The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
How to Develop a Heart of Forgiveness

The parable of the unforgiving servant is a parable that teaches me how to be forgiving, because forgiveness can be very hard.  In Luke 17, Jesus told His disciples that they must be willing to forgive even is one sins against them almost five hundred times in a single day.  Peter responded to such a difficult task by exclaiming, "Lord, increase our faith"  (Luke 17.5).  

When you have been hurt by someone, it is ridiculous to pretend that nothing has happened, because something has happened.  You have been wounded.  You cannot pretend that you do not feel the pain, because the pain is real.  Having a forgiving heart is not easy, but perhaps there are some things in the parable of the unforgiving servant that will help you develop a more forgiving heart. 

The Context of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

To help you fully understand the parable of the unforgiving servant, you first of all need to understand why Jesus felt the need to tell the parable in the first place.  What was happening that caused Jesus to tell the parable?

When you place the parable of the unforgiving servant back into the overall context of Matthew 18, you will find Jesus dealing with the subject of conflict resolution.  In doing so, He teaches us four unique steps to take in order to be reconciled with a brother. 

Step 1:  Confrontation

Matthew 18.15:  "if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone."

The word “go” in this verse is of great importance.  It is two words put together to make a new word.

  1. "Ago" means “to go.”
  2. "Hupo" means “under.”  
  3. Put together, the word "go" in this verse literally, to go under.

This passage says that you are to go to your brother in a state of humility.  You go and put yourself under the brother you are confronting.  You don’t go to your brother in a way that is condescending.  You do not go to your brother as one who has been hurt and therefore you want to give him a piece of your mind.  You go to your brother and put yourself under him.  In other words you approach your brother in a state of humility.

He then says that you are to go to your brother, “you and him alone.”  It means that you are not to go to someone else and tell him what was done to you.  You are not to gossip about it behind the brother’s back.  There has been more division among friends because one will share with others what was done instead of keeping it between you and the offending brother.  It is usually done with the intention of ginning up support for your side of things.  As a result, the problem has escalated and next thing you friends are no longer friends.  

Step 2:  Confirmation

Matthew 18.16:  "But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.'"

You are to take two or three with you to confirm the matter.  You do so to confirm the fact that this individual has wronged you in some way.  You confirm the fact that you have already confronted this brother and talked about the matter between you and him alone.  You confirm the fact that he did not hear.  You confirm the fact that you are trying again.  So you have this second step of confirmation.

Step 3:  Communication

Matthew 18.17:  "And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church..."

The idea of “hear” in this verse in the original language means literally, "to hear by the side."  We might use the phrase, "in one ear and out the other."   When he refuses to hear after bringing two or three witnesses, then you need to take the matter to the church.  Communicate the problem to the collectivity of God’s people.  Make the church aware of the problem.  

Step 4:  Cancelation

Matthew 18.17:  "But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector."

This is the way you are to consider him.  It does not say that this is the way the rest of the church is to view him, but "let him be to you."  Thus we have how your relationship with the one who has injured you is characterized.  

These are the four steps that introduce this parable of the unforgiving servant.  Jesus is dealing with conflict resolution.  That’s the context which leads to Jesus telling the parable of the unforgiving servant.  Here is someone who has injured me by mistreating me in some way.  When you deal with the problem by following the steps that Jesus provided, what are you do to if this individual asks for your forgiveness?  The parable of the unforgiving servant was told by Jesus to answer that question.

The Significance of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

This concept of conflict resolution seems to have been foreign to the disciples, and it prompted  Peter to come to Jesus with a question.

Matthew 18.21:  Then Peter came to Him and said, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?'" 

Why is Peter asking about forgiveness?  Was not Jesus talking about conflict resolution?  Indeed, Jesus just addressed how to resolve a conflict between two people.  But the end result of conflict resolution is forgiveness to the one who has sinned against you.

Peter asked about forgiveness and wanted to know how often his brother could sin against him and he still be obligated to forgive him.  Am i obligated up to seven times?  Peter believed that he was obligated to forgive up to three times, and this was based on the reading of Amos 1.3.  We read this expression repeatedly in Amos chapters one and two.  Familiar with Amos, Peter concluded that you are obligated to forgive your brother at least three times, maybe even four times.  Peter, thinking that he is being generous, takes that number and doubles it, and then add one more just for good measure.  "How often should I forgive my brother, up to seven times?"  As generous as Peter thought he was being, it was the Lord’s response that was especially noteworthy.

Matthew 18.22:  "Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. '"

If we were to calculate this number out we would come up with 490 times.  Has anyone mistreated you seven different times in a day and come back each time to ask for forgiveness?  What about 490 times in a day?

