The Parables of Jesus
by E.H. ‘Jack’ Sequeira

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Matthew 18:21-35:

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?  Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.  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.
“The servant fell on his knees before him.  ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’  The sevant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.  He grabbed him and began to choke him.  ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
“But he refused.  Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.  When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in.  ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘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?’  In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

One of the greatest, most wonderful blessings that we have through Jesus Christ and through His gospel is the forgiveness of sins.  I don’t know how much you are aware of it but the forgiveness of sin was at the heart of New Testament preaching.

We read in Acts 13 where the Christian church sent out Paul and Barnabas as the first missionaries to the Gentile world.  After exposing these Gentiles to Jesus Christ as their hope, as their Saviour, he concluded in verse 38 and 39 by these words:

Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.  Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.

Forgiveness of sins was one of the key messages of the gospel preached by the early Christians.  Let me give you another text in Ephesians.  Paul, writing to these Ephesian Christians says in Ephesians 1:7 7:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace....

You will find the same thing in Colossians 1:14 and several other passages.  Yet, when it comes time for we sinful human beings to forgive those that have wronged us, we find it very, very hard.

Not too long ago, Tammy Baker appeared in the Phil Donahue television show and he asked her a question, “How do you feel about all those people [some of whom had worked for her husband] witnessing against your husband?”  And she said, “I forgave them all.”  Then she paused, “Except,” she said, “Jerry.”  She meant Jerry Falwell.  She could not get to the point where she could forgive Jerry Falwell and many of us face similar problems.  There are some people we just do not know how to forgive.  It is just so difficult.

That is why I would like, in the next two studies on the parables of Jesus, to look at two parables where Jesus dealt with the issue of forgiveness.  I hope, as we finish these two studies, it will do something to us in terms of our relationship to God and in terms of our relationship to each other.

With this in mind, let’s go to our scripture reading, Matthew 18.  Keep in mind some things that Jesus had already taught His disciples.  For example, in Matthew 5:20 Jesus had already told the disciples that their righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees:

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

He had already told them a little earlier (Luke 12:1):

...“Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees...” [that is, the doctrines of the Pharisees].

What did the Pharisees teach about forgiveness?  Well, they based their teaching on forgiveness from the rabbinical teaching which said the limit is three times.  I can imagine Peter thinking, “Now if our forgiveness must be exceeding that of the Pharisees, I suppose Jesus meant seven times (which is a complete figure).”  So Peter, with his wonderful mind for jumping to conclusions, turns to Jesus in Matthew 18:21 and says to Jesus,

“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?  Up to seven times?”

“Seven?  Is seven what you meant when you said the righteousness of us disciples must exceed that of the Pharisees?”

He was in for a shock for,

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Remember, they had no computers in those days and writing material was a luxury so they could not keep a record of seventy times seven.  They did not have diaries so, to Peter, that meant unlimited.  We should forgive those that offend us how often?  There must be no stop to it.

Having said this, Jesus turned around to His disciples and told them and us about this parable.  First of all we will look at this parable and then we will ask ourselves, “What was Jesus trying to get tell them?  Verse 23:

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.

Whenever Christ said “the kingdom of heaven,” He was dealing with His kingdom, His system, which includes the gospel.

Here is a king who is taking a record of all those who owe him money.  In verse 24 they bring him a man, one of his servants, who owed him ten thousand talents:

As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.

Now what does that mean to you — ten thousand talents?  We don’t use talents these days so I did some research and I made quite a surprising discovery.  I discovered, from the historical records that we have today, that the total amount of the tax revenue that Rome collected from her empire, including the 17 countries that she ruled, was 8,000 talents a year.

I discovered that the 8,000 talents was equivalent to approximately eight million dollars, which of course, in the days of Christ was a tremendous amount.  Remember, in those days they did not have inflation.  This means that when Jesus said this man owed him ten thousand talents, it was equivalent to ten million dollars.  I think you will admit that is a very sizable amount even for a millionaire.  That was a lot of money he owed.

Now notice what happened.  Verse 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.

In other words, this man who owed ten million dollars filed bankruptcy, which means he would lose house, property, bank account, everything.  But in the days of Christ it meant more than that because, remember, they were living in a slave society.  If you filed bankruptcy, not only did you lose all your possessions and all your assets, but the one who accused you could take you, your wife, your children and sell you as slaves.  That’s terrible.

So what did this man do?  The Bible tells us that he fell down.  Verse 26:

The servant fell on his knees before him.  “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.”

