Understanding Forgiveness: The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant | Bible Study #6

Parables Bible Study #6 – The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35)

Pastor Duke Taber

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Introduction

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, found in the Gospel of Matthew, is a powerful story that Jesus told to illustrate the importance of forgiveness and the consequences of failing to forgive others. This parable comes in response to a

question from Peter about how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him.

Through this parable, Jesus teaches us about the immeasurable depth of God’s forgiveness towards us and the expectation that we, in turn, extend that same forgiveness to others. He shows us that forgiveness is not a matter of keeping score or setting limits but is to be a way of life for those who have experienced the mercy and grace of God.

As we delve into this parable, may we be reminded of the incredible debt that we have been forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. May we be challenged to examine our own hearts and to ask ourselves if we are truly living in the reality of that forgiveness, extending it freely to others as it has been extended to us. And may we be inspired to cultivate a lifestyle of forgiveness, reflecting the heart of our merciful Heavenly Father to a world in desperate need of His grace.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What comes to mind when you think of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant?
  2. Have you ever struggled to forgive someone who has wronged you? What made it difficult to extend forgiveness in that situation?
Parables Bible Study #6 - The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35)

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The Context

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is situated within a larger discourse in which Jesus is teaching His disciples about relationships within the kingdom community. In the verses leading up to the parable, Jesus has been talking about how to handle sin and conflict between believers, emphasizing the importance of confronting sin, seeking reconciliation, and involving the church community when necessary (Matthew 18:15-20).

It is in this context that Peter asks Jesus a question about forgiveness: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21, ESV). Peter’s question reflects a common rabbinical teaching that one should forgive a repeated sin up to three times. By suggesting seven times, Peter probably thinks he is being generous and going above and beyond what is required.

However, Jesus’ response to Peter challenges this limited view of forgiveness. He says, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22, ESV). Some translations render this as “seventy times seven,” but the point is the same: forgiveness is not a matter of keeping count or setting a limit. It is to be a continual, ongoing practice for those who are part of God’s kingdom.

To illustrate this point, Jesus then tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The parable is a response to Peter’s question and an elaboration on Jesus’ teaching about the importance and extent of forgiveness within the community of believers.

As we study this parable, it’s important to keep in mind this context of relationships within the body of Christ. The parable is not just about individual forgiveness but about how we are to live together as people who have been forgiven an incredible debt by God. It challenges us to consider how we extend that same mercy and grace to our brothers and sisters in Christ, even when they sin against us repeatedly.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Why do you think Peter asked Jesus about the limits of forgiveness? Can you relate to his perspective?
  2. How does Jesus’ response to Peter challenge our natural inclinations when it comes to forgiveness?

The Story

The parable begins with a king who wishes to settle accounts with his servants. One servant is brought to him who owes an enormous debt of ten thousand talents. To put this in perspective, a talent was equivalent to about 20 years’ wages for a laborer. Ten thousand talents, then, represented an impossibly large sum, more than the servant could ever hope to repay in multiple lifetimes.

When the servant is unable to pay, the king orders that he, his wife, his children, and all that he has be sold to repay the debt. In desperation, the servant falls on his knees before the king and pleads for patience, promising to pay back everything. The king, moved with compassion, releases the servant and forgives the entire debt.

However, the story takes a shocking turn. That same servant goes out and finds one of his fellow servants who owes him a much smaller sum of a hundred denarii. A denarius was equivalent to about a day’s wage, so while a hundred denarii was a significant amount, it was a mere fraction of the debt that the first servant had been forgiven.

The first servant seizes his fellow servant and begins to choke him, demanding payment. Despite his fellow servant’s pleas for patience, the first servant refuses to show mercy and has the man thrown into prison until he can pay the debt.

When the other servants see what has happened, they are greatly distressed and report the incident to the king. The king summons the first servant and confronts him, saying, “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?” (Matthew 18:32-33, ESV).

In anger, the king delivers the unforgiving servant to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay all his debt. Jesus concludes the parable with a somber warning: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35, ESV).

Reflection Questions:

  1. What details in the parable stand out to you, and why?
  2. How does the king’s initial response to the first servant’s plea illustrate God’s mercy towards us?

The Characters

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant features three main characters: the king, the first servant, and the fellow servant. Each character plays a significant role in illustrating the dynamics of forgiveness and the consequences of withholding it.

