The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

by Andrew Forrest

The basic plot is easy to follow:

  • the king forgives one servant an outrageous sum–millions and millions;
  • servant A then refuses to forgive a much much smaller debt that servant B owes servant A;
  • king finds out and has servant A thrown in jail and tortured!

Then, Jesus sums up the parable:

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Matthew 18:35

What?! Some Quick Thoughts on This Crazy Parable

Context Matters

Remember, context matters: this parable comes at the end of an entire chapter (Matthew 18) on how to live together as the church. Verses 1-5 are about who is great in the kingdom, with the focus on humility. Verses 6-9 focus on temptations to sin. Verses 10-14 tell the Lost Sheep parable. Verses 15-20 talk about dealing with sin inside the church community. Verses 21-22 talk about forgiveness. Verses 23-35 tell the parable of the Unmerciful Servant. The central theme is verses 15-20–sin in the church–and the rest of the chapter is explanation and commentary on that theme.

Living together in the church will require humility; God will pursue sinners at great expense; sin in the church must be dealt with; we will need to forgive others over and over again; but, forgiveness should produce a response in us.

Forgiveness and Obedience Are in Tension

I like how Klyne Snodgrass puts it:

“This text is a clear example of the tension between two or more truths that are always present in Christian theology. The community cannot tolerate sin without confrontation and reproof, but must always love and forgive without limits….

The parable prevents any presuming on grace. The church has often presented a grace that did not have to be taken seriously, but biblical grace is transforming grace. When you get the gift, you get the Giver, who will not let you go your way.”

Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus

Discipleship Produces Obedience

Dr. Snodgrass goes on to say:

“Neither Matthew nor Jesus is legalistic, neither promotes salvation by works… but both insist that discipleship includes obedience.

Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus

Here’s the Point

Forgiveness is limitless, but it can’t be presumed, and should’t be wasted. If forgiveness doesn’t change us, we haven’t really understood our need for it anyway. Also, Jesus is not a sentimental Santa Claus; people prattle on about how loving Jesus is–which is true–but he is a giver who has a hard edge, and he demands a response, which you see if you actually read the gospels.

Today’s Scripture

Matthew 18:21-35

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