Jesus was a masterful storyteller. Not only were his parables engaging, but they were a powerful teaching tool. The parable of the unforgiving servant is no exception. In this parable Jesus teaches how to do something most of us struggle with: forgiveness.
This parable is often quoted, but we regularly miss the beauty and the depth in how it applies to our life. I believe if you take a few minutes to study the parable of the unforgiving servant meaning, your life and faith will be challenged and encouraged.
Let’s dive into the Matthew 18:21-35 meaning and see what incredible truth it holds for us today.
The Context Of Matthew 18:21-35
Leading up to the parable of the unforgiving servant, Matthew documents several teachings that Jesus gave the disciples. These teachings center around on how his kingdom operates.
In essence Jesus wants his disciples to have a Kingdom worldview. But they are struggling to fully grasp these teachings and keep viewing things from an earthly perspective.
All this leads Peter to ask this now famous question: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Matthew 18:21
We can kind of see what lead Peter to ask this. Just a few verses prior in Matthew 18:17 Jesus is talking about dealing with sin and when to exclude someone. This leads Peter to ask how often he as a disciple should keep forgiving someone before he can stop.
Now it’s important that we understand the context of the time. It was a common teaching that a Jew should forgive a sin three times. But after that, you’re done. There’s no more forgiveness.
Peter suggested seven times and probably felt he was being pretty generous in doing so.
But Jesus is about to up the ante. Let’s check out the parable of the unforgiving servant meaning.
Matthew 18:21-35 Meaning
Jesus answers Peter’s question with: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:22
Jesus’ response alludes to Genesis 4:24, something Peter (and other Jews) likely would have picked up on. In Genesis, Lamech claimed to have taken more revenge on the man who struck him than God had taken on Cain for killing his brother Abel. Not exactly a great thing to do.
Jesus takes this bad, and tragic, example and urged his disciples to practice radical forgiveness when someone hurts them.
Now some translations of the Bible say Jesus said seventy times seven, but it’s likely Jesus did indeed say seventy-seven. However, that’s not really the point. Jesus is not giving us the maximum amount of times we should forgive. Rather he’s saying that his followers shouldn’t limit the number of times nor the frequency of their forgiveness.
To illustrate this Jesus launches into the parable of the unforgiving servant.
The Parable Of The Unforgiving Servant Meaning Explained
I’m going to summarize the story, but if you want to read it in full you can do so here: Matthew 18:21-35
The story opens up with two characters, a king and a servant. One day the king decides it’s time for debts to be paid. This is bad news for the servant as we find out he owed the king 10,000 bags of gold. (Matthew 18:23-24)
This is equivalent to several million dollars. No small sum. And one that he cannot pay.
To help recoup the cost of his loss the king demands that the servant, his wife, and his kids be sold. He’s about to pay DEARLY for his inability to pay. (Matthew 18:25)
The servant throws a Hail Mary. He falls to his knees and begs. “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything.” (Matthew 18:26)
Incredibly the king took pity on him and cancels the debt. Don’t miss this. The king doesn’t just cancel the debt, he eats the cost. He pays the price for the servant’s debt.
The freedom the servant felt must have been incredible. He’s been forgiven of an insurmountable sum. His family is safe and he is now FREE.
But the story is not over.
We found out this servant has people under him. Likely why he was entrusted with such a large amount of debt from the king.
After being freed from his debt he makes a beeline to one of his own servants who owed him money. We find out he owes him 100 silver coins, or denarii. Now, this is no small amount. Around 3 months salary. But this guy has just been forgiven a lifetimes wages, millions of dollars. You’d think he would show some compassion. (Matthew 18:28)
Shockingly he grabs and begins to choke him, demanding to be paid back.
In striking similarity this fellow servant responds with, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.” The same line this guy just used on the king. (Matthew 18:29)
The servant who had been forgiven much has learned nothing. The compassion he was shown didn’t impact his heart. Enraged he threw his fellow servant into prison until he could pay off the debt. (Matthew 18:30)
Word spreads about what had happened and eventually it gets back to the king about what this servant has done. And the king is NOT happy. (Matthew 18:31)
He calls the servant in and says, “You wicked servant, I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” Matthew 18:32
Furious the king hands him to the jailers to be tortured until all his debt is repaid. Matthew 18:33-34
While the wicked servant had experience forgiveness, he failed to let it change his heart. Those whom God has forgiven must forgive in the same way.
Jesus ends with a warning, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Matthew 18:35
4 Lessons From The Parable Of The Unforgiving Servant
Now that we’ve looked at the parable of the unforgiving servant meaning, let’s break it down into practical lessons that we can apply to our lives today.
1. We Cannot Repay Our Own Debt
The servant in this story racked up an insurmountable debt. There was no way he could ever repay it on his own. And because of that debt he was destined to a life of misery.
Similarly, each person has an insurmountable debt: sin (Romans 3:23). The consequence of this debt is eternal separation from God. We are incapable of repaying our debt and without the action from an outside source we have no hope.
2. God Offers Us Undeserved Forgiveness
God does for us what we are incapable of doing for ourselves.
We shouldn’t miss the significance of this. We do not deserve forgiveness. We are not worthy of saving. We deserve death, but God gives us life instead.
God gives what we need, not what we deserve. God is good, even when we are not.
3. We Can Forgive Because We Are Forgiven
Because of this forgiveness we are set free. Our debts are forgiven. But this isn’t just a “get out of hell free card.” We were forgiven so that we can forgive.
Just as we received undeserved forgiveness we are called to do the same. We don’t forgive those who deserve, we forgive those who don’t deserve. That’s the nature of forgiveness. It goes to those who are in the wrong.
Our world is full of unforgiveness and people seeking payback. The results are EVERYWHERE. Brokenness and pain at increasing levels. Forgiveness is the only way out.
Listen, it’s not fair. And it’s not easy. But it’s the only way out of the cycle of payback that continually requires more from each of us.
4. Our Love For God Is Shown In Our Treatment Of Those Around Us
We are able to forgive because we are forgiven. But this isn’t just an ability, it’s an expectation for followers of Jesus.
Forgiveness should be one of the hallmarks of the community of believers. Sadly, Christians would often hold onto grudges than extend forgiveness.
And I get it. You were wronged. It hurt. And that person does indeed deserve payback.
But Jesus took on their sin on the cross. Just as he did yours. Forgiveness is possible and freedom can be experienced. Your love for God is shown by how you forgive those around you.
I’m not saying this will happen over night. Some have experienced severe trauma. It might take years and lots of counseling. But healing is possible through forgiveness.
For more check out: 9 Powerful Truths You Need To Know About Forgiveness In The Bible
The parable of the unforgiving servant teaches us the importance of receiving the forgiveness of God and extending it to those who have wronged us.
This parable isn’t about fairness. But it is a way out of the cycle of unforgiveness so many are trapped in. All this is possible through Jesus and what he has done for us and is doing in us. You can experience the freedom of forgiveness when you run into his grace.