The Stories Jesus Told: The Unforgiving Servant, Matthew 18:21–35
November 21, 2017
by Peter Amsterdam
The Stories Jesus Told: The Unforgiving Servant, Matthew 18:21–35
In the course of the eighteenth chapter of the book of Matthew, the apostle Peter brought up the topic of forgiveness, asking:
“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”1
Some Bible versions translate this as “seventy times seven,” which is also a legitimate way to translate the original Greek. Jesus either said His disciples should forgive someone 77 times or 490 times. In any case, Jesus’ point was that His followers are always meant to forgive others. This conversation is followed by the parable of the unforgiving servant, which reinforces the necessity of forgiving others.
The parable starts with:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.2
This is a fantastical opening: a servant3 owes his king ten thousand talents. It’s fantastical because ten thousand talents represented an astronomical amount of money. A talent was a measure of weight used in those days, probably about thirty kilograms (about 66 pounds). When referring to monetary value, it was more specifically a weight of either silver or gold, as seen in this Old Testament example:
Then the king of Egypt deposed him in Jerusalem and laid on the land a tribute of a hundred talents of silver and a talent of gold.4
To put this into perspective, in the case of this parable, if Jesus was referring to talents of silver, one talent would have had the value of about six thousand denarii (a silver coin of the time). One denarius was considered a day’s wage for a laborer. So one talent of silver (six thousand silver coins) was worth about 20 years of work. Ten thousand talents, or sixty million denarii, was clearly an absurdly huge debt.
Everyone listening to Jesus would have understood that Jesus was using this outrageous sum of money hyperbolically to make a point. Author Brad Young wrote:
Ten thousand talents, somewhat like the numbers associated with the national debt, were simply an incomprehensible sum for the average worker. Even the very wealthy could not conceive of so great an amount of money.5
One author explains that ten thousand was the highest magnitude of numbers used in accounting, and a talent was the highest currency unit at the time.6 As we’ll see, the massive size of the debt is what makes this parable so powerful.
The servant’s inability to repay such an immense loan meant that he and his family were to be sold into slavery until the debt was paid. In 2 Kings we read of an example in biblical times of children being sold until a debt was paid:
The wife of one of the sons of the prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the LORD, but the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.”7
Jesus made reference to the practice of debtors going to prison when He said:
As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.8
Perhaps under normal circumstances, the servant’s relatives would have been able to pay the money for him so that he and his family would be spared from going to jail or being sold—but in this case, no one would have been able to pay the incredibly huge amount he owed. The servant and his family faced total disaster.
So the servant fell on his knees, imploring [the king], ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.9
Other versions of the Bible translate pity as compassion. The servant was asking for an extension of time so that he could pay the debt, but the king went well beyond the request and completely freed him from having to repay it at all. What an act of magnanimity! He forgave a debt of three hundred thousand kilos of silver. Imagine the shock, relief, and gratitude of the indebted servant.
Jesus continued the story:
But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.10
The servant who had been forgiven his own debt—which amounted to sixty million denarii—was owed one hundred denarii by another servant, the equivalent of four months’ wages for a common worker. The ratio between what the servant had owed the king and what the fellow servant owed his coworker was 600,000 to 1.11
The man who had been forgiven the astronomical amount responded not with the compassion which had been showed to him, but with violence and judgment. The indebted servant acted in the same manner as the forgiven servant had, by prostrating himself before the one he was indebted to and begging for patience, while promising to repay the debt. However, the response was the opposite. Instead of giving his fellow servant more time to pay or compassionately cancelling the debt, the unforgiving servant sent the man to jail.
When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.12
While it might have been legitimate at the time to send someone to prison for nonpayment of debts, this act showed a serious lack of compassion under the circumstances. The other servants, appalled at the unforgiving servant’s heartlessness and harshness, informed the master of this injustice.
Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.13
The king was rightfully furious, calling the servant wicked. He referred to the huge amount of debt that he had forgiven because the servant had beseeched him for mercy; yet he, who had been forgiven so much, was unwilling to forgive another. Having been shown such abundant mercy, the servant should have done the same for others. But he didn’t, and he was going to be judged for it.
While this translation says that the servant was turned over to the jailers, there’s more to it. The Greek word used for jailer is basanistēs, meaning “one who elicits the truth by the use of the rack”—a torturer. The King James Version translates this word as tormentors while other versions use torturers. This unforgiving servant was condemned to be tortured until all his debt would be repaid—which, due to the massive amount, meant he would die in prison suffering.
As one author explains, The slave has lost not only the forgiveness that he had received; his debt is back on his shoulders, and he must now face torture, which will no doubt lead to premature death. In any case, since there is no possibility of paying his debt of 10,000 talents, he will be among the torturers as long as he lives.14
After telling this parable, Jesus addressed the listeners with a deeply unsettling statement:
So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.15
Jesus’ strong words here reflect the importance of His followers forgiving one another. This parable dramatically portrays how serious it is to not forgive others, and it aligns with Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness elsewhere in the Gospels. When teaching His disciples to pray, He included the phrase Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.16 He also taught: If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.17 This parable puts these teachings into story form in order to help us recognize how important it is to forgive others. It illustrates the necessity of human forgiveness as a condition for divine mercy.18
While the parable speaks of financial debts, the term “debts” is another way of saying “sins.” We see this in the Gospel of Luke:
Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.19
It’s also seen in the parable of the two debtors.20
This parable teaches some deep truths. We see the gravity of sin expressed in the debt of ten thousand talents. We also see the deep love, mercy, and compassion of God as portrayed by the king who forgives an enormous debt. Through this example of God’s gracious love and forgiveness, we also hear the call to reflect God and His love and generosity to others. One author expressed it this way: It is the essence of Christian discipleship not just to love your neighbor in the way you would like to be treated, but also in the way you have been treated by God. The classic statement of this principle is Jesus’ saying to His disciples: “Love each other as I have loved you.”21
In the passage we opened with, when Peter asked Jesus how often he should forgive a brother who had sinned against him, he asked if he should forgive seven times. This was already more than twice the number according to a common rabbinic view of the day, which suggested that one only needed to forgive another person three times. But Jesus’ response, and this parable, made the case that there should be no limits and no keeping track of how many times we forgive others.
When God passed before Moses on Mount Sinai, He described Himself by saying: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”22 One of God’s attributes is forgiveness, and as Jesus illustrated through this parable, as God’s children we are meant to imitate Him by forgiving others—just as He has forgiven us.
The Unforgiving Servant, Matthew 18:21–35
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.
24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.
25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.
26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’
27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’
29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’
30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.
31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.
32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.
33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’
34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Matthew 18:21–22.
2 Matthew 18:23–25.
3 Translated as slave in some Bible versions, since the Greek word doulos refers to both servant or slave within the New Testament.
4 2 Chronicles 36:3.
5 Brad H. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995), 120.
6 Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1954), 210.
7 2 Kings 4:1.
8 Luke 12:58–59.
9 Matthew 18:26–27.
10 Matthew 18:28–30.
11 Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 27.
12 Matthew 18:31.
13 Matthew 18:32–34.
14 Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, 28.
15 Matthew 18:35.
16 Matthew 6:12.
17 Matthew 6:14–15.
18 Brad H. Young, The Parables, Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 121.
19 Luke 11:4.
21 David Wenham, The Parables of Jesus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 153.
22 Exodus 34:6–7.