211. “Forgiveness in the Teaching Of Jesus.” (The Parable Of The Unmerciful Servant. Matthew 18:21-35.) (3rd in series of 10).


A True Story. (Names have been changed to ensure confidentiality and privacy)

Janice had a problem. In fact she had two problems. The first was a physical problem that meant she could not control her hands that were continuously shaking. The shaking was getting worse as the months wore on. She found it almost impossible to write or to sign her name. Doctors had given her a bad prognosis that suggested she would not get better but would only get progressively worse.

The second problem arose because of the teaching she had heard that day. It was teaching on the need to forgive in order to remain in good health or to experience God’s healing power in one’s life. She asked the question at the end of the teaching seminar, “Do you mean to say that if I forgive someone I could receive more healing?” My answer was “I really do believe that if we do what God tells us to do (such as forgiving others) we open ourselves to receive more healing from Him.”

At home that night Janice faced a moment of decision. She realised that the person who had brought so much damage into her life was her own mother. She realised she did need to forgive her mother but really didn’t want to. She didn’t want to let her mother “off the hook” for the hurt and pain her mother had caused her. Her choice was a difficult one. Should she humble herself and forgive her mother or should she hold on to the resentment and unforgiveness she had? If she forgave her mother she would no longer have a hold on her and could no longer play the victim.

She reached her decision. She had previously come to experience God’s forgiveness of her sins when she surrendered her life to the living Jesus. God had forgiven her of so much. Now she needed to forgive her mother. Her prayer went something like this, “Dear Lord, I confess that I have been harbouring so much hate and bitterness towards my mother. Please forgive me. I see the need now to forgive her. ” Then in words that were to change her life and her health she cried out, “Mother I forgive you in Jesus’ name.”

Immediately the shaking stopped. She had been healed! The next day she wrote easily and legibly for the first time in many months. That was only part of the healing. She testified later that she had come to know a wonderful emotional release as well. Those who knew her well saw a wonderful change in her physical, emotional and spiritual health.

Janice had decided to show mercy to her mother in forgiving her. She had cancelled the debt her mother owed her for the damage she had caused to Janice. She let her mother “off the hook” of her unforgiveness and in so doing was wonderfully released herself.

She had followed the example of the merciful master in the parable Jesus told in Mat 18. As we look at this parable we will see that the characteristics of true forgiveness are summarised in Mat 18:27. They are

  • a decision to show mercy.
  • cancelling the debt owed
  • letting the offender go free

Paul wrote in Col 3:13  “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”  When we act on what God says, and forgive others in the same way that He forgave us, deep healing can take place.

We will now look at the parable to find out more about the nature of true forgiveness.


The significance of this passage is that Jesus responded to a question put to Him by Peter about forgiveness. His response was direct and uncompromising. People needed to forgive completely those who had sinned against them. He also gave an illustration in the form of a parable to show how forgiveness works out in practical living. It is known as the “Parable Of The Unmerciful Servant”. It shows examples of both forgiveness and unforgiveness.

Peter asked Jesus, Mt 18:21  Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?  Rabbinic teaching at the time seems to have taught that forgiveness was needed only three times against an offender. Peter was being generous in suggesting seven times. Jesus’ reply probably shocked those who heard Him. Mat 18:22  , “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. He was really saying that there is no upper limit to forgiveness. Jesus then told the parable to illustrate the meaning of true forgiveness.

