Are We Like the Unmerciful Servant in Jesus’ Parable About Forgiven Debt?

advanced divider

Have you ever struggled to forgive someone? I know I have. In fact, in one instance in my life it took me over twenty years to forgive someone who had hurt me. Jesus addresses this topic in Matthew 18:21-35 with the parable of the unmerciful servant. Let’s divide this story into three acts.

Act 1: The Servant Is Forgiven Much

Peter comes to Jesus and asks him a question about forgiveness, “how many times should I forgive someone who sins against me?” Peter was thinking he was being gracious by saying seven times. Jesus responded and said no, not seven times but seventy times that. With that answer, he then proceeded to tell this parable. To read it in full, turn to Matthew 18.

The king in this story represents God and the servant is us. The servant owed the king ten thousand bags of gold – or talents as the King James Version states. To understand the amount of debt this servant owed, ten thousand bags of gold is the modern-day equivalent of seven billion dollars.

The servant, not wanting to lose everything he had, makes an incredible statement – be patient with me, I will pay everything back. The reason this statement is not only incredible but incredibly ridiculous is because there was no possible way this servant could ever pay back this amount of debt. At the going rate of pay for a typical worker of that day, it would take about two hundred thousand years for this servant to pay off the debt. This was impossible. The king knew it. The servant knew it. The servant really had nothing to offer the king. Because of this, his only option was to appeal to one thing, the mercy of the king. 

The response of the king in this story is quite shocking too. He didn’t just reduce the debt or work out some type of payment plan, the king cancelled the entire debt. Seven billion dollars was cancelled. He told the servant you don’t owe me anything, your balance is paid in full.

This is exactly the mercy God has shown to us. We were under a weight of sin that we could not repay. Though we made plenty of promises like this servant to do better and try harder, we couldn’t pay off the sin debt we owed. We were guilty. The sin debt we owed would literally take all eternity for us to pay back. We had only one choice to appeal to the patience and mercy of God. In that appeal, God forgave us and canceled the debt. Notice Colossians 2:13-14:

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.”

The king forgave the servant. God forgave you. If only the story ended there it would be happily ever after but there was a second act.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Andrey Popov

Act 2: The Servant Demands Payment

I can’t imagine the weight that was lifted from the shoulders of this servant after he was forgiven. His family was spared. His freedom was spared. He was truly given his life back. After this however, the roles reversed. The one who owed the debt became the one to whom a debt was owed.

One of his fellow servants owed him one hundred silver coins, or denarii. A typical worker would earn about 300 denarii in a single year so this servant owed him about 4 months worth of salary. This was an amount that could have been paid back over time. He could have very easily created some type of arrangement to have this money paid back. It may have taken a little while, but it would have been able to be paid off in this servant’s lifetime. 

Upon finding this guy who owed him money, he became aggressive. The first servant grabbed the other and choked him, demanding his payment. He made the same appeal, please be patient with me and I will pay it all back, which we have just determined was entirely possible. However, the first servant refused to listen and had this man thrown in jail until he could pay it all back. What a short memory this man had.

What is fascinating in this story is how I see myself, and maybe you see yourself too. Think of this. How desperate was your situation when God found you? How much sin did God forgive you? How many times has God forgiven you over and over, many times for the same sin? How can you not show mercy to someone else?

The trouble with this servant is the same thing that troubles us from time to time. We forget. We forget what it’s like to need God’s forgiveness. We forget that God freely forgives. We forget that God’s forgiveness is not because of anything we have done but simply because of his grace and mercy shown to us through Jesus Christ. We love to be the receivers of forgiveness and mercy when we need it.

The crux of the matter is how often are we willing to give it when it is required? This servant failed. Let’s not make the same mistake.

The Final Act: The Servant Faces Punishment

As with all things the word got back to the king. Remember the king in this story represents God and nothing you do will ever be hidden from his sight. When the king discovered what the servant had done here was his response:

“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” (Matthew 18:32-34).

The lesson of this story is simple, pay it forward. The forgiveness God has extended to you must be extended to others. After all there is no amount of forgiveness you can give that will be greater than or even equal to the amount of forgiveness God has forgiven you. If that is not enough motivation, listen to how Jesus sums up this story:

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

I ask you today, is there anyone you need to forgive? Is there anyone that you are harboring anger or bitterness towards today? I encourage you to forgive them. It won’t always be easy, but it is necessary. If you need help just remind yourself of how much God has forgiven you and you will discover that it becomes a lot easier to forgive someone else.

Clarence Haynes

Clarence Haynes