The Unmerciful Servant: A Lesson in Forgiveness

“Entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven is comparable to the actions of a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When the audits began, a man was brought to him who owed him millions of dollars. Because he could not repay the debt, his lord commanded he, his wife, his children, and his possessions all be liquidated as partial repayment. The servant then prostrated himself and implored him, saying, ‘Lord, be patient with me and I will repay every cent.’ Then the lord of that servant took pity on him, canceled his debt, and set him free.

But after he left the palace, he found a fellow servant who owed him a few dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and said, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ His fellow servant prostrated himself and begged him, saying, ‘Be patient with me and I will repay every cent.’ But he refused and had him incarcerated until he could pay his debt.

When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply grieved and told their lord all that had transpired. Immediately his master called him and said, ‘You contemptible scoundrel! When you pleaded with me, I canceled your entire debt. Was it not your duty to have mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you?’ His infuriated master then handed him over to be imprisoned and tortured until he could fully repay the debt. My heavenly Father will do the same to you unless you sincerely forgive everyone who wrongs you.”    (Matthew 18: 23-35; paraphrased)

As this chapter opens, we find Jesus teaching His disciples about pride and humility (vv. 1-14). He continues by addressing the subject of reconciliation with an offended brother (vv. 15-17). In response to this, Peter asks how often a man needs to pardon another (vv. 21-22). Jesus replies by teaching this parable (vv. 23-35). 

vv. 21-22
Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ revolutionary teachings is still somewhat limited. However, he seems anxious to know how a Believer should respond to another who has wronged him. He understands his obligation to forgive, but how frequently? He probably felt seven was a generous number of times to forgive an offending brother. Peter is seeking a new rule to guide him, but his question is based on old laws of retaliation and retribution. His inquiry proves he does not yet fathom the nature of forgiveness.

The religious leaders of that era often set limits on moral obligations. The prevalent rabbinical teaching was that one should forgive a man for three transgressions, but not a fourth. However, their legalistic concept of forgiveness is based on a false interpretation of Amos 1:3 & 2:6. Their hard-heartedness does not permit them to set a godly standard for pardoning personal offenses. 

Jesus takes Peter’s number and multiplies it by seven and then by ten. Perhaps the Lord was referencing a story in Genesis in which four hundred and ninety times represents an indefinite number (Gen. 4:24). As Leech sought a “seventy and sevenfold” vengeance on his enemy, Jesus commands us to forgive “seventy and sevenfold.” The parable is not about math but mercy. Because forgiveness is the heart of Christianity, Jesus’ response is qualitative rather than quantitative. Whereas religious legalities involve calculation, true grace is incalculable.

Peter’s foundational error was proposing a limit, for a forgiving heart does not keep score. A Believer’s capacity to forgive should reflect his Lord’s capacity to forgive (Eph. 4:32). His nature in us should increase our willingness to pardon others. Peter is willing to forgive a definite number of times, but Jesus is always willing to forgive. 

v. 23
The word “therefore” and the parable which follows is Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question. The word “servants” here is used in the broadest sense. It includes all subjects of monarchs in that era, regardless of wealth, rank, or title. The king’s power over them was absolute.

v. 24
The king begins to view the expenditures and receipts of his trusted servants. In today’s vernacular, he performs an audit. This servant is “brought” before the king for it is unlikely such a man came voluntarily. Oriental monarchs often allowed immense amounts of money to pass through the hands of their subordinates. It has been suggested this servant acted as a governor over provinces in his lord’s kingdom, for 10,000 talents was an enormous sum. This huge amount suggests he is a man who holds a position of some importance. In any case, it is evident this servant is entrusted with great responsibility.

“490 times” represents the incalculable number of times we must forgive and “10,000 talents” represents an incalculable amount of money. “Ten thousand (myrion) is the largest numerical term in the Greek language (I Cor. 4:15 & Rev. 5:11). The English form, myriad, refers to an indefinite but very large number. Ten thousand talents (myrion talenton) is a hyperbolism for an infinitesimal sum.

The “talent” was the largest measurement of weight in the Greek language and equaled 6,000 denarii. A single denarii was an average day’s wages for a laboring man. Based on this figure, it would take a man twenty years to earn even one talent. Assuming these were talents of silver, such a vast sum exceeded a decade of all the taxes collected by the Romans from the provinces of Judea, Samaria, Dumez, and Galilee. In today’s currency, this would exceed ten million dollars. How this servant came to owe such a debt is not relative to the story. Jesus’ point is to show this much money is impossible for anyone to repay.