The King

Parables Bible Study #6 - The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35)

The king in the parable represents God and His incredible mercy and compassion towards sinners. Like the king, God is the one to whom we owe an enormous debt because of our sin. The debt in the parable is described as ten thousand talents, an astronomical sum that would be impossible for the servant to repay. This illustrates the severity and extent of our sin before a holy God. We are utterly incapable of making ourselves right with God or earning His forgiveness.

However, when the servant pleads for mercy, the king is moved with compassion and forgives the entire debt. This is a stunning picture of God’s grace towards us in Christ. God does not just reduce our debt or give us more time to pay it off. He completely forgives it, wiping the slate clean and releasing us from the burden of our sin.

The king’s forgiveness is unmerited and undeserved. It is not based on anything the servant has done or could do but flows entirely from the king’s own compassion and mercy. In the same way, God’s forgiveness of our sin is not earned by our good works or deserved because of our merit. It is a free gift of His grace, extended to us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).

The king’s response to the unforgiving servant at the end of the parable also reveals the seriousness with which God views our failure to forgive others. The king is justly angry when he learns that the servant he had forgiven so much has refused to show even a fraction of that mercy to his fellow servant. He delivers the unforgiving servant to punishment until he pays all his debt, indicating that the servant’s original debt is reinstated because of his failure to forgive.

This is a sobering picture of the consequences of withholding forgiveness from others. It suggests that our failure to forgive others is a failure to truly grasp and live in the reality of God’s forgiveness towards us. When we refuse to extend to others the mercy that we have received from God, we are acting in a way that is inconsistent with our identity as forgiven people and inviting God’s discipline and judgment.

The First Servant

Parables Bible Study #6 - The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35)

The first servant in the parable represents every person who has received God’s forgiveness and mercy. Like the servant, we are all debtors who owe God an impossible sum because of our sin. We are utterly incapable of making ourselves right with God or earning His forgiveness.

When the servant is confronted with the enormity of his debt, his immediate response is to plead for mercy. He falls on his knees before the king and begs for patience, promising to pay back everything. This is a picture of the posture we must adopt before God – one of humility, repentance, and utter dependence on His mercy.

The servant’s plea for mercy is met with the king’s compassion and forgiveness. The king not only releases the servant from his debt but forgives it entirely. This illustrates the incredible mercy that we have received from God in Christ. When we come to

God in repentance and faith, He not only releases us from the penalty of our sin but forgives us completely, giving us a new standing before Him as His beloved children.

However, the first servant’s subsequent actions reveal a tragic failure to understand and live in the reality of the forgiveness he has received. When given the opportunity to extend mercy to his fellow servant, he refuses, choosing instead to demand payment and exact punishment. His behavior is shockingly inconsistent with the mercy that he himself has just experienced from the king.

The first servant’s actions are a warning to us about the danger of receiving God’s forgiveness but failing to extend it to others. They illustrate how easily we can forget the magnitude of the debt that we have been forgiven and fall into a pattern of demanding from others what God has freely given to us.

The Fellow Servant

The fellow servant in the parable represents anyone who has wronged us or owes us a debt, whether literal or figurative. In the context of relationships within the body of Christ, the fellow servant could be a brother or sister who has sinned against us or caused us harm.

The debt that the fellow servant owes to the first servant is described as a hundred denarii. While this was a significant sum, equivalent to about a hundred days’ wages, it was a mere fraction of the debt that the first servant had been forgiven by the king. This illustrates how the sins and offenses that others commit against us, while real and painful, are small in comparison to the debt that we have been forgiven by God.

When the fellow servant pleads for patience in repaying the debt, using the same words that the first servant had used before the king, it highlights the absurdity and hypocrisy of the first servant’s response. Having just been forgiven an immeasurably greater debt, the first servant refuses to extend even a small measure of that same mercy to his fellow servant.

The fellow servant’s experience at the hands of the unforgiving servant is a poignant picture of the pain and damage that we cause when we withhold forgiveness from others. Just as the unforgiving servant’s actions landed his fellow servant in prison, our failure to forgive can keep others trapped in a prison of guilt, shame, and brokenness.

Reflection Questions:

  1. In what ways can you identify with each of the characters in the parable?
  2. How does the contrast between the debts owed by the first servant and the fellow servant illustrate the difference between the offenses we suffer and the debt we have been forgiven by God?

Forgiveness and the Kingdom of God

Parables Bible Study #6 - The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35)

At its core, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is a powerful illustration of the centrality of forgiveness in the kingdom of God. It shows us that forgiveness is not an optional extra for followers of Christ but is to be a defining mark of our lives and relationships.

