The Point: Relationships grow deeper with forgiveness.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant: Matthew 18:21-35.
 Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?"  Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.  "Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.  When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.  And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.  So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’  And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.  But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’  So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’  He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.  When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.  Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’  And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.  So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." [ESV]
 “Peter often is the leader in approaching Jesus and, on this occasion, puts a question to Him. He uses the respectful form of address, Lord, and inquires about the frequency of forgiveness required in a disciple. Peter has learned that it is important to forgive, so he has made some progress. But surely, he apparently reasons, there must be a limit. How long must one keep on forgiving? He talks about a brother sinning against him, so he is thinking primarily about what happens within the circle of Jesus’ followers. This accords with the fact that a few verses back Jesus has been talking about one brother sinning against another . Peter asks whether forgiving such offenses seven times is sufficient. There was a rabbinic view that one need forgive only three times. Peter more than doubled this quota of forgivenesses. Peter has clearly learned something from Jesus. He understands now that retaliation is not the right path for a disciple; rather, forgiveness is a quality to be prized. But he sees this as something that should be practiced in moderation. Surely forgiving the same person seven times would be enough?  Jesus is not concerned with a petty forgiveness that calculates how many offenses can be disregarded before retaliation becomes acceptable. For Him forgiveness is wholehearted and constant. He rejects Peter’s seven times decisively. But is the strong adversative, “far from that”; no satisfactory line of conduct for the believer is to be found along the path of calculating numbers of offenses. For Peter’s seven times Jesus substitutes seventy times seven. This, of course, is not counseling an essay in arithmetic so that the seventy-eighth offense need not be forgiven. It is a way of saying that for Jesus’ followers forgiveness is to be unlimited. For them forgiveness is a way of life. Bearing in mind what they have been forgiven, they cannot withhold forgiveness from any who sin against them.  Jesus underlines His teaching with a parable, found only in this Gospel. Therefore brings out an implication of the preceding. Forgiveness is important in a sinful world where all people are sinners, in the first place because we are all in need of being forgiven, and in the second, because people keep on sinning against us so that we ourselves are constantly confronted with situations in which the followers of Jesus are required to forgive. In the parable Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who decided to have a day of reckoning. A king would have many officials who handled money in the various departments of state. This king decided it was time to see how they had managed the money that had been entrusted to them. The word rendered servants is the ordinary word for ‘slaves’, but in accordance with the usage of the time it was commonly applied to those who served the king. These people would not have been slaves in our sense, but responsible officials in high office.  As he initiated the process, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. That he was brought may indicate a certain unwillingness on the part of the man in question, or even that he had already been arrested. That he was a debtor indicates that he was legally obliged to pay the money to the king. A talent represented a large sum of money. It was actually a measure of weight, the largest weight in use among the Jews (though its precise size is not known). When used, as here, for amounts of money, it was gold or silver or copper that was weighed. In the parable it is not specified which metal the talent comprised of gold or silver, but either way ten thousand of them represented a huge sum of money. Jesus is speaking of a vast sum; the man must have been a high official on special service to have been entrusted with such an amount.  Evidently the venture on which the man had been engaged had failed dismally, and on the day of reckoning he did not have the money to repay. There is no information about the enterprise in which he had been engaged and on which he had had such spectacular losses. There is no indication as to whether the failure had been due to incompetence or dishonesty. The point of the parable lies elsewhere: it is the absence of the money and not the reason for its absence that matters for this story. The king (from this point on called the master, a title that emphasizes that he had full rights) took seriously the man’s inability to pay what he owed. So he issued a command that the defaulter be sold into slavery, and for good measure his wife and his children too. Even when we add the proceeds from all he had, it is unlikely that the proceeds of the sale would come anywhere near meeting the liability involved in the ten thousand talents that were missing. The point is that the man was being punished for his offense, not that he was fully reimbursing the king for what he had lost. The sale was a gesture, not a settlement. To us it seems unfair that the wife and the children should be sold, too; but in the thinking of the time they belonged to the man, and if he was to be sold it was natural that they should be sold as well. The man had run up a huge debt; he must pay a huge penalty. Imprisonment for debt was apparently well known in the Greco-Roman world. It prevented the defaulter making his escape and, of course, it encouraged his relatives and friends to raise the money to free him. But in this story the amount is so huge that raising it in order to free him does not come into consideration. His being sold is no more than punishment.  All this spelled disaster for the unfortunate debtor. With such a huge debt hanging over his head and with all his assets lost to him there was no chance of his ever being free again. Everything was lost. Justice was of no use to him, so he wholeheartedly went for mercy. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring the king. The imperfect tense of imploring indicates that he kept pleading; his was no half-hearted plea. He entreated his master, Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. One who was bankrupt would never succeed in repaying a debt of the magnitude of that with which the man was faced. But his plight was desperate; he was ready to promise anything.  