Vol. 3, No. 2 Page 2 February, 2001
Prefatory events to our Lord's parable of the Unmerciful Servant include: (1) rivalry among the apostles for prominence "in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:1), (2) Jesus Christ's illustration of "a little child" to teach humility (Matthew 18:2-5), (3) Christ's instruction to avoid offenses (Matthew 18:6-14), (4) Jesus' teaching how to resolve interpersonal problems among the children of God (Matthew 18:15-17), (5) the essentially of unity among the apostles (Matthew 18:18-20), and (6) Peter's question about forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22).
The Gospel of Mark records that on the way to Capernaum our Lord's disciples argued "among themselves who should be the greatest" (Mark 9:33-37). Luke's account verifies that this discord occurred (Luke 9:46-48). On a later occasion, James and John, with their mother, sought Jesus to grant them preeminence among the apostles. This self-serving maneuver produced animosity in the other ten apostles toward James and John (Matthew 20:20-28).
Strife and offenses resulted from these petty rivalries. The apostles were offended or had hard feelings toward each other. Jesus countered this potentially disastrous unrest among his apostles with two lessons: (1) humility to offset the insipid jealousies, and (2) repentance and forgiveness to repair their fellowship with each other -- and with the Godhead.
Satisfactory resolution of foreboding breaches following this incident was critical to the overall training of the apostles. During his ministry, Jesus prepared them for the execution of the Great Commission and guidance of the infant church, beginning in Acts Two. Failure at this juncture would have severely undermined God's plan to establish the kingdom of prophecy. Similarly, unchecked rivalries or jealousies and ill-will among members greatly hamper any congregation in which those sins are present.
Jesus picked up a child as a living illustration of humility (Mark 9:36).
"And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:2-4).
Jesus then taught that sinful offenses would occur, despite best efforts to avoid them (Matthew 18:6-14).
These trespasses or sins were to be resolved privately and discreetly, if possible. "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother" (Matthew 18:15). If unable to resolve sinful differences this way, with as little escalation as possible, additional persons ought to lend themselves to terminating alienation among brethren. "But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established" (Matthew 18:16). Finally, prior attempts failing to disarm estrangement between brethren, the local congregation is obliged to intervene to restore civility and fellowship. "And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican" (Matthew 18:17).
The very office of responsibility for which Jesus prepared his apostles was endangered by their disaffection for each other. Ordinarily, we turn to Matthew 18:18-20 as evidence of apostolic authority. Division was counterproductive to their mission as apostles and the authority with which they were to exercise themselves as apostles (Matthew 18:20).
Peter, though accommodating by then contemporary custom, could not envision being obligated to forgive repeat offenders, irrespective of the number of times one might sin against him. "Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?" (Matthew 18:21). One commentator observes:
This was being generous. Rabbis advised forgiving a brother only three times.1
With the apostle Peter, it was three strikes and you're out! Of course,
. . . Peter . . . assumed that his brother would sin against him, not he against his brother. . . . He wanted to be able to measure forgiveness. This meant he was thinking of setting a limit: "This far and no further!" The Lord exposed that fallacy when He said, "Not seven times, but seventy times seven!" By the time you have forgiven somebody that many times, you are in the habit of forgiving and will not need to obey rules on set limits.2
Peter wanted mercy for himself but exacted justice without mercy on others.3 "Peter indeed was willing to forgive, but his mistake was that he measured himself by a human rather than a divine standard."4
"Forgiveness must never be refused when sought with repentance."5 Unfortunately, often brethren superficially purport to forgive while demonstrating by their actions their reluctance to proffer forgiveness on their fellows. Only rarely have I observed a Christian brazenly and openly refuse to forgive professed penitents.
Repentance must precede forgiveness, though a Christian should always be willing to forgive penitent offenders.
"Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4).
To refuse forgiveness to a fellow Christian professing repentance would require the omniscience of God.
The pages of inspiration amply attest to the child of God to be ready always to forgive. "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy" (Matthew 5:7).
