The Unforgiving Servant Matthew 18: 21-35

The Unforgiving Servant:      Matthew 18: 21-35; Matthew 5: 43-44

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked: “Lord, how often should I forgive someone [my brother] who sins against me? Seven times?”

22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven [or 77 times]!

23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him.24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him a vast amount of money. 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children and everything he owned—to pay the debt.

26 But the man fell down before his master and begged him: ‘Please, be patient with me and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him and he released him and forgave his debt.

28 But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a small amount of money. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.

29 His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

31 When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said: ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.

35 That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters [brother] from your heart.”

I know a lady whose mother used to tell her after she’d been naughty … “I’ll never forgive you for that!” I wonder what impact it had on the girl?

A recent item (August 2018) about a junior doctor who, several years ago, failed to spot that a child had a life-threatening illness. The doctor made several errors in diagnosis that led to the boy’s premature death. It was a complicated case and resulted in several enquiries, police involvement, a trial of the doctor and two other members of staff. The boy’s parents were understandably distressed; the mother made this comment: “I blame (the doctor) for my son’s death. I will never forgive her for that”. The little lad’s bedroom has become a sort of shrine and the parents are still in anguish and do not appear to have come to terms with the situation at all.

Question: Has the parents’ lack of forgiveness contributed to their continuing lack of peace and their on-going emotional turmoil?

Consider these familiar expressions attached to UNFORGIVENESS

  • I’m going to get even with her, if it’s the last thing I do!
  • I don’t care if you’re sorry; you’re going to pay for what you did!
  • This is my chance to get my own back!

Resentment… anger… spite… bitterness… retribution… revenge…

By contrast, forgiveness is a term linked to ideas such as ‘reconciliation’ and ‘understanding’ and ‘peace’ and ‘amnesty’…

Someone has said that forgiveness won’t change the past but it will change the future… for the better!

The decision to forgive is made by CHOICE… It has to be cashed out in our ATTITUDE and ACTIONS.

So we can’t exercise forgiveness in theory… It has to be demonstrated in practice.

  • But what does ‘demonstrate in practice’ mean? What does the process of forgiving involve? (More in a moment)

Understanding the meaning and implications of forgiveness… and of not forgiving… is important for two reasons:

  • We are all in need of forgiveness for our negative attitudes, words wrongly spoken or inappropriate actions
  • Everyone else is in the same position!

So there are likely to be people who have or have not forgiven us for something we’ve said or done… Equally, there may be people we need to forgive for what they have said or done of which they are unaware!

In forgiving someone, we may also be faced with a choice about whether or not to make the issue public (by telling the person) or simply forgive the person “in our hearts”, such that he or she is unaware of having offended or injured or insulted us in the first place… and therefore equally unaware of the forgiveness that you are offering!

Which raises a vitally important issue… Does forgiveness depend on the person showing genuine remorse and asking for forgiveness?

  • Can you forgive someone who is unwilling to admit guilt or express regret?
  • Or does true forgiveness depend on both parties playing their part… The one offering forgiveness and the one receiving it?
  • And should we forgive everyone, regardless of the circumstances or the seriousness of their actions? So:
  • Would you forgive someone if s/he spilt coffee on your new carpet?
  • Would you forgive someone who jumped the queue in front of you?
  • Would you forgive a person if he or she scratched your car door with a shopping trolley?
  • Would you forgive someone who swore at you because you made a driving error?
  • Would you forgive someone who revealed something confidential to a third party that she had promised to keep secret? Would you trust the person again!
  • Would you forgive someone who stole your Bank Card and took a lot of your money from the cash machine?
  • Would you forgive someone who attacked your daughter or granddaughter?
  • Would you forgive someone who killed your loved one?

The truth is that forgiving is a PROCESS and not a single ACT

  • It may take take months or years to forgive someone completely who has committed a grievous offence

In practice, an act of mercy may come first … followed by the process of forgiveness

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is rightly named… but we might equally call it “The Parable of the Merciless Servant”!

