of our downfalls and shortcomings and we should do the same for our fellow people. 

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