Indebtedness in the New Testament is often used figuratively to denote an obligation that has not been met. This analogy is easily applied to the overwhelming debt of sin, which will eventually bankrupt every human being. If one man’s sins are equated with this stupendous debt, what is the weight of sin Jesus bore on the cross of Calvary? 

v. 25
The servant could never meet the deficit. The sale of family members to pay debts was a common practice in many nations and was not unknown in Israel (II Kgs. 4:1; Isa. 50:1). Although Jewish law could demand this due process, the law eventually restored such bondman to liberty (Lev. 25:39-43). On the Day of Atonement a trumpet was sounded to herald the release of debts (Lev. 25:9). In any case, the sale of the servant’s family and possessions could not repay a fraction of what he owed. Debt can destroy a man’s wife and children as well. The severity of the king causes the servant to feel the enormity of his debt. The day will come when each man will face his King to give account of his stewardship (Lk. 16:2). No man can repay what he has accrued due to sin.

v. 26
In an act of total submission, the servant prostrates himself before the king, worships him, and begs for an extension. He can offer no excuse and in desperation makes an impossible plea. Although he has nothing, he promises to repay everything. Fear often causes people to make unrealistic vows.

When one who is lost is suddenly made aware of his spiritual condition, he desperately wants to believe past mistakes can be erased by future obedience. God is not impressed with rash promises. Man’s best intentions cannot pay for sins. Overwhelmed by the debt of sin, the sinner’s only hope is to cast himself on the mercy of their Sovereign Lord. The king’s pardon should produce contrition for sin, not just the desire to escape the consequences of sin.

v. 27
The king’s graciousness is expressed in a three-fold manner. He is moved with compassion, releases his servant from bondage, and forgives his entire debt. The servant asks only for more time, but receives a complete acquittal. The king virtually gives him a new life. Similarly, the penitent thief on the cross asked only to be remembered by Jesus, but is promised paradise instead (Lk. 23:43). Both men received more than they dared hope for. How great is the love that exceeds our petitions. When God forgives, He allows the sinner to realize how much has been forgiven.

v. 28
At this point, the story takes a violent turn. While the servant is with his lord he is compliant. But as soon as he leaves the palace the king’s magnanimous mercy is forgotten. The servant purposefully seeks out a fellow servant who owes him a small sum. Even before speaking to his fellow servant he begins to throttle him, wrench his neck, and demand his money. This is the opposite of the treatment he has just received from his king. To require repayment of a paltry sum after he has been absolved of such an infinitesimal sum is the epitome of insensitivity and cruelty. He misses the perfect opportunity to reflect his master’s empathy.

A hundred denarius equal only about three months’ wages, a pittance compared to ten thousand talents. The two sums are deliberate extremes. The vast difference between these amounts graphically depicts the disproportion between the sin of another person against us and the insurmountable sins we have committed against God. Jesus does not imply an offense against a fellow Believer is insignificant, but compared to our offenses against God they are minute. They are even less significant when we remember all our offenses against Him have been freely pardoned.

Note that the first servant had just left the presence of his king when he deals so harshly with his fellow man. This parable is a warning against leaving our prayer closets and not expressing the grace we have found there to others.

v. 29

The plea of his fellow servant is an almost exact echo of the phrase he has just spoken to the king. These words should have at least jogged his memory. Although free from his debt, he is not free from his obligation to forgive others. The promise to repay a debt of ten thousand talents is unrealistic, but the promise of his fellow servant to repay this comparatively small sum is very realistic.
We often demand from others more than God demands from us. Although we can never repay the Lord our huge debt, we can forgive others their small debts. God’s amazing grace must flow through us and be channeled to others. The more we appreciate the King’s mercy, the more we will forgive.

v. 30
The first servant shows no mercy and casts his fellow servant into prison until he can pay. He values the man only for what he can extract from him. The king did not treat the first servant harshly. This makes his radical treatment of his fellow servant all the more heinous. It is also unreasonable to commit a man to prison to work off a small debt. Failure to reflect his lord’s mercy shows he does not value the king or his principles. He turns the king’s grace into disgrace. Such behavior is as counterproductive as a Believer’s unwillingness to forgive another. God expects His forgiveness to transform temperaments. 

v. 31
Even though the first servant has been totally absolved of his debt, his attitude proves he is ungrateful and unrepentant. He has received great mercy from his master, but demonstrates none. The other servants are saddened to see such insensitivity. They keenly feel their responsibility to take the matter to the king and defend the oppressed. Believers should be similarly grieved when they witness an unforgiving, hardhearted spirit in others. The Psalmist says, “Rivers of tears run from my eyes because men do not keep your laws” (Ps. 119:136). It is right to take such matters directly to our King in prayer.

v. 32
The servant is once more brought before the king, but this time not for exoneration. The furious king reproves the man’s cruelty. The servant is addressed as “wicked,” for he is merciless when he has ten thousand reasons to be merciful.

vv. 33-34
The king asks the servant only one question. “Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant?” In other words, “Was it not your obligation to demonstrate to others the mercy I bestowed upon you?” 