Notice he did not ask for forgiveness.  He only asked for time.  “Please give me a little bit more time and I will pay you back.”  Now the lord knew that he couldn’t pay him back.  Have you ever tried to pay back what Christ has done for you?  It’s a problem that faces us even today.  Verse 27:

The sevant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

The king canceled the debt and liberated this man from all obligation — set him free — and this man goes on his way rejoicing, “Praise the Lord, Alleluia,” until he meets another servant who owes him how much?  Verse 28:

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.

He owes him 100 denarii which is equivalent to twenty dollars.  No comparison — 10 million dollars versus 20 dollars — and what does he do?

He grabbed him and began to choke him.  “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.

He takes him by the throat saying, “Pay back what you owe me!”  Now the word “me” does not appear in the original but it is understood.  In other words, what he was saying was, “Pay me every cent that you owe me.”

His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”

Notice that his request is identical to his own to the king but we read in verse 30:

But he refused.  Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

It so happened that some of the other servants of the king heard this, saw it and reported it because they were quite disgusted at the way this man was treating his fellow servant after just being forgiven of a tremendous debt.

In verse 31 we are told that they reported him to the king:

When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

Then verse 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.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’  In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

This is quite a parable.  First of all, let us go to Peter’s question, which tells us that he was still thinking with a legalistic mentality.  The scribes and Pharisees were saying three times so he was saying, “Let me add a few because Jesus said we must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees.”  So he said seven.

The gospel does not know any limit when it comes to forgiveness.  It’s the legalistic mentality that calculates.  It calculates, “How much I shall give?  How much shall I forgive?”  Very often the legalistic mind thinks like this.  “What is the very least I can do and still have my ticket to heaven?”

When we were teaching about tithe paying in Africa, we discovered something that is different from here.  The basic record is that the average church in the North American division is about 40 percent tithe payers.  It is a terrible tragedy but it is only about 40 percent.  There are some areas where it has gone to up to 60 percent.  But in Africa, everyone pays tithe but this is how they do it.  They go down on their knees and they say, “Lord, I am sorry I am not rich like these missionaries or like these foreigners (the foreigners are always rich).  You have blessed me with ten children which I am responsible to look after.  I would like to pay ten percent, which is what you ask, but Lord, You understand.  You are love and I am poor and You can understand my problem.  Please accept ten cents.”  So, instead of paying ten dollars which is what he owes, he pays ten cents.  He is bargaining with God and then he says, “God, thank you for still giving me the ticket for heaven.”

What is Jesus trying to tell us in this parable?  First of all, let us be very clear that forgiveness is treating others better than they deserve.  Forgiveness is part of the word “grace,” which is doing something good for somebody who deserves the very opposite.  Remember that grace and forgiveness are partners, because to forgive somebody takes grace because you are doing something they do not deserve.  Otherwise it is not forgiveness.  True forgiveness is always doing something that the person does not deserve.

But we must remember that there was something wrong with this first servant who was forgiven ten million dollars.  What was wrong with him?  Why was he so hard on his fellow servant?  The reason is that he did not appreciate the forgiveness he received from the king.  That was the heart of his problem.  I can imagine him thinking like this:  “Well, I do owe a lot of money to this king.  But, after all, the king is rich; he is the richest man in this country, so ten million dollars is a drop in the ocean for him.”  A lot of people think that way.  A lot of people treat God’s forgiveness that way.

Having traveled quite a bit in the world, I have discovered that here is no country in the world that dishes out foreign aid more than the United States.  Almost every country you go to there is some sort of foreign aid, even sometimes to the point of where our own elderly people are suffering because their Medicare is cut down.

The thing that surprised me most is that very few of these countries really appreciate it.  I remember on one occasion when we were having a drought and a famine in Kenya, the United States government came to the aid of the young people because when the young people do not eat a proper diet for a long time it involves brain damage.  To help solve that problem, all the schools that had boarding students were supplied with corn and wheat and oil.  These kids did not starve even though the faculty was struggling.  We did not know where to get oil; maybe that was a good thing.  We did not need the advice that you don’t need any oil because we could not get it and there were no desserts; things were pretty hard.

But one day those young people in the cafeteria took that corn which had been cooked for them and began making balls out of it and throwing it at each other like a snowball fight.  One of the missionaries who came from Modesto, California [U.S.A.], was furious and he stood up and he said to those young people in anger, “Don’t you appreciate what my country is doing for you?”  One student who had the courage stood up and said, “What is your country doing for us?  This corn came from your surplus which you could not even eat because it was rotting and you are giving it to us for political propaganda.  Why should we appreciate it?”  I know how you feel.  You say, “Don’t send it to them.”  But that’s human nature.

Did it cost anything to the king to forgive that debt?  I don’t know how rich that king was.  But, remember, the king represents God.  The servant represents you and me and we have a debt to God for God said, “The soul that sins, it must die.”  We do not owe God money.  We owe God our lives.  We have no legal right to live, not one of us.  We belong six feet under the ground.  That’s where we belong.