"For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15).
"For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Matthew 7:2). "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven" (Luke 6:37). "And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil" (Luke 11:4). "And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:32). "Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye" (Colossians 3:13).
Whereas Peter was willing to forgive someone seven times, Jesus posed a much larger number, 70 times seven or 490 times (Matthew 18:22). Jesus used this formula figuratively to teach that one should always be willing to forgive. The word "Therefore," with which the parable of the Unmerciful Servant begins, makes a direct relationship between that parable and the foregoing verses that we just surveyed.
"Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses" (Matthew 18:21-35).
According to the commentator, R.C. Trench, the Unmerciful Servant is the first parable where God is represented as being a king.6 (The parable derives its name from observation of the conduct by the first servant. The king called him the "wicked servant.") Another writer says of the parable, "This is the only parable in the Bible that demonstrates the magnitude of God's forgiveness."7 Herbert Lockyer writes that the parable of the Unmerciful Servant allows us to "glimpse the mercy and compassion of the divine heart."8
From verse 23, we note that this is another kingdom parable. God is represented here as a king. The accounting or evaluation, according to Wayne Jackson, is the Gospel call.9 The servants represent sinners. Besides the initial examination by the Gospel through which one goes when first acquainted with it, there will also be a final examination. "So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God" (Romans 14:12). The Word of Christ will be the means by which examination is made then, too (John 12:48). Happily, no one has to fail the final examination that precedes the assignment of an eternal abode. Anyone can take a pre-test and thereafter make any needed adjustments. "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?" (2 Corinthians 13:5).
In verse 24, a servant owed the king an enormous debt, which in this parable represents sin. Several factors obscure precisely the equivalent amount to contemporary times that this servant owed. First, our economy is highly inflated over first-century economics in Palestine. Second, the value of a talent varied depending on whether the Roman or Jewish talent is considered. Third, a talent of gold varied greatly in value from a talent of silver. Modern estimates tally the 10,000 talents ranging from about $3,000,000 to $150,000,000.10 In any event, the money owed was an insurmountable debt that was beyond the servant's ability to make restitution.
Two commentators attempt to provide a frame of reference regarding the enormity of this debt with the following illustrations.
To understand the buying power of a talent, consider that one talent would purchase a slave. The total annual tax bill for Palestine was about 800 talents, and this man owed 10,000 talents! One talent would be equal to 20 year's wages for the average man.11
If the Jewish silver talent is under consideration, the servant's debt was an estimated $10,000,000. References to both gold and silver talents were common throughout Jewish history (Exodus 28:24; 1 Kings 10:10; 1 Chronicles 29:4-7).
In Palestine a laboring man's daily wages were one shilling (approximately 17 cents). It would have taken 200,000 years to pay off that debt! This illustrates man's complete inability to pay off his sin-debt to Jehovah. Man stands bankrupt before God.12
The servant's debt was far beyond his ability to repay. Both Roman and Jewish law allowed that a debtor could be sold for his debts. For instance, a thief who when caught was unable to make restitution was sold (Exodus 22:3). Debtors extended to the family of the debtor, for which family members could be sold (2 Kings 4:1).
"Because of our sins, we are under an un-payable debt to God."13 Selling the servant and his family represents alienation from God because of sin.
The servant prostrated himself before the king and pleaded for mercy. Further, the servant anxiously pledged to the king that he would repay the astronomical debts over time. "A man in such terror and anguish will promise impossible things."14 "The servant's promise to pay all reveals of the vastness of the debt owed . . ."15
The servant evidently persuaded the king with much heartfelt emotion. Consequently, the king released the servant from his debt. The liquidation of the debt was wholly due to the compassion of the king in response to an impassioned plea. Justice demanded repayment. Mercy, though, here was the annulment of the debt. "'Moved with compassion' is a strong expression suggesting being inwardly pained at suffering with a desire to relieve."16 Our heavenly Father is moved with this same compassion for all mankind (2 Peter 3:9).