The parable teaches us several key truths about forgiveness:

  1. Our forgiveness from God is the foundation and model for our forgiveness of others. The king’s incredible mercy towards the first servant, forgiving an impossible debt, is a picture of the mercy that we have received from God in Christ. Our ability and willingness to forgive others flow out of our experience of being forgiven by God.
  2. Forgiveness is not to be limited or measured but is to be extended continually and abundantly. Jesus’ response to Peter’s question about the limits of forgiveness shows that forgiveness is not a matter of keeping score but is to be a way of life for those in God’s kingdom. We are called to forgive as many times as it takes, just as God continues to forgive us when we sin.
  3. Failure to forgive others has serious consequences for our relationship with God. The king’s anger towards the unforgiving servant and his reinstatement of the servant’s original debt are sobering warnings about the importance of forgiveness. When we withhold forgiveness from others, we are acting in a way that is inconsistent with our identity as forgiven people and inviting God’s discipline and judgment.
  4. Forgiveness is to be from the heart, not just an external act or lip service. Jesus concludes the parable by emphasizing that we are to forgive our brother or sister “from the heart” (Matthew 18:35). This suggests that true forgiveness involves a change of heart towards the person who has wronged us, a letting go of bitterness and resentment, and a willingness to extend mercy and love.

These truths challenge us to examine our own hearts and relationships in light of God’s mercy towards us. They call us to ask ourselves questions like:

  • Am I living in the reality of God’s forgiveness, extending it freely to others as it has been extended to me?
  • Are there people in my life whom I am struggling to forgive? What is keeping me from extending forgiveness to them?
  • Do I truly understand the magnitude of the debt that I have been forgiven by God? How should this shape my perspective on the offenses I suffer from others?

Ultimately, cultivating a lifestyle of forgiveness is not just about obeying a command but about reflecting the heart and character of our Heavenly Father. When we forgive others, we are giving visible expression to the mercy and grace that we ourselves have received in Christ. We are pointing others to the good news of a God who forgives sins and reconciles relationships.

In a world that often operates on the principles of retribution, holding grudges, and getting even, the practice of radical, unmerited forgiveness can be a powerful witness to the transforming reality of God’s kingdom. It can open doors for healing, reconciliation, and the extension of God’s love and mercy to those who desperately need it.

Reflection Questions:

  1. How does the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant challenge your understanding of forgiveness?
  2. What steps can you take to cultivate a heart and lifestyle of forgiveness, both in your relationship with God and your relationships with others?

Conclusion

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is a powerful and challenging story that strikes at the heart of what it means to live as a forgiven and forgiving people. It reminds us of the incredible mercy that we have received from God, who has forgiven us a debt that we could never repay. And it calls us to extend that same mercy to others, forgiving them continually and abundantly as we have been forgiven.

As we reflect on this parable, may we be struck afresh by the depth and magnitude of God’s forgiveness towards us in Christ. May we marvel at the King who was moved with compassion, who released us from our impossible debt and forgave us completely. May we be filled with gratitude for the mercy that we have received, recognizing that we are all undeserving recipients of God’s grace.

And may this realization of God’s mercy towards us transform the way we relate to others, especially those who have wronged us. May we be quick to forgive, quick to show mercy, and quick to extend the love and grace that we ourselves have received. May we refuse to keep score of offenses or to limit our forgiveness, choosing instead to forgive from the heart, as many times as it takes.

This kind of radical forgiveness is not easy. It goes against our natural inclinations and the ways of the world around us. It requires us to continually die to our pride, our desire for justice on our own terms, and our impulse to hold onto bitterness and resentment.

But as we practice forgiveness, we will find that it is the pathway to freedom, joy, and deeper intimacy with God and others. We will discover that as we extend forgiveness, we are not only releasing others from the prison of our unforgiveness but we are also setting ourselves free from the toxic effects of bitterness and resentment.

More than that, as we live as a forgiving people, we will be giving visible expression to the reality of God’s kingdom. We will be pointing others to the good news of a God who forgives sins, who reconciles relationships, and who extends mercy to all who come to Him in repentance and faith.

So let us take to heart the lessons of this parable. Let us rejoice in the forgiveness that we have received from God, and let us extend that forgiveness freely and abundantly to others. Let us be known as a people who forgive from the heart, reflecting the mercy and grace of our King to a world in desperate need of His forgiveness.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What is one key takeaway or insight you have gained from studying the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant?
  2. How can you apply the truths of this parable to your own life and relationships this week?
  3. Take a moment to pray, thanking God for His incredible forgiveness towards you, and asking Him to help you extend that forgiveness to others.

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