This article is a Bible study on Matthew 18:23-35.

Source: The Outlook, 1983. 3 pages.

Matthew 18:23-25 - The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

This parable is of an entirely different kind than the two  we have discussed. This must be borne in mind to come to the proper interpretation. In the parable of the sower, our Lord gave His own interpretation and em­phasized almost every part of the parable. The parable of the seed growing in secret is also virtually self-explanatory. The kingdom of God is like that which you find in nature, says Jesus. This parable is more easily misunderstood. The king forgave — and then revoked his forgiveness! Can this ever be charged to God? Such questions rise again and again. In order to safeguard ourselves from wrong and strange interpretations we must listen carefully to the things which were said just before this parable was spoken.

The Setting🔗

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem for the last time. He is going the way to the cross. There is a debate going on among the disciples as to who will be the greatest in the kingdom of Jesus. This is not a proper question when the cross will be the central point of the kingdom! To show that their question really has no proper place, Jesus sets a little child before them and tells them that they must become as little children to enter His kingdom.

He then teaches them forgiveness. Everything possi­ble is to be done in order that there "be nothing be­tween" brethren. His children are always to be ready to forgive. Peter then asks his famous question: How often shall I forgive my brother? Seven times? Jesus tells him he must forgive seventy times seven times. It is in this context that He now speaks this parable.

Forgiveness is not common to this world. It is based on love. This world doesn't really know what love is.

God is love, and the world doesn't know God! There is indeed a love shown among the people of this world toward those to whom they are closely related, a mother's toward her child, for example. But, when the Bible speaks of loving enemies, the world doesn't understand what it is speaking about. If someone sins against me — it isn't a question of how often I will forgive him, but rather, whether I will forgive him! That unforgiving worldly attitude is still far too prevalent among God's people. This parable will instruct regard­ing love.

The Debtor🔗

Our Savior is the Master Instructor by means of parables. This parable is a work of art. Jesus draws the contrasts effectively and beautifully. A king is con­trasted with a servant, and a huge debt with a paltry sum. The teaching becomes clear when one carefully follows Jesus' reasoning. The king mentioned is the typical oriental despot. He has power over life and death and holds the life and welfare of his subjects in his hand. As king he will also be able to sit in judgment in the last part of the parable. The amount this servant owes is stupendous. It is always foolish to try to set a present-day value on these sums named in Scripture because the values are so changeable. But, 10,000 talents, whether of silver or of gold is one of the largest sums used in Scripture. The Book of Revelation speaks of 10,000 times 10,000. A talent was about the largest piece of money used. Only 29 talents of gold were used in the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 38:24). The costly temple which Solomon built used 3000 talents of gold and seven thousand talents of silver (1 Chronicles 29:4-5). This indicates clearly that the debt owed by this servant was indeed overwhelming.

The question naturally comes to mind: Who can be so deeply indebted to another? Only a "servant" who has high position so that he can collect taxes which belong to the king. This king would now reckon with his ser­vants! This man is brought to him — he doesn't come willingly because he knows how great the debt is and is afraid. The king orders him and his family and his belongings to be sold. This is, of course, not to pay up the enormous sum owed because it would not begin to approximate that figure. But, it is punishment for debt! Such punishment was common in that day, especially among the gentiles. Even in Israel people were sold because of debts they owed, but the laws of Israel for­bade them to become slaves and on the year of jubilee they were to be set free. Nothing unusual takes place here.

However, when this servant realizes what is happen­ing, he falls to his knees, beseeches his lord for time and promises to pay the entire debt. This would be an im­possibility. No matter how hard the man might work, no matter how many years would be given him, such a debt simply becomes larger with time because of the in­terest! There is no possibility that he will be able to keep this promise.

The King's Mercy🔗

The king realizes this. He now goes far beyond what his servant had asked. He doesn't ask repayment but forgives that entire debt! It is as though it had never been. It is erased! It is marked paid in full! That is forgiveness! We speak about this matter too lightly. He forgives out of his compassion. There is nothing in the servant to move the king toward forgiveness. He is kind and is moved with compassion. He is merciful.

Having experienced this forgiveness on the part of the king, this servant should also be filled with a spirit of compassion. He should now exhibit a forgiving spirit to anyone who would owe him anything. Surely, one who has received mercy should be able to show mercy. Sure­ly, one who has been forgiven much will love much. But, this man is the exception.

