Lessons learned from the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

The parable of the unforgiving servant is another parable that is direct and easy to understand. It does not take a lot of explanation to grasp the point Jesus is making, especially in the context of His conversation with Peter. I can imagine Peter thinking he was going to get a commendation for suggesting that he would forgive someone seven times. I can also imagine his fellow disciples hiding their smiles and chuckles as Peter once again walked into a teaching moment for Jesus.

Peter seemed to do that a lot.

Matthew 18:21-35
21  Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22  Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23  “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
24  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him.
25  Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26  “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’
27  The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28  “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29  “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30  “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
31  When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32  “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.
33  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
34  In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35  “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The Master in this parable, as is often the case in the parables, represents God. The Master forgives an enormous debt, showing that God’s grace is, for all intents and purposes, without limit. The debt forgiven, ten thousand bags of gold (translated in the NKJV as ten thousand talents, an amount in the millions of dollars), is an unimaginable debt for the time.

The forgiven man then demands full payments from a debtor who owes him a vastly smaller sum, 100 silver coins (translated in the NKJV as 100 denarii where a denarius is a day’s wages). The amount he is owed is 1/600,000 of the amount he himself had owed, an amount that was forgiven.

Lessons for the church and for believers

There are several lessons taught by this story. The most important of all is one needed by all people and churches, forgiveness is not optional. When I write forgiveness, I am calling for the serious type of forgiveness – such as the forgiveness Jesus displayed as He suffered and died on the cross when He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:24. That is a “no silent grudges being carried forward” type of forgiveness.

The message and meaning of this parable are unmistakable. That message is consistent with the heart of Jesus shared throughout His ministry.

Mark 11:25
25  And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Luke 17:3-4
3  So watch yourselves.
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.
4  Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

Matthew 6:12
12  And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Followers of Jesus are to be forgiving, extraordinarily so, because we have been forgiven a vast debt owed, paid by Jesus with His death on the cross.

Romans 5:8
8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Paul made it simple and clear:

Ephesians 4:32
32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Are there limits to that forgiveness? Is forgiveness only to be granted when there is an apology and repentance? Is forgiveness hard?

“No,” “no,” and an enthusiastic “yes” are the simple answers. Let’s look at both of those questions and answers.

Are there limits to that forgiveness?

No, there are no limits to forgiveness. Just look at the magnitude of difference between the master’s forgiveness of the vast debt of the unforgiving servant and the small amount owed to the unforgiving servant and you can probably reach the same conclusion. The difference wasn’t ten, a hundred or even a thousand times, it was 600,000 times. The debt of the unforgiving servant was a vast amount, far more than he could repay in a thousand lifetimes.

The beauty of the enormous size of grace is made evident right here. That enormity is like my debt, the sin of my life. If I had to earn forgiveness for my sins, I would still be working hard at it a few thousand lifetimes from now – and probably losing ground. But I am forgiven because that is what love does, it keeps no record of wrongs. 1 Corinthians 13:5.

It is said that General Oglethorpe once said to John Wesley, “I never forgive and I never forget.” Wesley replied, “Then, sir, I hope you never sin.” That raises a good question about forgiveness. “Does forgiveness require you to forget?” Irish missionary to India, Amy Carmichael in her book If says “yes.”

“If I say, ‘Yes, I forgive but I cannot forget,’ as though the God, who twice a day washes all the sands on all the shores of all the world, could not wash such memories from my mind, then I know nothing of Calvary’s love.”

Similarly, Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887), U. S. preacher, orator, and writer, said, “I can forgive, but I cannot forget, is only another way of saying, I will not forgive. Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note–torn in two, and burned up, so that it never can be shown against one.”

I respectfully disagree, because while I can control my decision to forgive, I cannot as easily erase things from memory. Forgetting is different than forgiveness. Dr. Lewis B. Smedes (1921 – 2002), U. S. Christian author and professor, in How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong wrote:

“Forgiving is love’s toughest work.” But you can make it easier if you don’t confuse forgiving with forgetting. You do not have to forget to forgive. Besides, some things should never be forgotten, lest we let them happen again.”

There is something I can do that comes close to forgive and forget. For true forgiveness I must make three commitments:

1. I will not use the event against the person in the future,
2. I will not make the event a subject of any conversation with others, and,
3. I will, to the extent I am able, not dwell on it myself. Over time, this final commitment becomes easier and easier and leads to both forgiving and at least something close to forgetting.

In truth, the only limit to forgiveness lies in our own very human and weak hearts. We are blessed that God does not have that limit.

Is forgiveness only to be granted when there is an apology and repentance?

This can be argued, but as for me, the answer is “no.” Forgiveness conditioned on repentance or on an apology results from a prideful heart in the person who has been wronged. Forgiveness is the right thing to do regardless of repentance or apology. Luke 17:3-4 does indicate the offending person repents, but the sincerity of that repentance might be questioned since that person continues to offend as many as seven times a day. But to condition forgiveness upon repentance or an apology cheapens forgiveness and gives the offended or harmed person an easy excuse not to forgive, “I am not sure he really has repented.”

Jesus does not give us the option of demanding an apology or repentance. Mark 11:25. Requiring an apology or repentance causes the offending person to have to “earn” your forgiveness. While it might be satisfying in a worldly sense to require and apology and repentance, it almost defeats on of the genuine benefits of forgiveness, the freedom you gain when you forgive.

