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Author: Ron Graham


The Unforgiving Slave
—A redemption parable (Matthew 18:21-35)

The parable of the unforgiving slave illustrates the principle that Jesus also underlined when he taught his disciples to pray. Part of that model prayer pleads with God to... "Forgive us our debts even as we forgive our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). Jesus commented, "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (Matthew 6:14-15).

The parable of the unforgiving slave illustrates themes 1 and 2, namely the goodness and severity of God. It portrays God as merciful to us on the condition that we are merciful to others. If we are not, then we will incur his wrath (Matt 18:21-35).

Peter’s Question About Forgiving —Matthew 18:21-22

¶“21Peter came up and said to Jesus, 'Lord, how often should I forgive my brother who sins against me? Should it be up to seven times?' 22Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven'*.” (Matthew 18:21-22).

*Note: Some scholars translate the Greek as "seventy-seven times" rather than "seventy times seven". It doesn't alter the principle being taught.

Verses 21-22 show us why Jesus told this parable. Peter had evidently been puzzling over the problem of forgiveness when the offence is repeated. Peter suggested that seven times was probably more than reasonable to forgive the serial offender. However Jesus answers Peter, "You say seven times; I say seventy times seven". Of course, Jesus was not meaning literally 490 times, as Peter meant his seven. Jesus was saying to forgive as many times as it takes to win the offender.

Peter was missing the point. He did not take into account that, as soon as we put a limit on forgiving others, God will apply that same limit to forgiving us —our forgiveness by God is conditional upon our forgiveness of others. So Jesus tells Peter a parable to make the matter clear.

1 Redemption

Compassion and Mercy to a Deeply Indebted Slave —Matthew 18:23-27

¶“23And so the kingdom of Heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents, 25and he could not pay. So his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all his possessions, to write off the debt. 26So the servant fell on his knees, begging the king, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' 27And out of pity for him, the master released the servant forgiving him the debt.” (Matthew 18:23-27).

Verses 23-27 show how we are impossibly indebted to God yet he has shown us mercy. The monetary debt in the parable represents the wrongs and trespasses we have done which we need to put right. The slave owed his master millions of dollars, and although he claimed that he would pay back every cent, it was clear that he could not. We are in that same position before God. We cannot make right all our wrongs, so God takes pity on us and grants forgiveness.

God has "forgiven us all our transgressions, having cancelled the certificate of debt... having nailed it to the cross" (Colossians 2:13-14). Each one of us is that slave who owed millions to his king. God is the king who had compassion and forgave the slave who pleaded with him.

2 Response

The Forgiven Slave’s Outrageous Attitude —Matthew 18:28-30

¶“28However, when that same servant went out free, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed hold of him and started choking him, demanding, 'Pay what you owe!' 29So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' 30But he refused and had his fellow servant put in prison until he should pay the debt.” (Matthew 18:28-30).

Verses 28-30 show how God views us if we do not respond to his mercy by forgiving others as he has forgiven us.

The forgiven slave's response is truly disgusting. He found a fellow slave who owed him around ten thousand dollars (based on a denarius being a day's wage). He intimidated his debtor with physical violence. He was deaf to his debtor’s pleading. He unjustly misused the king’s law. He refused to forgive him the debt which, although a substantial sum, was nothing compared to the enormous debt he himself had been forgiven.

Although we Australians generally disapprove of "dobbers" we applaud, in this case, the other slaves’ informing on this despicable man. We may be sure that the angels of God will likewise lodge a complaint against us, if we refuse to forgive others and pervert justice.

3 Retribution

The Slave Receives a Terrible Punishment —Matthew18:31-35

¶“31Now when his fellow servants saw what he had done, they were very upset, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32Then his master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Shouldn't you have been merciful to your fellow servant, as I was merciful you?' 34So in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35Likewise my heavenly Father will do also to every one of you —if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew18:31-35).

Verses 31-35 show that the grace and mercy of God, once granted, can be withdrawn and replaced by his wrath, if we do not respond appropriately.

Jesus makes it clear that the slave who was forgiven the huge debt, was forgiven completely. He was free of the debt by the grace and mercy of his lord and king. When the king forgave the debt, he forgave it not for a year but forever. The debt was permanently cancelled. The slave did not have to keep going back to the king to plead that the debt remain forgiven.

However Jesus also makes it clear that this forgiveness was later withdrawn, and the enormous debt in full was again held against the slave. The king remembered and reinstated the debt. He did not punish the slave with torture only because he was unforgiving. He punished the slave for all the debt that had previously been forgiven. This is the really scary part of the parable.

The king forgave freely, fully, and permanently, but conditionally. The king’s kindness was not lessened by being conditional, but his justice would have been lessened by unconditional forgiveness. We see the king's kindness and mercy when he forgives the debt. We see his severity and justice when he reinstates the debt. And we acknowledge both as perfectly right.

When the Lord promised, "I will forgive their iniquity and their sins I will remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:34) he meant exactly what he said. God is just like the king in the parable. However God will also do as the king in the parable did. Should we fail to respond appropriately to his mercy, he will recall and reinstate the debt that was forgiven and forgotten. When God forgives, God forgets. But when we fail to forgive, God remembers.

Short Quiz

1. How does God forgive and forget?

2. Did Jesus mean we are to forgive 490 times then stop?

3. What does this parable teach us to do?

4. When God forgives, he forgets. But what else?

5. When others wrong us, what should we focus on?


Webservant Ron Graham

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