1).           AN EXAMPLE OF TRUE FORGIVENESS. Mat 18:23-27

A servant was indebted to his king who required payment of the ten thousand talents owed. Suffice it to say that it was an impossible debt for him to repay.  All the servant could do was to plead for mercy, Mat 18:26  So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’

Jesus then showed what forgiveness is like. In very simple language Jesus declared what were the true elements of forgiveness, Mat 18:27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. We will look at those three elements in more detail.   True Forgiveness requires the following:-

a).        A Decision To Show Mercy.  The servant’s master took pity on him

The word for “took pity” is from the Greek word (σπλαγχνίζομαι= splagchnízomai) which is found about a dozen times in the New Testament.  It comes from the noun splagchnon used for the intestines or bowels. They were seen at that time to be the seat of the emotions. The verb can mean to yearn, to feel deeply, to have compassion. It was often used in connection with Jesus’ ministry. He had compassion on many people, eg., in Mat 9:36, Mat 14:14, Mk 6:34; (Mat 14:14), Mar 6:34, Mat 15:32, Mk 8:2; Mat 15:32,  Mar 8:2, Mat 20:34; Mk 1:41, Mk 9.22;  Lk 7:13, Lk 10.33,  Lk 15:20.

What form then did this compassion take in the parable? It led to two consequences. He let the debtor go free. He cancelled the debt that was owed.

b).        Letting The Offender Go FreeAnd let him go. “Let go” is from apoluō meaning to loose or to forgive. It can mean to set free, let go, dismiss, loose, send away, divorce, depart, forgive. It is used in Lk 6.37 for “forgive”, Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.

The master in his compassion had decided not to have the man put into prison. The servant was no longer obligated to the master. He was free to go and now owed nothing.

c).        Cancelling The Debt Owed.  “forgave him the debt”.

This is from (aphiēmi) meaning to “cancel” or to “forgive”. Instead of having the man imprisoned for not repaying the debt, the master cancelled all the debt and freed the sinner. Such a simple term is used to explain an incredible amount of generosity of spirit in the master. The cancellation of any debt comes at great personal cost to the person forgiving. The amount of debt mentioned in the parable was an impossible amount to repay, yet the master chose to let it all go. The servant no longer owed his master anything. The debt had been cancelled. He had been loosed from it.

 In many ways the same elements are present in the forgiveness God offered humans in His Son.

i). God chose to have mercy on those who would ask Him for mercy and forgiveness. John 3:16, For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

ii). He released them from the punishment they deserved because of the death Jesus died in their place to take away sin.  2 Cor 5:15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

iii). Their sin was cancelled as believers took hold of the salvation and forgiveness offered them in Christ.

2).           AN EXAMPLE OF UNFORGIVENESS. Mat 18:28-30

As we look at these verses we see that the servant did not put into practice the elements of true forgiveness.

a).        He chose NOT to show compassion or pity. Mat 18:28  But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29  So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.

 One would have expected that a man who had been shown such compassion by a superior would have been motivated to show compassion to an equal. However he chose to reject his fellow servant’s plea for mercy even though the latter used the same plea for mercy that he had used himself,  ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’

b).        He chose NOT to release the debtor.  30 He refused and went and put him in prison.  What chilling words are used to describe the attitude of the first servant, “He refused”. In spite of seeing and experiencing compassion in action; in spite of having his debt cancelled; in spite of not having to go to prison, he made the decision not to be merciful to his fellow servant. He put him in prison. The word for “put in” is from
(βάλλω = bállō) which normally has the sense of force. It is translated here as “cast” in the KJV and as “threw” in the NRSV.

c).        He chose NOT to cancel the debt owed.  30 …  until he should pay the debt. The first servant had been forgiven of an impossible debt. Having been forgiven, he owed nothing. Again one would have expected that because he had “saved” so much due to the generosity of the master that he could let little debts go. But he refused to cancel the small debt his fellow servant owed him.

 3).           THE CONSEQUENCES OF UNFORGIVENESS.  Mat 18:31-35

Injustice cannot be tolerated.  A great injustice had taken place. The fellow servants who saw what happened were appalled. Mat 18:31  When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. The unforgiving servant was accountable for his attitudes and actions.