  • Because the starting point of forgiving is ‘showing mercy’

It’s important to stress, however, that showing forgiveness and mercy does NOT absolve people from judgement and taking responsibility for their actions…

As with all Jesus’ parables, we need to dig deeper to discover the full extent of the spiritual truth and implications for our lives

To remind ourselves of the key elements of the parable …

  1. A servant owes his master an impossibly large sum of money that he can never hope to repay
  2. The master threatens to sell him and his family into slavery as a means of “repaying” the debt
  3. The servant begs for mercy and time to find the money.
  4. The master not only agrees but also cancels his debt and sets him free from the burden
  5. The same servant goes to a fellow servant who owes him a small amount of money and demands immediate payment
  6. The second servant begs for mercy and time to pay the debt
  7. The first servant disregards the plea for mercy and throws the second servant into prison
  8. The other servants approach the master (also called “the king”) and explain what has happened
  9. The king is very angry with the first servant and has him tortured until all the money is repaid.

Jesus concludes:

That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you {i.e. have you tortured} if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart

  • So this forgiving business is really serious!

The “debt” in the parable is usually equated with the sin (wrong thoughts, words and actions) in our lives

  • The king’s mercy is revealed in the sacrifice of Jesus at Calvary

There are four main ‘characters’ in the parable… The master, 1st servant, 2nd servant and the “other servants”

The first servant had got himself in a mess, accruing enormous debts, presumably by living well outside his means…

  • Perhaps he was a gambler or someone who believed in borrowing money to satisfy his craving for possessions or worldly pursuits
  • Whatever the reason, he now owed an impossibly high sum of money, the payment of which would require surrender of himself and his family to lifelong slavery

It is worth noting as a general principle that a person’s irresponsible behaviour nearly always adversely affects the lives of others

The root problem underlying the first servant’s actions is found in SELF:

  • What I want, I get… without any thought of whether it is right or the impact on others
  • If I see it and desire it, I will beg, borrow or steal to possess it

Families are torn apart and communities wrecked because of an attitude summarised by one writer in this way:

My will not Thy will be done”!

The second servant had also got himself in a mess, accruing a debt that he was struggling to repay…

We don’t have any idea about why he needed money… but he obviously borrowed it from the first servant rather than from the master (as the first servant did)…

There is a principle to note here, namely, that we need to look first to our Heavenly Father and wait for His guidance before turning to other people for assistance

  • It’s likely that the Holy Spirit will direct us to someone who is well suited to advise or assist…but we must be careful not to consult God as an afterthought to “agree” what we have already decided!

The other servants were understandably dismayed, so approached the master of the house (the king), who took decisive action!

  • The king wasn’t so much concerned about the money but about justice being done!
  • There was a mismatch between the mercy that the king had shown and the lack of mercy that the first servant showed.

We may sometimes feel that evil people are getting away with it… They prosper while godly men and women languish and struggle…

  • We need to be reassured that God is not mocked and is well aware of injustice and the merciless behaviour of those who abuse and try to destroy His people
  • Justice will be served, though perhaps not seen in our lifetime

Four principles emerge from the parable…

  1. We owe God a debt so large that we cannot possibly pay it, no matter how hard we try… In our case, it’s the payment required to relieve us of the burden and penalty of sin
  2. If we humble ourselves before God, accept our guilt and ask for His mercy, He will forgive us and clear the debt fully (as the king did)
  3. We must reflect God’s gracious and merciful nature in our dealings with others
  4. The penalty for failing to show God’s mercy to others may be severe.

One day, we shall all stand before The Master: either our sin debts will have been cleared or they will remain, depending on whether or not we have accepted His forgiveness through Christ.

Our response to God’s forgiving heart must lead to a transformed life, not least in our relationship and attitude to other people… Only the Holy Spirit can bring about this transformation … but we have to be willing to be changed!

Finally, let’s recall the words of Jesus in another parable, usually called The Parable of the Good Samaritan… in Luke 10: 36-37

Now which of these three would you say was a neighbour to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.


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