The Unforgiving Servant

But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. ~ Galatians 5:15

But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. ~ Galatians 5:15

Matthew 18:21-35

As far as parables go, this one is rather simple and the point is clear. Jesus told this parable in direct response to Peter’s question: “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?” (Matthew 18:21). Peter asked about forgiving our brothers and seemed to have repeat offenders especially in mind.

Jesus answered, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, until seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). He then proceeded to illustrate forgiveness with a parable that serves a few purposes. It provides a narrative illustration, which makes an impression. It highlights the basis for forgiveness and concludes with a sober warning to the unforgiving.

Before we look into the parable, let’s have a few words about parables in general. We have to be careful with them that we let them make their point and not try to press them too far. Sometimes people want to pick up every detail in the parable, no matter how minor, and try to tie it to some significant teaching. This can do more harm than good and possibly lead into serious error.

In the parable before us, Jesus is not laying out a whole theology of forgiveness, nor seeking to explain fully how God forgives sinners and reconciles them to Himself. This is an important point to understand, as we will see later on. The context clearly indicates this parable is about forgiveness between men and particularly brothers in Christ. The conclusion in verse 35 confirms this.

At the very least, this parable speaks to the child of God about how we are to handle forgiveness toward others. The parable does not try to get into every possible scenario of offense. We can all appreciate how tangled and thorny situations between people can be. But the point of this parable is clear: We are to forgive one another.

The Structure of the Parable

The parable divides into three parts and adds a moral, or conclusion, at the end. Sometimes it is called, “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant,” because he is the main character in the story. It has a story arc the Greeks would call a tragedy. You know the story you are reading or watching is a tragedy when it ends badly for the main character. The servant in the parable starts in a bad place, improves his situation, and then ends worse than he began—a typical tragedy.

The first part, verses 23-27, introduces us to a servant who owed a great debt to the king. When the king takes account, he finds this servant into him for ten thousand talents. Many commentators try to calculate what this amount would be in value at the time they were writing. The exact dollar value is not what is important. Reading the account, we recognize it is a great amount without any adjustments for inflation. That is the point. It is an astronomical amount that the servant could not even begin to pay.

The king recognized his inability and commanded the man to be sold along with his entire family and everything he had in order for payment to be made toward the debt. He was being consigned to a life sentence and the servant did the only thing he could do. He pled for mercy and begged for more time to pay.

The king was moved with compassion toward his servant. He showed him uncommon mercy by forgiving him the debt. He did not give him more time, nor did he bargain down the amount. The king completely cancelled the debt, just as if it had been paid in full.

It would be easy to stop here and think the point is made. “Oh, I see. We are supposed to have mercy and compassion on others and forgive them.” To stop here would be a real tragedy. It would be to misread the parable to make yourself the king and your offenders as beholden to you. That would be a big mistake, so let’s read on.

The second part, verses 28-30, is the heart of the story, recounting how the forgiven servant deals with a fellow servant who owes him. Comparison is the point here. The forgiven servant is now in the exact opposite position from what he was just previously. He is now the creditor and his fellow is now the debtor.
Given his experience, we would expect him to be happy and his heart softened. Given the fact his debtor is a servant like him, we would expect him to empathize. Given the fact that the amount owed is miniscule compared to what he had been forgiven, we would expect him to be generous. Given the fact that his debtor also cannot pay, we would expect him to be forgiving. He was not.

The fellow servant owed him a hundred pence. This amount is extremely low compared to the ten thousand talents. He was immediately harsh and demanding when he found this servant. He grabbed him by the throat and no doubt raised his voice demanding to be paid.

The debtor did not have the money to cover it no matter how small the amount was. He did the exact same thing the other had done with the king. He falls before him, pleading for more time to pay. This request is much more reasonable given the amount we are considering.

If his heart had not previously been softened, you would think this scene would humble him as he called to mind his own pleas to the king. But the human heart is proud and stubborn and can often be cruel. He was not moved to mercy but rather threw the man in prison until he paid the debt.

Certain judicially-minded people would like to point out here that he was within the rights of justice to have his debtor put into prison until the debt was paid. He certainly was and that point is not lost in this parable though it is not explicit. I point this out now because it will be important to us a little later on.

The third part, verses 31-34, details how the unmerciful servant was punished. Other servants of the king saw this exchange and were grieved. They related to the king how his forgiven servant behaved himself toward his fellow. The king was angered and called for the first servant.