Two things.  Number one, God’s forgiveness is limitless and unconditional.  Turn to Colossians 2.  I often ask the young people a question:  What comes first:  confession or forgiveness?  Because, as we look at this parable and as we look at several statements in the New Testament — the words of Jesus Christ — it sounds like God’s forgiveness is conditional.  But it isn’t.

Colossians 2:13.  This verse is not talking about your subjective experience.  It’s talking about what took place at the cross two thousand years ago:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ.  He forgave us all our sins....

What Paul is saying here is that, on the cross, God forgave the whole human race for sin.  All their sins were forgiven at the cross.  Notice the word “all.”

Turn to 2 Corinthians 5:19.  You need to read verse 17 onwards but verse 19 is what I want you to look at:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  [19] that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.  And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

Paul is saying that Jesus, through His death, forgave all human beings for their sins and has asked us to go and tell them the good news.  So, number one, God’s forgiveness is unconditional and it is limitless.  Do you know that every sin that you committed, that you will commit to your dying day, has already been forgiven in Christ because the basis of forgiveness is the blood of Christ?  That brings me to the next point.

How much did it cost God to forgive us?  Was it something cheap?  When a policeman catches me over speeding and out of compassion says, “I will let you go this time but the next time I catch you over speeding I will give you a citation.”  And you say, “Thank you.”  But I tell you, it cost him nothing.  He doesn’t take a decrease in his salary.  He doesn’t pay the fine.

Was it the same with Jesus Christ?  How much did it cost God for Him to say, “Neither do I condemn you”?  How much did it cost Jesus to tell Mary, “Neither do I condemn you”?  Well, turn to Matthew 26, because Jesus was telling them how much it cost Him.  At the Lord’s Supper, Jesus took the cup, the juice of the grape, and in verse 28 He makes this statement:

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

What did Jesus mean?  Remember, Hebrews 9:22 says that, according to the law of God, there can be no remission without the shedding of blood:

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

Now this may not mean anything to you.  I once had a very interesting experience.  I was trying to work out my income tax and I was having difficulty finding out how much I paid for my insurance for the house because there were two figures in my folder.  So I called the insurance lady and she gave me the right figure.  Then she said, “By the way, I have a daughter who has just gone out to Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer.”  She did not know I was born there so I told her and she got excited.

She kept talking and talking and when she sent me the records which I needed, she sent me two of the letters that her daughter wrote to her.  One of the first experiences her daughter had was to go to a roast feast.  In America they call it a barbecue, but in Africa they kill a goat and they roast it over the fire.  But what horrified her was that the children would take that meat and dip it in blood just like you would dip it in tomato sauce and they would eat the meat.  She was horrified and it was revolting to her.

The word “blood” may not mean anything to you so I want to give you a text so you may understand what it meant to the disciples when Jesus said, “This is my blood.”  Turn to Leviticus 17:11 (there are many texts that say this, Deuteronomy 12:23 and others).  This is what it meant to the disciples when Jesus said, “This is my blood”:

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.

It is the blood of Christ that brings forgiveness for your sins.  The blood of Christ cleanses us from all sins.

What is this blood?  It is life laid down in death because that is what it means by shed blood.  When you shed blood, you are taking life and, in Hebrews 2:9, we read that Jesus tasted death for every man:

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Then why are Christians dying?  It is because Jesus did not taste the first death for all men and women.  Jesus tasted the second death — the God-abandoned death — for all people.  He did it not because we deserve it, but out of love for us.  He did it that He may forgive us.

That is why I want to correct a statement that is misinterpreted.  It says in 1 John 1:9:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

“His blood will cleanse you from all sins.”  Please read that statement in its context, otherwise you will go wrong.  John is dealing with people who were saying, “I am not a sinner.”  John says, “He who says that there is no sin in him is a liar and the truth does not abide in him.”  But the moment you confess that you are a sinner, the moment you admit you are a sinner, remember there is blood that will cleanse you, the blood of Christ.  He is faithful and He is just because He paid the price.  But don’t you ever treat that blood lightly.

That is why, in 1 John 2:1, John says:

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.  But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense — Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.

Remember how much it cost God to forgive you:  infinite cost.  If you don’t appreciate that forgiveness, it will be revealed by your attitude towards your fellow Christians.

That is why all through the teachings of Christ, as in the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:12, Jesus says:

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Let me give you another text.  Turn to Mark 11:25-26.  Very often as we read this text it gives us the impression that God’s forgiveness is conditional.  No, God forgives us unconditionally but receiving that forgiveness is conditional.  In other words, God wants us to appreciate that forgiveness because, in the New Testament, faith is a heart appreciation for Jesus Christ.  Jesus is talking here.

