The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant – Matt 18:21-3

First off I just have to ask: Don’t you feel sorry for Peter sometimes?  My heart really goes out to him.  It seems like he is always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  Peter was at the Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus and Peter deftly offers to pitch a tent for each one of them as if they needed shelter or came for a camping trip or something.  

At the last supper, it was Peter who tried to convince Jesus not to go to the cross, which of course drew a sharp rebuke from Jesus.  It must have been so difficult to walk around, following Jesus all over Judea when he spent so much time with one foot in his mouth!

In the verses just prior to this passage, Jesus has been teaching about what to do if a brother sins against you.  So, Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive the same person for sinning against him.  Even as many as 7 times?  Jesus answers no, 77 – There you have it, 77 times is the limit, right.  No, Jesus is using hyperbole here to make the point that there is no limit to the number of times we are to forgive.

It seems like essentially Peter is looking for a way to get off the hook.  He basically says, how many times must I be injured before I am allowed to harbor hatred in my heart.  Jesus answers him with a parable; the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.

As I look at this parable, there are certain characteristics of this unforgiving servant that seem to emerge from the story.  He was:

  1. A Debtor – He was deep in debt to his master.  He owed his master 10,000 talents and a talent was equivalent to about 20 years’ wages for a laborer so the servant owed him 200,000 years’ wages.  That’s a pretty big number I think.  Since the servant could not come up with the money, the master ordered that he and his family were to be sold into slavery which was a common practice in Jesus’ day.  So the servant begged for more time and promised to repay the debt. 

    Now this is fascinating, the master knew that it would not be possible to repay the debt so he chooses not only to release the servant, but also to forgive the debt.  When a debt is forgiven the slate is wiped clean and it is as if the debt never existed.  
  2. Demanding – The servant then found one of his peers who owed him 100 denarii.  A denarius was about a days’ wage for a laborer, so the man owed him 100 days’ wages; a drop in the bucket by comparison to the 200,000 years’ debt he had just been forgiven.  But the unforgiving servant demanded repayment of a much smaller amount and was even violent in his demands.  When the man pleaded with him for time and patience, the unforgiving servant refused and had him thrown into debtor’s prison.

    Now let me ask you a question: what was the occupation of the man who he demanded it the 100 denarii from?  (He was a fellow servant).  Keep that in mind as you ponder the rest of this story.
  3. Disturbing – His behavior was disturbing to the other servants which caused distress in the community.  The other servants knew how much the man had been forgiven.  When they witnessed his hypocrisy they took it before the master.
  4. Double standard – He desired mercy for his personal debt, yet demanded justice for the debts of others.  Due to his unmerciful actions, the mercy he had been shown was revoked and justice was dealt out to him instead.


Debtor – The servant wasn’t perfect and he knew it.  He acknowledged the fact that he was deeply in debt to his master.  

Demanding – We have no right to demand justice from those who have sinned against us because at the heart of the matter, all sins are against God; all sins are violations of his law and therefore only He is entitled to exact justice for them.  Romans 12:19 says, “Beloved,never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”  

David recognizes this in Psalm 51.  I love this Psalm because it is a Psalm of brokenness, which David penned after he had sinned with Bathsheba.  Read 51:1-4.  David recognized that even though he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then attempted to cover up his sin by having Uriah her husband murdered, he realized that his sin was ultimately against God and he is thoroughly broken over it.

Disturbing – An unforgiving spirit causes major disruption, not only in the effected relationship but in the entire community.  Unwillingness to forgive breaks the harmony of the community and causes division, the very thing that God hates most.  Nothing restores a group of people to wholeness quicker than genuine forgiveness.

Double standard – We can’t have a double standard; we can’t beg for mercy for ourselves while demanding justice for others.  We have to be consistent.  If razor sharp justice is what we desire for others, we must be willing to submit to that standard of justice for ourselves.  But this is what makes the good news of the gospel so good: Jesus paid the penalty demanded by justice for the sins that I have committed which means that I can receive mercy.  But this is a double-edged sword.  If I want to receive mercy, I have to also be willing to give mercy.

Unlike most of the kingdom parables, this is not one of those parables that Jesus twists up and then drops in our lap to detangle.  In the final verse he gives us the chilling key to the whole story: read v 35.  The consequences of being unwilling to forgive others are eternal.

But Jesus says we must forgive from the heart, what is does that mean?

What Jesus is talking about here is the condition our hearts.  To forgive someone from the heart means that we no longer hold anything against them, it means that you can genuinely wish them well and be glad when good things happen to them, saddened when bad things happen to them.  It definitely means that if someone comes seeking forgiveness that we must do the hard work of granting that forgiveness no matter how much they have hurt us.

But what about those situations where we have been deeply hurt by another and they don’t come seeking forgiveness?  What about when they won’t even acknowledge that they have even caused us harm?  

There definitely are people in the world who are toxic, people who will continue to do us wrong no matter how often we forgive them and no matter what boundaries we set for them.  

Depending on the nature of the injury, in certain extreme circumstances, forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to reconcile the relationship with the person who injured us.  We still need to forgive, but it is not always necessary to even speak with the person who caused the harm in order to forgive them from our heart, but the forgiveness still must take place.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we are liberty to simply cut off every single person who has harmed us in some way.  

Conclusion: Peter begins by asking a question that we have all asked: “How much is enough?”  Jesus basically communicates the principle that we are only required to show as much mercy as we would like to receive from God.  Peter asks Jesus if seven times is enough, which on the surface sounds like a reasonable question, especially since seven is the number signifying completeness in the Bible.  Jesus says, “Not seven times, but 77 times.”  The concept is forgiveness without limit.  We pray for mercy without limit from God and we are expected to show mercy without limit to others.

Ultimately, if we harbor resentment against others who does it harm?  It harms the one who withholds forgiveness drastically more than the one from whom forgiveness is withheld.

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