Verses 28 and 29 describe a similar event following the servant's release from his oppressive debt. This time, though, this first servant required a fellow servant to pay his debt to him immediately. He sought and obtained mercy for himself, but he demanded justice without mercy of his peer. This parable, then, pertains to man's forgiveness of his fellow man.
The two sums of money owed in the parable are deliberate extremes. The servant owed his fellow servant a hundred denarii. The denarius was a Roman coin worth about twenty cents, which made this total debt about twenty dollars.17
The second servant owed about four months' wages.18 The Greek and Roman custom regarding delinquent debtors was to take the debtor by the throat to court for trial.19 "The worst offenses committed against men are nothing compared to the offenses all have committed against God."20 Therefore, we ought to forgive one another because God has forgiven us.
However, the first servant was deaf to the identical pleas for mercy he himself made earlier. Instead he cast his fellow servant into prison.
The reason for imprisonment and cruel treatment was to force the debtor to sell what ever property he might secretly own, or to have the debtor's relatives pay his debt. The creditor would demand slave-labor of the debtor's family so that the debt might be worked off.21
Verse 31 depicts the sense of wrong noted by still other servants regarding the unmerciful servant. "An unforgiving disposition arouses indignation in others."22 Consequently, the misdeeds of the unmerciful were reported to the king. Appalled at the ingratitude, the king reversed his passions toward the unmerciful servant. The "tormentors" to whom the wicked servant was delivered represent eternal hell. The parable here teaches "God will punish those who are unforgiving."23 Earlier the parable represented the compassion of God. The severity of God is evident also from the parable.
Some commentators imagine they have found in this passage biblical evidence for the Roman Catholic doctrine of "purgatory." It is to the phrase "till he should pay all that was due unto him" in verse 34 appeal is made.
The Romish theologians find an argument for purgatory in the words, till he should pay all that was due, as also in Matthew v. 26. But it seems plainly a proverbial expression; for since man could never acquit the slightest portion of the debt which he owes to God, the putting of such a condition was the strongest possible way of expressing the eternal duration of this punishment.24
Similar emphasis is used in the crude and picturesque expression, "when hell freezes over" or "when pigs fly."
The moral of the parable is plainly expressed in verse 35. "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses" (Matthew 18:35). The forgiveness by God of which children of God are recipients must be demonstrated by them toward their fellows.
The immensity of the debt does not hinder God's full and free pardon (Isa. 1:18; 55:7). God will save the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). No one is beyond forgiveness; it makes little difference as to how many, how big, and how long one's sins have reached.25
God, then, teaches us how to forgive. Finally,
. . . this parable is striking and impressive because of its acute contrasts. First, there is the contrast of Peter's number and the Lord's. Peter was willing to forgive several times, but the Lord said to forgive to infinity. Second, there is the contrast of the two debts. One was a trifling sum, the other was unpayable.26
1 Warren W. Wiersbe, Windows on the Parables, Wheaton, Scripture Press, 123.
2 Ibid., 123-124.
3 Ibid., 128-129.
4 Neil R. Lightfoot, The Parables of Jesus, Vol. 1, Abilene, ACU Press, 47.
5 James Davis, “The Unmerciful Servant,” The Parables of Our Savior, Indianapolis, Garfield Road church of Christ, 81.
6 R.C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 55.
7 Davis, 78.
8 Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible, Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 219.
9 Wayne Jackson, The Parables in Profile, Stockton , CA, Wayne Jackson, 49.
10 Lockyer, 218.
11 Wiersbe, 125.
12 Jackson, 49.
13 Ibid., 50.
14 Davis, 77.
15 Jackson, 49.
17 Lightfoot, 50.
18 Wiersbe, 125.
19 Lightfoot, 48.
20 Davis, 81.
21 Ibid., 74.
22 Jackson, 50.
24 Trench, 59.
25 Davis, 80.
26 Lightfoot, 51.