Unforgiving Servant (1)

  • Matthew 18:21-35 tells the story of an unforgiving servant. Now, before we can even begin to tackle this parable, we must first get this story in perspective. What I mean by that is rightly divide the Word of Truth. So, although in this story we find ourselves in the dispensation of the law, before the cross, we don’t discard the truth that forgiveness is still very important in the dispensation of grace.

    If you remember in the teaching “It’s All On Deposit”, I mentioned that this parable in Matthew 18 is another one of the favorites of religious legalists, along with Matthew 6, to prove that we must first forgive or else God will NOT forgive us. Let’s see if that’s what this says.

    Peter is the one who brings the parable of the selfish servant who won’t forgive into play by his question in verse 21. Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”

    The parable in Chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel has to do with life in the church. The chapter begins with a discussion of who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (vs. 1-9), followed by the parable of the lost sheep (vs. 10-14) which reveals to us the truth that in God’s eyes even “one of these little ones” has great value that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep and goes after the one that has wandered off. This is followed by instructions on how to deal with a brother who has sinned (vs. 15-20). It is in this context that Peter asks how often he must forgive an offending brother (vs. 21-22).

    In answer, Jesus tells the parable of the unmerciful servant (vs. 23-34), followed by a final warning (v. 35). The parable actually takes off in verse 23. The “Therefore” attaches the parable to the dialogue between Peter and Jesus. The parable itself does not give an exact answer to Peter’s question about how many times he must forgive, but it surely relates to the topic of forgiveness.

    “The kingdom of heaven is like.” This does not mean that the kingdom of God is like any one element in the parable, but instead it is like the parable in its entirety with all the things that happen in it. So the kingdom of heaven is not just like the king. In the parables of Jesus a king often stands for God. So, in this parable if the King stands for God, the parable raises some disturbing questions about God’s forgiveness. When we study a parable, we ought to look for the truth of a parable in the impact of the story as a whole, not in the moral quality of the individual characters in the story.

    Another parable that Jesus told is the story of the Unjust Judge in Luke 18. This story/parable is once again a favorite that lends itself to mis-application. It is used to keep people in control by fear and intimidation, using wrong believing because of false teaching. Remember that religion must control what it cannot contain. It is shame management. Look for this teaching in the future.

    Moving on. Verse 24 tells of a man who owed ten thousand talents. This amount is so large that it cannot possibly be a personal loan. Ten thousand was the largest number in the first century. The value of a talent varied from six to ten thousand denarii. A denarius was a common laborer’s daily wage. Lets use a  minimum daily wage in the United States as approximately $40 ($5 an hour multiplied by 8 hours). Ten thousand denarii, or one talent, would be the equivalent of $400,000 at that rate. Ten thousand talents would be over four billion dollars ($4,000,000,000). Needless to say, Jesus used ten thousand talents as a ridiculously exaggerated sum of money that the servant owed the king.

    Moving to verse 25. Since Jewish law forbid the selling of a person’s wife and his children to pay a debt, we must conclude that the king in the parable was Gentile. Right here we also get a strong indication that the King is not referring to God. God is Love and God is Family. There is no way God would ever tell anyone to sell their wife and children for any reason. Besides, there were no Israelite kings during the lifetime of Jesus. In his parables Jesus often depicted conditions that existed at the time and were common knowledge. So those to whom Jesus was speaking knew He was not referring to God as the King in this parable. So, don't let false teaching by religious legalists try to put guilt on you about forgiveness by using this parable and saying "God's gonna get ya if you don't.... You fill in the blanks.

    But even if the wife, his children and all that he had were to be sold, there would not be ten thousand talents. The sale of people into slavery did not bring in that much money. Jesus intended for his hearers to conclude that this was a hopeless situation.

    In verse 26 we see the man fell on his knees before him. In Greek the verb also means “he worshiped him,” which is another indication that both king and servant were Gentiles since Jews did not worship human beings. The servant prostrated himself before the king in a desperate plea for mercy. The servant did not ask the king to forgive him but to be patient with him and he would pay back everything, which is impossible and ridiculous in light of the astronomical debt.

    Verse 27 reveals that the king did much more than show patience: he took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. As we move on in verses we’ll see that the servant was Forgiven but Unforgiving (verses 28-30).

    28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. 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 you back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.”

    This section of the parable is identical in structure to the first part. It shows the contrast between the king’s conduct and the conduct of the forgiven but unforgiving servant. There is the first servant’s demand that his fellow servant repay his debt; then, the fellow servant’s plea for forbearance; and finally, the first servant’s calloused treatment of his fellow servant. In contrast, the debt of this servant was one millionth or so of the first servant’s debt, which he demanded be paid right then and there.

    To speed this up, let me cut to the chase. As we go through the rest of the parable, we see that the other servants were greatly upset with this unforgiving servant. If we’re honest, we can identify with these servants who saw the injustice done and reported it to the king. We like this, because we believe the unforgiving servant will get what he deserves.

    Just as we expect, the king revokes his previous decision and condemns the unforgiving servant for his unjust treatment of his fellow servant. When the king says, “You wicked servant,” it makes us feel good that justice was now being done to this servant who had received forgiveness but refused to grant it.

    So what really happened here. The king took back his offer of forgiveness. Instead, he turned the unforgiving servant over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. If we’re honest with ourselves we quietly say “good for the king”. That guy is a bum.

    Now I'm going to stop right here for now, but this isn't over yet. Do not forget what we've proven so far about this King not being equated to God. Also, God does not take back what He has given you. He is not just a promise maker, He's a promise keeper. In the paragraph above we stated that the king TOOK BACK his offer of forgiveness. There are things God cannot do and removing His forgiveness is one of them. God cannot lie. God cannot deny Himself, and God cannot give to you as a reward that which is already yours through inheritance. In part 2 we will get to what I believe is the crux of this whole parable. Grace and Peace.


  • Crystal Roeden
    Crystal Roeden I might be on a limb here but since you mentioned that the Lord was speaking to Peter in particular and Peter was to some extent prejudiced, then it makes me think about Israel as a nation. They had been so wrapped up in being known as God's people...  more
    August 23, 2020 - Report
  • Mark Kunerth
    Mark Kunerth Crystal. It's possible part 2 will help with your question. The thing to remember is that a parable is not a comparison, but instead a contrast. It is a story that comes alongside of a truth that the Lord is trying to get to us. Now, I have received many...  more
    August 23, 2020 - 1 likes this - Report