The Unforgiving Servant🔗

This servant now finds a fellow-servant. Notice, here the relationship is entirely different than between the other two. There it was a king — servant relationship here it is servant-servant. While his own debt was almost incalculable, his fellow servant owes him only 100 shill­ings — a very small sum. No man owes another man a great sum! Instead of being moved with compassion toward this poor man he takes him by the throat. He chokes him and demands immediate payment. How is it possible? This poor man using the same words he him­self had used to the king, asks for time and promises that he will pay him all. This is true! He will be able to do it! But, he has no patience with him and casts him in prison.

The other servants of the king have come to know what has transpired. News travels fast. Especially such astounding news that the king has forgiven him ten thousand talents. Now they see what this man has done to his fellow-servant. We do not read that they are angry, but that they are exceeding sorry! They let the king know what has happened.

The Judgment🔗

Once more the man is brought into the presence of the king. But, now the situation is quite different. Now he is greeted by the words, "Thou wicked servant!" It was required of him that he should show some of the spirit of the king to his fellow servant. He did the opposite! As a result, he is now cast into prison, into the inner prison. He is given over to the tormentors. This is the only time this expression is used in Scripture. The catholic church has seen in this a reference to purgatory. He is not only kept in ward, he is severely punished. This is to go on until he has paid all. That will never happen!

There are many pitfalls in the interpretation of this parable. We must realize that every part may not be ex­plained. Even though Jesus says at the close that His heavenly Father will do as this king has done, it does not mean that He will ever revoke the forgiveness He has once granted His children. The other servants bring the deeds of this servant to the attention of the king. They represent no one. No one has to bring anything to the attention of our God.

The main point of this parable is to teach men to forgive one another, which has been made possible through the forgiveness they have received of their God. Must I forgive my brother seven times? This is the answer.

The Forgiven must Forgive🔗

The answer is given in a graphic way in order that we realize how important it is that we have a forgiving spirit. Christ taught us to pray: "And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors." Seemingly this needs elaboration. Jesus now teaches in un­mistakable language how important it is. If we do not forgive one another, God will not forgive us.

But, is this the picture of the child of God? Is the child of God like this servant who refuses to forgive a fellow-servant? Do we act as though we are not the reci­pients of grace? We may resemble David when he had sinned against Bathsheba and her husband. He was in­deed a child of God, but, when Nathan told him the parable of the rich man with many sheep and the poor man with one lamb which the rich man stole, David said: Such a man is worthy of death! Where was his demonstration of the grace which he had received? That grace must be renewed to us again every day. If it is not, we look more like the world than the people of God.

The picture of the debt which our Lord gives us in this parable is also telling. There are those who believe that our debt cannot be great seeing we are the children of God. These understand neither the law nor themselves. Our debt is enormous! Our sins are more than we can count. "Ten thousand talents" does not overstate our indebtedness. At the same time, the amount owed us is small. It is scarcely worth mentioning. It is spoken of in the parable as "a hundred shillings." We think others owe us so much! This makes it difficult for us to for­give. This parable puts things in proper perspective.

Let no one be amazed at the enormity of his debt to his God or the smallness of the debt which his fellow­man owes him; let us always stand amazed at the mercy and grace which has forgiven us all of our debt! We can­not pay. We need not pay. He paid it for us! Let us then forgive seventy times seven times. Long before we have reached 490 we will have lost count and will keep on forgiving. If we do not forgive those who sin against us, the God and Father of Jesus Christ will not forgive us! If we take this parable to heart it will bring a reforma­tion in the church!

Questions for Discussion:🔗

  1. Can we ever understand a part of the word of God without taking the context into consideration? What would happen to the explanation of this parable if we did not emphasize the prior teaching in this chapter?
  2. Why is forgiveness difficult for a person to practice? What do you think of the Christianity of a person who refuses to speak to his fellow-Christian?
  3. How great is our natural debt before God? What happens to our theology if we consider our in­debtedness smaller than it really is? Do some do this?
  4. Is our asking for forgiveness often the real desire of the soul or is it more often the usual way of concluding our prayers? Do you think we would be able to forgive others more easily if we felt the need for forgiveness?
  5. Can people jeopardize their eternal welfare by their lack of love and consideration for fellow believers?

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