Matthew’s gospel records six parables in Matthew 13 that start, “the kingdom of heaven is like. . .” Three more gospels of the kingdom appear later in Matthew. In this post, we will look at the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35), which starts, “the kingdom of heaven is like a king . . .”
The parable immediately follows Peter’s question about forgiveness. According to typical rabbinic teaching, forgiveness was unnecessary after the third offense. Peter asked if he needed to forgive seven times. In other words, Peter asked if forgiving more than twice as much as other rabbis required is good enough.
No, Jesus answered. In some translations, he counters with seventy-seven times. In others, he raises the bar even further, to seventy times seven times. In either case, Jesus clearly means to keep forgiving long after it’s impossible to keep track of how many times.
He illustrates the point with a parable that is unlike the longest ones in Matthew 13 in a very significant way. There, he taught the parables of the four soils and the wheat and tares to the crowds that gathered around him. They are cryptic parables that require thought to understand. Thoughtless people might enjoy the stories, but the point remains hidden from them. Jesus teaches the parable of the unforgiving servant to the disciples privately. He expected them to understand right away.
Some background to the parable of the unforgiving servant
The kingdom of heaven is like the king, who clearly represents God himself. Royal officials of the time often borrowed large sums of money from the royal treasury, and the king wanted to settle accounts.
One official owed ten thousand talents. Don’t bother trying to convert that figure into modern currency. The talent was the largest unit of currency used in the ancient Middle East, and ten thousand was the largest number in the Greek language. Matthew intends to convey that this servant owed the largest imaginable amount of money, possibly more money than the wealth of the entire Roman empire. In other words, this servant could not have possibly owed any more than he did.
What the king did
How could the servant amass such a great debt? Jesus didn’t say, so as far as money is concerned, it must not matter.
Could he pay it back? Of course not. So the king commanded that everything he had, including his wife and children and he himself be sold to repay what he could.
The servant prostrated himself before the king and begged for patience. Somehow, he still thought that, given a little more time, he could repay the debt. The king, against all expectation, felt compassion. Instead of giving the servant more time to accomplish the impossible, he forgave the entire debt.
This parable takes the form of an allegory. The king represents God and the debt represents sin. We have all sinned. Nothing we can do can ever undo it, but God’s perfection requires perfect purity from us. We owe a debt we can’t pay, even though we often act as if we think we can. And even before we think to ask for it, God offers forgiveness. Grace, not judgment, is how God prefers to deal with his creation.
One moment, the servant was confronted with the largest possible debt and no means to repay it. The next moment, the king forgave him. That is, he no longer owed the ten thousand talents. The only proper response is gratitude and recognizing that the king set an example to follow.
What the servant did, and the king’s response
But the servant encountered another servant who owed him a hundred day’s wages. The King James Version says a hundred pence, or one hundred pennies. In our time no one would equate a day’s wages with a penny. Nowadays in the US, there is a push to establish a minimum wage of $15 per hour, which amounts to $120 for an eight-hour workday. The exchange rate doesn’t matter. A hundred days wages would take maybe a little more than seven months to earn, considering no one would work on the sabbath.
In other words, the other servant owed a fairly large but hardly unreasonable debt. He didn’t have the money to repay. He said exactly the same thing to the first servant as the first servant had said to the king, but the unforgiving servant failed to follow the king’s example. Having first choked the fellow, he cast him into debtors’ prison.
The king called the unforgiving servant, reprimanded him for not showing mercy, and cast him into prison until he repaid the entire debt. But notice. He did not rescind his earlier forgiveness. The servant no longer owed him the ten thousand talents. The servant had incurred a new debt by his unforgiveness.
The debt of unforgiveness
On another occasion, Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32-32, ESV). So God will forgive anything except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
But in his teaching the Lord’s Prayer, he observed, “If you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:14-15).
If unforgiveness is unforgivable, must be a kind of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Especially for a Christian who knows of God’s forgiveness, unforgiveness essentially tells God, “I know you forgive me, but that other person’s offense against me is more serious than my offense against you. I will not forgive.” Such an attitude makes it impossible to receive what God, by is nature, wants to give.
Unforgiveness also inflicts torture on the unforgiver in the form of wrath and bitterness and all the hormonal consequences. If we refuse to let God have his way, God in his wrath essentially tells us, “In that case, have it your way.” Persistence in unforgiveness leads to hell, which amounts to receiving justice instead of mercy.
Some of the earlier parables of the kingdom have established the principle of separating the good from the bad at the end of the age. This parable ends with the unmerciful servant sent to be tortured until he repays everything.
And all he has to do to repay everything is repent and decide to forgive the other servant.