The king delivered him to the tormentors until he should pay the colossal debt. The king was clear that he did this because the servant did not have compassion on the other servant. The king showed him mercy and the servant showed no mercy to his fellow.

Verse 35 gives the moral or conclusion of the parable, which is a sober warning. Jesus explains that if we do not forgive others like we ourselves have been forgiven by our Father, we will likewise suffer punishment.

A Few Thoughts on the Structure and the Meaning of the Parable

The three parts of the parable are framed between a leading question (Matthew 18:21) and a conclusion (Matthew 18:35). Considering the beginning and end points us to the vital heart of this parable in the middle section, verses 28-30.

The middle section recounts the interaction between the servants. What the first servant should do to the second servant is based on what happened to the first servant in the first part. The servant’s actions are much more heinous because of that first scene. This moves us to the third scene, which is where we see the tragic consequences for this failure.

It is plain this parable is about forgiveness between people and that forgiveness is a heart issue. This is the main point of the parable and it shapes the way we should interpret and apply it. Now we want to draw from this and look at horizontal (person to person) forgiveness in the Scripture.

The Importance of Forgiveness

Be aware that the Bible does not treat personal forgiveness as a small thing. Even a quick perusal of some of the commands and warnings about forgiveness reveals its importance (Matthew 6:12-15; 18:21-35; Mark 11:25-26; 1 John 2:9-11; 3:14-15; 4:20-21). We might summarize these passages this way: To stubbornly walk in unforgiveness toward others is very risky, very dangerous to your soul. At the very least you’re opening yourself up to bitterness.

To proceed we must know what it means to forgive or be forgiving. People have different ideas about forgiveness and usually their own definition of forgiveness differs depending on whether they are forgiving or being forgiven. We have noted how seriously the Bible takes this forgiveness so we must know what the Bible means by forgiveness. I have drawn out five principles of biblical forgiveness from Thomas Watson’s, A Body of Divinity.

  1. To forgive is to relinquish all thoughts of revenge or getting even (Proverbs 24:29; Romans 12:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:15). It means you’re not biding your time for either the opportunity to get something back on them or for some other retribution to fall on them. You’re not savoring the thought of something befalling your offender. You’ve left all vengeance and meting of justice in the hands of the just judge of all the earth.
  2. To forgive is to pray for your offender (Matthew 5:44). Praying for them doesn’t mean praying for judgment to fall on them. It means praying for their good. This does not preclude praying for their repentance if that is what is needed, though it would be to pray for that repentance for the good of their soul and the glory of Christ and not your own vindication.
  3. To forgive is to seek reconciliation as much as is possible on your part (Romans 12:18). If we’re honest, we often don’t want reconciliation but rather to punish the other person. Jesus gave instructions for reconciling personal offenses (Matthew 18:15-17; 5:23-26), which means we are expected to reconcile them. I readily grant that sometimes reconciliation is not possible, but we should do all we can on our part. Unreconciled offenses are the fertilizer of bitterness, destroyer of relationships, and divider of families and churches.
  4. To forgive is to genuinely wish good things for that person (Luke 6:28). This goes along with praying for them but goes beyond that as well. We should not begrudge them happiness in life or measures of success in their endeavors. We certainly should not pout or moan when God blesses them. If we are to feed our hungry enemy, then we should also be ready to do them good if we are in a position to do so.
  5. To forgive is to take no pleasure in their sufferings (Proverbs 24:17). We should not rejoice in the suffering of others and not even in the sufferings of those who have offended us. If their suffering leads to their repentance, we should rejoice in their repentance but still we should not rejoice in their suffering.

This is a high standard and may even seem unattainable. We do have an example of this type of forgiveness in the life of David. Consider Psalm 35:11-16. David spoke of those who falsely accused him and repaid him evil for the good he had done them. At this point, many would “wash their hands of them” and be glad for whatever ill came their way because they deserved it. But David responded differently. He prayed for them when they were sick as if he were praying for his own sick brother or mother (Psalm 35:13-14). Of course, he was only rewarded by them with more evil when adversity came to him (Psalm 35:15-16). David here displays the forgiving spirit we are to have.

How do we forgive like this?

Acknowledging what should be done is one thing but the doing of it is another. How can this be done? This question may seem difficult to answer but we can make it harder still. Peter’s question had to do with forgiving one who had wronged you and then repented. In different circumstances it can be difficult to forgive even when the offender repents of their actions. However, it’s even more difficult to be forgiving when that person does not repent or refuses to acknowledge they’ve done anything wrong.