The king was a compassionate man, and Jesus employs a verb that indicates that he was deeply moved in his pity. The king is here called the master of that servant, a title that brings out the fact that he had the right to dispose of the defaulter as he chose. But as his initial anger drove him to harshness, so now his compassion led him to act forgivingly. He did more than the man asked. The debtor had requested no more than time to pay, but the king gave him complete freedom. He released the man; prison no longer hung over his head, and he forgave him the debt. The king set no conditions. The man had asked for forbearance and volunteered to repay the debt (even though it was so large that there was no possibility of his ever doing so). But the king ignored all this. He freely forgave. That was all. There were no conditions and no hesitation. It was an act of pure grace.  But just as the defaulter had owed money, so money was owed to him. When he went out from the presence of the king, he found one of his fellow servants, one who was on the same level as he, one who shared with him in serving the king. Jesus does not say whether the man happened to encounter the fellow servant or whether he went looking for him; found could be used in either sense, but it seems more likely that he sought the man out. This fellow servant owed him money, but whereas the debt he had just been forgiven was so large that its extent could scarcely be computer, this debt was certainly small enough to be understood, a hundred denarii (a denarius was a Roman silver coin; it was the wage an ordinary laborer was paid for a day’s work; there were 6,000 denarii to a talent). The wages for a hundred days’ work cannot be said to be insignificant, but clearly, compared to the first man’s debt, this man’s was a mere trifle. But the man to whom the money was owed was most anxious to get his money back; he was greedy and grasping as well as extravagant. He laid hands on the debtor and indeed began to choke him; clearly he took him by the throat, a hostile and threatening act, to enforce his demand for repayment. He uses the same verb toward his fellow servant as the king had used toward him: Pay what you owe.  The resemblance continues between verses 26 and 29. Pleaded is the word of one taking a lowly place and asking for a favor, while the words of the request are identical with the words of the man to whom they are addressed with the solitary exception that whereas this man promised no more than to repay (which may mean that he would repay some or repay what he could), the other had specifically said that he would repay everything. There is this difference that, whereas the first man’s undertaking was one that he could not possibly have fulfilled, this man’s was more realistic. It was not impossible that in due course he would be able to raise the money.  But whereas the petition was to all intents and purposes identical with the earlier request, the response is diametrically opposite. The first servant refused all mercy. His will was set against any clemency. Far from forgiving as he was forgiven, he did the very opposite. He went and put him in prison. Since the unfortunate man was to be there until he repaid the debt and since in prison he had no opportunity to earn the necessary money, his outlook was bleak. Jesus is depicting for us a horrible example of an unforgiving, though forgiven, man. It is the height of ingratitude and injustice.  Attention moves to the other servants of the king, here described as the fellow servants of the man just thrown into jail. When they saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, which clearly points to a deep feeling of grief. The imprisoned man may or may not have been popular, but there was no doubting that he had been treated very shabbily. So these servants went to the king and explained to him all that had taken place. They left him in no doubt but made a clear and full explanation of the whole situation.  You wicked servant leaves no doubt as to the master’s opinion of the conduct of the forgiven servant. The master places emphasis on all that debt that he had forgiven the servant when he had done nothing more than appeal to his master. He had said he would repay, but he had in fact repaid nothing, and everyone knew that it was impossible for him to repay everything as he had said he would. He had been the recipient of extraordinary grace.  And those who receive extraordinary grace should act in accordance with the grace they receive. The master asks whether the servant ought not to have had mercy on his fellow servant. The master sees it as necessary that the forgiven man act like a forgiven man, namely in forgiving others. The master says that the man should have had mercy. A merciful attitude should have guided the thinking and the actions of a man who had been the recipient of such signal mercy. The master speaks of mercy on your fellow servant, putting the emphasis on his relationship to the man he had condemned rather than on that to his sovereign. And the master goes on to remind the servant that he had received mercy rather than strict justice.  Not surprisingly the master was angry, and equally unsurprisingly he took action against the man who refused to forgive. He handed him over to the jailers and the man was to remain there until his entire debt was discharged. He would not be freed if a token amount was paid. This means that he would never get out.  Jesus does not always make an application of the truth taught in His parables, but on this occasion He does. So means that the severity we discern in the punishment of the man in the parable is all that unforgiving sinners can look for from the hand of God. God might, of course, be more merciful than the king, but that is not the point. The point is that the man deserved no more; any unforgiving sinner, by the fact that he refuses to forgive, is inviting God to withhold forgiveness from him. Jesus refers to God here as my heavenly Father, stressing His special relationship to God and at the same time something of the majesty of God. The certainty that God will be our final Judge underlies the statement that He will do to the unforgiving as they have done to others. The lesson that is driven home is that the followers of Jesus must each forgive. And the final expression brings home the truth that we must forgive wholeheartedly, not grudgingly. It is easy to skimp on forgiveness, refraining from outward evidence of an unforgiving heart but nursing up a grudge against one who has offended us. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors [Matt. 6:12] is a prayer that we must pray with due searching of heart.” [Morris, pp. 471-477].
Questions for Discussion:
1. In His reply to Peter, what is Jesus telling Peter and the other disciples concerning forgiveness?
2. How does the parable further illustrate Jesus’ teaching concerning forgiveness? What is the main point of the parable?
3. In verse 35, what application does Jesus draw from the parable? What do we learn about forgiveness in this passage?
Matthew, volume 2, James Boice, Baker.
The Gospel of Matthew, R. T. France, Eerdmans.
The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.
Matthew, David Turner, BENT, Baker.