“It is easy in a righteous way to condemn a sinner and to pray for their salvation. But to personally offer forgiveness, blessing and praying for their well being (Mt. 5:44, Rom. 12:14), and even meeting their physical needs (Rom. 12:20), is much harder. Whilst we must condemn sin in general and preach God’s call to repentance and righteousness, in individual situations it is the Holy Spirit who convicts, and judgment and revenge must be left to God: our role is to repay evil with good (Rom. 12:20).
Gods forgives you and so must I.”
     Graeme Bentley

“Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hate. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.”
     Corrie Ten Boom (1892 – 1983), Dutch Christian author, survivor of a German concentration camp

The forgiveness you give benefits you enormously, freeing you from the harsh consequences of an unforgiving spirit.

Taking it a step farther, I was forgiven not because of who I am, what I had done, or what I could or would do. I was forgiven by grace and nothing more. As a result, I must do the same, or face the same condemnation as the unforgiving servant.

Matthew 18:35
35 This is how my heavenly father will treat each one of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from the heart.

How hard is forgiveness?

The only possible answer here is that forgiveness can be very hard. It means putting the past where it belongs – in the past.

“Forgiveness is not cheap. It comes with a high price tag. God knows that. All one has to do to verify that fact is to travel outside the walls of Jerusalem to a place called Calvary where Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was crucified for the sins of the world. That was the place where God’s forgiveness was forged. No, forgiveness is not cheap. It costs sweat, tears and sometimes blood. We, however, will never fully experience the refreshing forgiveness of God until we allow him to forgive others through us. The scars of yesterday’s wrongs will not heal. The voices of anger and frustration will not stop, nor will the memories of the wrongs done to us by family friends or foe fade unless, in the economy of God’s mercy, we learn to forgive those ‘who have trespassed against us.’”
     Battle Fatigue by Joe Brown at p.134

To be sure, forgiving does not mean that you leave yourself wide open for another round of hurt. If a person steals from me, that person will be forgiven but will not go unwatched. If a person lies to me, that person will be forgiven, but trust is another thing altogether.

There is a final question about forgiveness worth asking and answering.

Why forgive?

The easy answer is because Jesus said so. But that, while true, doesn’t explain the depth of our need to forgive. Far too many people would rather remain angry and wounded, never putting the past and the injury behind them. Instead, we need to forgive for many reasons, among them:

1. Someone, now anonymous, wrote, “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” How true that is!
2. We are freed from the control of the other person. Until you forgive, that other person can anger you without any effort and even without any knowledge it is happening.
3. We are released from any debt – revenge is not an obligation or even an option.
4. It removes the fruit of bitterness from us.
5. Scottish novelist, poet and clergyman George Macdonald gave us another reason when he wrote “Forgiveness is the giving, and so the receiving, of life.”
6. When we truly forgive, we can stand before Christ without shame. We can stand before Him because we have done our best and by forgiving we become more like Him.

That is the message, but is it the reality of the modern church and believers? Much of an honest answer can be found in the old saying that the church, while a hospital for sinners, is the only hospital that shoots its own wounded! My experience has been far more positive than that saying would suggest, but far from what I believe it should be.

There is a difficult balance that must be reached. There is an extremely sensitive area that makes an excellent illustration of the problem because it is so extreme – a pedophile. Should a pedophile be forgiven? The only possible answer is “yes.” But should that pedophile be given access to a children’s ministry? Most people would say no even without considering three factors that are incredibly important:

1. The risk of harm to even one child is too great to open ministry doors. Forgiveness is one thing, but forgetting and trust are separate.
2. There is a public registry and record of registered sex offender maintained online in Florida by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). A church’s forgiveness to the extent of allowing a convicted pedophile to even be present much less teach in children’s ministry would likely result in many leaving the ministry and perhaps even the church.
3. The reported risk of recidivism is historically high among pedophiles. One repeat incident would expose a church and its personnel to legal claims that could easily exceed insurance and destroy a church financially.

Extreme examples test the weakness or firmness of a position, and that is an example that does an excellent job of testing the limits. Don’t stop there.

How can we as believers and as a church become more forgiving?

After studying it, all that remains is to take a giant step and forgive. But that is at times truly a giant step. Rather than insist on one step, try these six steps:

a) Start by comparing the wrong you have suffered to Christ’s death on the cross.
b) Next, recall the many times you have been the recipient of kind deeds and words, perhaps even by the person who you believe has harmed you this time.
c) Add to that the many times God has blessed you and protected you from harm.
d) Now thank God for His love and forgiveness of you.
e) After all of that, pray for the growth of the person who you believe has harmed you this time.
f) Complete your efforts with the Lord’s prayer, focusing your attention on the words, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Those steps make it difficult to deny forgiveness. It may not come automatically, easily or quickly, but forgiveness and a softening of your heart will come.
Our need to give and receive forgiveness can be summed up this way:

If our greatest need had been information,
God would have sent us an educator;
If our greatest need had been technology,
God would have sent us a scientist;
If our greatest need had been money,
God would have sent us an economist;
If our greatest need had been pleasure,
God would have sent us an entertainer;
But our greatest need was forgiveness,
so God sent us a Savior.

About the Author

John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida, where he met Jesus. He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016. He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.

This series of articles on financial and other issues facing the American church in this no longer very new millennium has personal as well as Biblical insights. These articles represent the personal thoughts and reflections of the author and are not a statement necessarily of The Idlewild Foundation. They are based upon parables told by Jesus and stories from the gospels on events in His life, applying His life and teachings to the lives of believers and to the church as a whole and not to any one church in particular.