The parable of the unforgiving servant. 18:21-35


In this passage Jesus concludes his teaching on the business of living in Christian community. As a guide to the Christian life Jesus sets before us an ideal, namely that we be forgiving as God is forgiving. Yet, at the same time we are reminded that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is not the good person who is good at forgiving, but the sinner whose sin is forgiven.

The passage

v21-22. The Pharisees taught that the upper limit of forgiveness was 3 times. Peter, claiming for himself a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, offers an upper limit of 7. Jesus reminds Peter that when it comes to forgiving a brother or sister who has hurt us, there is no upper limit.

v23. "The kingdom of heaven can be compared with the situation which arose when a king wished to settle accounts with his servants", William Barclay. In this parable we are confronted by the coming kingdom of God. The message of the parable is actually not about forgiveness, rather it warns us that the day is upon us when God will settle his accounts.

v24-27. The size of the debt owed by the servant is massive. In today's terms it is a multi-million dollar debt, something beyond anything a normal person could repay. Sold as a slave, the master could only recoup a maximum of one talent. He chooses to wipe the debt, calling it a bad loan. Under Old Testament law a debtor could be sold into slavery, but must be released in the year of Jubilee (every 50th year).

v28-31. The servant's actions are totally the opposite of the master's. The debt owed him was about the accumulated wage of a laborer for 100 days of work. The debt was far less the value of a slave and yet he has him thrown into debtor's prison. It was illegal to sell a person for less than their slave value.

v32-34. Jesus emphasizes the wickedness of the servant and the extent of his punishment. He is not just handed over to the "jailers" (NIV), but rather to the "torturers". He will face torture until he, or his relatives, pay the debt.

v35. Given that the day is upon us when God will settle all his accounts, Jesus calls on us to offer perfect heartfelt forgiveness to a brother or sister who has hurt us. With this impossible righteousness Jesus reminds us that God's mercy in forgiveness is the grace that accounts as worthy to be one of his little ones, and at the same time, is the means by which a forgiving attitude can be shaped in our lives.


Can you forgive your brother from your heart, and if not, what are you going to do about it?

Forgive and forget

An important element in Christian ethics is the requirement that we forgive people when they do damage to us. There is even the suggestion that if we don't forgive, God will not forgive us. When we fail, as we inevitably do, we are tempted to get into pseudo forgiveness to calm our guilt. "I can forgive what you have done, but I can never forget." It's amazing how much bitterness can be packaged in the phrase, "never forget." Of course, the easy way out of the problem is to decide the person is not a believer and therefore, we don't have to forgive them. All just words.

There are a number of things we need to understand about forgiveness:

First, forgiving others is not a requirement for salvation. Forgiveness is not a necessary component for our receiving God's grace of forgiveness, nor is it a necessary component toward his continued forgiveness of us, Eph.2:7-9. In fact, our paltry capacity to forgive reminds us that our salvation rests on what Christ has done for us, not on what we can or can't do.

Second, our imperfect forgiving serves as the vehicle for understanding God's perfect forgiveness, Matt.6:12. What we can do imperfectly, He can do perfectly.

Third, there can be no forgiveness without repentance. Forgiveness is something given to the one who asks. God forgives only those who ask. Do we claim to be greater than God? The crucial first component in the act of forgiveness is repentance - a recognition of the wrong and a turning from it. As for the unrepentant, they are best left to their own devices and to their own end under the Lord.

Fourth, we can only ever hope to forgive imperfectly. The ideal of "seventy-seven times" should remove any idea that it is possible to forgive perfectly. Matt.18:21-35. Ideals should be aimed at, not done. In aiming at them we will always fall short. Yet, although I forgive imperfectly, in Christ I am eternally perfect.

Fifth, although we will never forgive perfectly during our earthly journey, we can become better forgivers. The more we keep in mind the mercy and forgiveness that is ours in Jesus, the better able we are to forgive the minor indiscretions of others.

Forgiveness is an ideal for us to aim at, and as far as reaching that ideal, we must just do the best we can. As for perfection, if we fail to stand in the perfection of Christ, then we will not stand at all. The greatest in the kingdom of God are the forgiven ones, not those who are good at forgiving.

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