And when you stand praying [remember, that was the custom, to stand], if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.

Notice, if you are praying and asking God, “Thank You for Your forgiveness, forgive me,” remember that forgiveness is asked because you appreciate that forgiveness.  Because of that you have forgiven somebody who has wronged you.

In other words, as 1 John 4:19 says:

We love because he first loved us.

But if you read all of your New Testament, you will notice that forgiveness is unconditional.  Let me ask you about Jesus Christ.  When He was on the cross what did He say to His Father?  Luke 23:34a:

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Were they asking for forgiveness?  No.  He asked God to forgive them.  Maybe they did not know what they were doing when they crucified Him but they did know what they had done after the resurrection and they still did not repent.  Repentance is a heart appreciation for what God has already done for me and when we have really appreciated God’s forgiveness, when we realize how much it cost God to forgive us, something will take place here in our hearts so that we will treat others exactly as God has treated us.  That is what Christ is trying to get across.

I want to give you several texts that bring this out.  Turn first of all to Colossians and, as we turn to this text, I want to remind you of how Jesus concluded that parable.  Our forgiveness must be from the heart, that means a heart appreciation.  We looked at Colossians 2, now let’s look at Colossians 3:12-14.  This is counsel given to the Christians there which applies to us:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people [as Christians], holy and dearly loved [that’s what we are in Christ], clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love [agape, God’s unconditional love], which binds them all together in perfect unity.

In other words, when you appreciate God’s forgiveness, when you accept God’s forgiveness from the heart, God puts into you, through the Holy Spirit, His love, which makes you forgive others just as God forgave you.  When I was studying this passage I said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of us in this church forgave each other like Christ forgave us?” Can you imagine?  I would receive a telephone call from my Conference President saying, “What’s happened to your church?  There’s no more fighting, no more accusation.  When you forgive somebody from the heart you will never say anything bad against that person.  Do you know that?  You will never criticize him.  You will never condemn him.  You will only speak good. That is the kind of church God wants.  That is the kind of Christian He wants.  He wants men and women who will forgive.

But it is not possible for you to forgive by your own power.  You can excuse.  Most of the time we forgive we are really excusing.  Genuine forgiveness is always costly.  It may cost your pride; it may cost money; it may cost many things.  It may cost your reputation, but it is always expensive to forgive.  It was very expensive for God to forgive men.  God was in Christ reconciling man to Himself.  God was willing not to spare His own Son so that we may be forgiven. This forgiveness must do something to us.

In conclusion, I want to go back to Matthew 18.  Look at the whole setting.  Verse 33:

“Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”

Genuine righteousness by faith is doing to others what God has done to you.  The best example I can give you is the first Christian martyr.  Here was Stephen stoned to death and before he died (you’ll find this in Acts 7:59-60) he lifted up his head to God and said:

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

“Please God, do not bring this charge upon them.  Please don’t condemn them for what they are doing; they are simply acting as human beings.  Please forgive them.”

What made Stephen do such a thing?  It is because his heart was filled with appreciation and whether we appreciate Christ or not is revealed in our relationship with one another.  That is why in Matthew 18:35 it says:

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

God is looking for only one thing:  how have you related yourself with your fellow man?  Jesus said that what you are doing to the least of your brethren you are doing to Him.  Matthew 25:40:

The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

When Christ came to this world, in order to forgive us He had to die for us.  But in order to forgive us and die for us, He had to identify Himself with the human race.  He became one of us.  He doesn’t say “the least of My created beings.”  He says “least of these brothers [and sisters] of mine.”  He became one of us.  His name is Immanuel, therefore, every human being is a child of God by grace.  Every human being is forgiven by God by grace and if you don’t forgive your brother or sister, then you are denying God’s forgiveness to that person.  You are showing no appreciation for the forgiveness that you have need of in Christ.

It is my prayer that our appreciation for Christ will be manifested by our relationship to each other.  If our hearts are filled with appreciation; if we really appreciate how much God has forgiven us we will treat our fellow Christians the same way that God has treated us.  You will not say, “Well, I don’t have the heart; that doesn’t deserve forgiveness.”  Remember, forgiveness is doing something that a person doesn’t deserve.  It is grace and it is my prayer that by the grace of God we will reveal His grace to others so that the people around us will see a church that is loving, caring, and forgiving because they have appreciated the supreme sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.

That is my prayer that we will become a loving, caring church because we have appreciated what Christ has done for us.  May God bless us that the cross of Christ will transform us and produce in us a people that know how to forgive because the grace of God has transformed us.


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