We reap what we sow.  The first servant, in spite of all the compassion he had been shown, had sown a lack of compassion and forgiveness in the life of a fellow servant. He was to reap what he had sown. Mat 18:32  Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33  And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’

 He had shown in his actions two principles by which he lived. The first was that showing compassion was not necessary for him. The second was that debts should be paid no matter how small. He wanted to live by the application of law and not by the manifestation of grace.

The master applied the same principles to him. Compassion was withdrawn. Now law would come into force. Mat 18:34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.

We note that though the master was angry at the blatant injustice he had witnessed, he acted in a restrained manner in dealing with the unforgiving servant. He didn’t throw (ballō) him into prison but handed him over to the jailers. “Handed over” is (
παραδίδωμι = paradídōmi) which usually describes a more restrained approach.

Unforgiveness leads to imprisonment

Mat 18:34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.  The word for “jailers” is (βασανιστής = basanistēs which is translated as “tormentors” in the KJV and as “to be tortured” in the NRSV and as “to the jailers to be tortured” in the NIV.  The unforgiving servant would undergo torture in jail until he had paid all his debts to the master. As the story is told by Jesus that would mean he would never be released from prison.


It is unwise to press every small detail of a parable and extrapolate it to understand its meaning for today. A parable normally has one main point to stress. Jesus in answer to Peter’s question, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” has shown in the parable what elements are involved in forgiveness and what that means in practice. He also showed the danger of continuing in unforgiveness.  He applied the parable in Mat 18:35, So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

 What is it that God will do to those who refuse to show compassion in forgiveness? There are those who see this as referring to the final judgment of humankind. Those who are refused mercy and remain in torment at the judgment are those who refused to seek mercy from God throughout their lives. They had not tasted God’s mercy and thus were unable to show it to others in forgiveness.

Another explanation focuses on the unforgiving servant being handed over to the jailers to be tortured. It is suggested that those who refuse to forgive are “imprisoned” in their unforgiveness. They remain in a negative bonding to those whom they refuse to forgive. Many counsellors will testify that people who refuse to show compassion and to forgive are indeed imprisoned by their bitterness and resentment. They bring upon themselves what we might describe as self-imposed torture. Their minds are habitually thinking of the person they need to forgive and they can go through renewed pain and emotional distress with every memory.

Jesus set before Peter and those who heard Him the way forward. It was the way of forgiveness. In forgiving others they could become free themselves. The elements of forgiveness He outlined in the parable bring the healing and release that will not come in any other way.

To be rid of the inner torment that unforgiveness brings means taking the steps taken by the master in the parable. That is, people need to decide to show mercy and compassion. They need to cancel all the debt owed to them by the person who hurt or offended them. They need to let them go free, or in other words, to let them off the hook of their unforgiveness. That is God’s way for becoming free and being rid of the inner torment. The freeedom that comes from forgiving brings healing to those who forgive.


1).        To what extent is the relationship between the Master and the first servant similar to the relationship that exists between God and humans?
2).        Was there any other way the first servant could have solved his problem apart from pleading with the Master for mercy. If not, why not?
3).        In what ways did the first servant show a lack of appreciation for what the Master had done for him?
4).        In our relationships do we sometimes act like the first servant in our attitudes towards our equals?
5).        Does the parable say anything about believers losing their salvation? If not, why not?
6).        What “good news” is there in the parable for those who feel they are too unworthy to draw near to God?
 7).        When we ask God to forgive us how forgiven are we really?


Blog No.211.  Jim Holbeck. Posted (Good) Friday 14th April 2017

About Jim Holbeck

Once an Industrial Chemist working for the Queensland Government but later an Anglican minister in Brisbane, Armidale and Sydney. Last position for eighteen years before retirement in 2006 was as the Leader of the Healing Ministry at St Andrew's Cathedral Sydney.
This entry was posted in BIBLE PASSAGE OUTLINES, Bible verses. Comments, Faithfulness, Forgiveness, GROUP DISCUSSION MATERIAL on "Forgiveness", Healing, Prayer, Salvation, Sanctification and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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