What Is the Meaning of the Parable about the Unmerciful Servant?

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After a discussion about sin in the church, Peter approached Jesus with the following question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21)

Knowing Peter, he was likely looking for Jesus to give him an “atta-boy.” After all, forgiving someone seven times for sinning against you seems like a lot, right? If you can show that level of forgiveness, you’re probably a pretty nice person.

Imagine his surprise at Jesus’ response. “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Some translations say “up to seventy times seven.” Then He followed up this excessive expectation of forgiveness with the following parable:

The servant’s outstanding debt

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 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.

At this, the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go (Matthew 18:23-27).

For whatever reason, this servant owes the king a debt he can’t repay-even if he had a thousand years to do so. In keeping with the customs, the king decided to sell off the servant, his family, and all his belongings in order to recoup some of his losses.

The servant throws himself on the king’s mercy and receives an incredible blessing. The king doesn’t reduce the debt or come up with a reasonable payment plan-he cancels the debt entirely.

The servant’s response

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.

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

But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened (Matthew 18:28-31).

Plagued by short-term memory problems, the servant goes out and found another servant that owed him roughly a day’s wages. Instantly, he physically assaults the guy and demands repayment for what he’s owed.

The second servant asks the first for time to repay what he owes. The irony here is that with some time, the second servant could actually repay his debt. When the first servant made the same request of the king, there was no way he could ever repay what was owed. The uncharitable first servant has the second thrown into prison until the debt is repaid.

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The king’s fury

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?” In anger, his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart (Matthew 18:32-35).

Here we get to the thrust of this parable. Jesus wants the disciples to understand how much they’ve been forgiven. And as receivers of prodigious mercy, they’re to be dispensers of enormous grace.

The problem with Peter’s question is that he wanted to make a rule of forgiveness. By asking Jesus what the maximum number of times he was required to forgive someone was, he missed the point of grace. When we understand what we’ve been forgiven, we’re not tempted to keep a spreadsheet documenting all the times we’ve forgiven others.

Or as Jesus says it elsewhere, “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8b).

All Scripture references quote the New International Version unless otherwise noted.