I know some objectors are beside themselves at this point. They want to scream and shout that we cannot forgive someone unless they have repented. Are we to be forgiving to those who haven’t repented, haven’t acknowledged wrong doing, or sought reconciliation? I believe we are for a few different reasons.

  1. In the text parable where Jesus taught that we ought to forgive “every one his brother their trespasses,” repentance is not an issue. We see both servants pleading for mercy but not really repenting. I suppose you could stretch a long way and try to get some sort of allegorized repentance out of the parable, but you would be left with a long, long walk back to the main point.
  2. If we look at some of the plainest commands we have to forgive, we notice that the repentance of the offender is not mentioned (Mark 11:25-26; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13). This doesn’t mean that a person isn’t supposed to repent when they have wronged another, but forgiveness is a heart issue within us (Matthew 18:35) that is not conditioned on the actions of others.
  3. The basis, or grounds, of our forgiving others is the same in all cases. The ground or condition of our forgiving another is not their repentance but the forgiveness we have received in Christ. “Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?” (Matthew 18:33). “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). “Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Colossians 3:13).

That last point is vital. The forgiveness we are to give to others is not conditioned on anything in them or in us, but it is conditioned on the forgiveness we have received from God. In the parable, we are the unmerciful servant who has been forgiven a debt we could never repay. Because of that, we are to have mercy and be forgiving toward others whose debt to us is infinitesimally small by comparison.

Humanly speaking, it is hard to envision forgiveness when a wrong has not been resolved. If we consider the kind of forgiveness we have received, we must acknowledge we have been forgiven for our own unresolved sins. Surely in our lives there have been offenses not reconciled, restitutions not made, or justice not met. Some of these are because of ignorance. We are not aware of every single instance of offense we have committed. Some wrongs may be unresolved because the person we wronged is no longer alive. There could be many different possibilities but the point is that we have received the kind of forgiveness that includes unresolved sin.

We ought not despair here there though, because if we have been forgiven that means all our sins resolved or otherwise have been resolved in Christ in His death (Isaiah 53:4-6, 10-11). So, on the one hand we have unresolved sin in our lives, but on the other hand all our sins have been resolved in Christ. That’s the sort of forgiveness we have received that forms the basis for us to forgive others.

I conclude that if our forgiving of others is based on us being forgiven by God, then we should be forgiving even to the unrepentant. Admittedly, forgiveness is not full or complete when there is no resolution or reconciliation between men. The fullness of forgiveness is experienced when there is a restoration of right relationship (Matthew 18:15). That is not possible when an offender is unrepentant. However, we can still be forgiving inasmuch as we relinquish all thoughts of revenge, pray for them, seek reconciliation as much as is possible, wish them good, and do not rejoice in their sufferings.

As we live life we will have unresolved offenses that will never be satisfied to us. As we look to Christ, we can be forgiving and take our resolutions at the cross. If my sin has been forgiven and my brother’s sin has been forgiven, should I refuse to forgive his sin that God has forgiven? Situations can be complicated when it comes to personal offenses, but if we are dealing with a brother we can rest in the death of Christ for our brother’s sins as well as our own.

If the unresolved offense has come from an unbeliever, resolution will come in their condemnation. Contemplating that fact should soften our hearts toward them. Their wrong against us is only adding to the many sins that come down upon their head in the end. I don’t mean here we should have a vengeful spirit or take delight in thoughts of their punishment. I mean rather that we commit our cause to the righteous judge of all the earth, knowing He will do right. It’s acknowledging we are not in the place of God to determine and deal out judgment on sinners. Joseph acknowledged this in forgiving his brothers (Genesis 50:19).


In discussing forgiveness and being forgiving, I don’t mean we shouldn’t take biblically appropriate steps to deal with sin. One example would be in the case of church discipline that is needed. I don’t mean we just give sin a pass and never deal with it. The parable of Matthew 18 was occasioned by Jesus teaching how personal offenses should be reconciled in the church. I’m also not suggesting that we shouldn’t repent, reconcile, and make restitution where we have wronged others. We most certainly should.

I am mainly considering our own heart attitude of forgiveness and particularly the hard cases where a wrong is not acknowledged or reconciliation is not made. In those situations, we often feel justified in retaining our anger or maintaining a grudge against someone. Those things only lead to bitterness and damage to your own soul. Let us be forgiving even in these difficult cases where we, like Christ, leave it in the hands of the righteous judge to sort out (1 Peter 2:18-23). Let us be forgiving as we have been forgiven knowing that our Father stands “ready to forgive” (Psalm 86:5).

About Jeff Short