The servant’s earlier plea moved his lord to be merciful, but the servant’s brutality now turns the king’s compassion to anger. The king’s forgiveness is canceled by the servant’s cruelty. The revoking of his former pardon and the severe sentence now invoked is linked to the servant’s lack of compassion. Since no new charges were leveled against him, “paying all that was due” can only refer to his original 10,000 talent deficit. His debt is renewed and the king now demands payment in full. The king assumes his absolution has transformed his servant’s nature, but the servant’s actions prove it has remained unchanged.

His sentence is far more horrible than the action he took against his fellow servant. “Tormentors” (basanistais) does not refer to jailers, but to persons hired to make prison life exceptionally miserable. The servant will stay incarcerated until he can pay “all he owes” the king. Since repayment is impossible, the punishment is eternal. Jesus uses powerful imagery to express the severity and eternal duration of the punishment.

An awareness the Day of Judgment is approaching is a good incentive to forgive others. The truth cannot be sugarcoated or downsized to fit a false doctrine of “divine tolerance.” There will be no escape, no reprieve, no acquittal, and no plea bargaining. The worst punishment is reserved for those who accept God’s mercy but fail to demonstrate it in interpersonal relationships.

v. 35
The parable incorporates two powerful Greek terms: apheka and eleesa. “Forgive” (apheka) means to pardon, remit, or cancel a debt (vv. 27, 32 & 35). The King James uses the words “compassion” and “pity” in verse 33 and both words are the same Greek term (eleesa). It means “to demonstrate forgiveness, mercy, kindness, and empathy by assisting another.” Eleesa assumes a need by the recipient and the adequate resources to meet that need by the one who extends it.

With the phrase, “so likewise shall my Heavenly Father do to you” Jesus clarifies the application of the parable. The servant is not eternally punished simply because he wrongs a fellow servant. He is tormented forever because he does not allow the king’s mercy to change his nature. We are warned by Jesus to forgive “from our hearts.” Unless forgiveness is internalized, it is not truly forgiveness. Forgiving the faults of others helps verify we have repented of our faults against God. We pray the Lord’s Prayer in hypocrisy when we ask God to forgive our debts and fail to forgive others (Mt. 6:12). God shows mercy to the merciful, but unforgiveness hinders the flow of the stream of grace (Jas. 2:13 & 5:9).

The parable proves God views the withholding of forgiveness as a heinous sin; that there is an intimate connection between divine and human mercy. Pardoning our sins increases our responsibilities to others. We are required to convey the love of God by practicing forgiveness until it becomes habitual.

Remember what prompted this parable. Peter asked the Lord about limited forgiveness. Jesus responds with a story about God’s limitless mercy. Man asks, “How often shall I forgive my brother?” God responds, “As often as I forgive you.” The Holy Spirit seeks to mold a heart until it is shaped like His.


1. Paraphrase the words of Jesus in Luke 17:4. Why does Jesus not allow Peter to set limits on forgiveness?

2. Exactly how much do you owe the Lord? Even if you give Him a lifetime of service, what must you ultimately confess (Lk. 17:10)?

3. Compare Jesus’ lesson in Matthew 7:1-5 with the teachings in this parable. What must we do in order to focus more clearly on the needs of others?

4. Why should a Christian not sue another Christian (I Cor. 6:1-8)?

5. How far away does God remove our transgressions (Ps. 103:12)?

6. Paraphrase and comment on Jesus’ statement concerning forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:7, 43-48 & 6:12-14).

7. We are to pray God will forgive us our debts as we forgive those who trespass against us (Mt. 6:12). What happens if we do not (6:15)?

8. List specific ways unforgiveness causes spiritual damage to both you and others. 

9. Paraphrase Ephesians 4:32. Bear in mind the Greek word for “forgiving” in this verse means “to keep forgiving continuously.” How might this verse serve as a safeguard against holding grudges?


Maxim of the Moment

Love is made sweet by compliments; not commands.