That is unlikely to happen, but even if someone sinned against you 490 times in a single day and each time asked for forgiveness, you are obligated to forgive him.  Does that mean that 490 times he is still able to be forgiven, but the next time he has gone too far?  Jesus is not concerned about the number.  He is concerned about the attitude.  

That is the significance of the parable of the unforgiving servant.  This is not a parable about our need for forgiveness.  We all know that we need forgiveness.  The parable of the unforgiving servant is a parable about our  attitude toward one who needs our forgiveness. 

Unfolding the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

Now let’s look at the actual parable itself and watch it unfold in three sections.  As we go through this parable of the unforgiving servant, we are going to notice the word "forgive" or some form of the word reoccur several times.  Consider the three sections of the parable of the unforgiving servant.

1.  The Servant is Pardoned

Matthew 18.23-27:  "Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. "

A talent is not a reference to one’s ability.  A talent is not a specific amount of money.  A talent was a measurement.  The value of a talent was dependent upon what was being measured.  A talent of gold is worth more than a talent of silver.  

This was a man who owed ten thousand talents.  We do not know what was being measured whether gold or silver or some other metal.  You might be interested to know that the Solomon’s temple, in all its ornate beauty, was built with three thousand talents of gold and seven thousand talents of silver.  In the parable of the unforgiving servant, this man owed an amount equivalent to what it cost to build the Solomon’s temple in its entirety.  This man owed an amount of money that he could not pay in his lifetime.  He was consigned to a lifetime of servitude.

Matthew 18.25:  "But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made."

If you were to turn to Leviticus 25 and begin reading from verse 29, you would learn that this king was acting within the laws of Moses.  This is what the Law allowed.  This servant was to be sold with his family, and all his possessions would be liquidated to pay his debt.

Matthew 18.26,27:  "The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, 'Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.'  Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt."

Notice the words that I have made bold in the above verses.  The servant asked for patience.  The master showed compassion.  Both of those words are important components in developing a heart that is forgiving.  As a result of the master's patience and compassion, this servant was released from His debt.

2.  A Fellow Servant Also Pleads

Matthew 18.28:  "But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!'"

If you were to turn to Matthew 20.2, you would find that a denarii is one day's wages.  That means that this man owed his fellow servant a little more than three months’ worth of wages. 

Matthew 18.29:  "So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.'  And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt.  So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 

This servant grabbed his fellow servant by the throat and demanded that he pay all that he owed.  This was a man was in debt for a lifetime, and he was forgiven.  He then goes to his fellow servant who owed about three months of wages, and he would not forgive him.

Notice that the word "patience" appears again in verse 29.  He asked for the same patience that     this unforgiving servant asked for when he stood before his master.  But this unforgiving servant would not show the patience that was shown to him.

His fellow servants found out about this and were troubled, so they went to the master and told him what had been done.  

3.  The Unforgiving Servant's Punishment

Matthew 18.32,33:  "Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.  Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?'"

Notice that the word “compassion” is used in verse 33.  The servant asked for patience, and the master showed him compassion.  He went to his fellow servant who owed far less, and his fellow servant also asked for patience, and he would not show compassion. 

Also notice that the word "pity" was used in verse 33.  Compassion and pity are used in reference to this idea of forgiveness.  

Matthew 18.34:  "And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him."

Here is an incredible observation.  His debt was forgiven.  Because he was unwilling to be forgiving to his fellow servant, his debt was reinstated.  Does that not imply that God can reinstate our sin if we return back to the world? 

This unforgiving servant had been forgiven, but because he was unwilling to be forgiving himself, the forgiveness that he once received had been retracted.  Don’t ever forget this point as it relates to how willing you and I need to be to forgive those who sin against us.  

Matthew 18.35:  "So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses."

Jesus gives us the moral of the parable of the unforgiving servant.  This is a parable that places before us the essentiality of having a forgiving heart.  In this parable we have been given the formula for adopting a forgiving heart.  Let’s put all of these thoughts from the parable of the unforgiving servant together and see if we cannot learn how to develop a forgiving heart.  

Lessons from the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant:
How to Develop a Forgiving Heart

You have this context where Jesus addresses conflict resolution and then tells a parable of the unforgiving servant.  Four times in this parable, we find the word "forgive" or a form of the word.  What are we talking about when we read about our need to have a forgiving heart?  What are we required to do when we forgive?

To forgive carries the idea of releasing someone from the bondage of their guilt.  It means to treat them as if what they did never happened.  When we are forgiven by God, He treats us as if we have never sinned.  That is what we do for someone else who has wronged us.  But how do you develop a heart that forgives?

In this parable of the unforgiving servant, you have read three words that tells you the kind of attitude you need to have in order to develop a forgiving heart.

1.  Patience

If you want to have a heart that forgives, you need to have patience.  The word translated as “patience” in this text is the word "macrothumia."  If comes from two Greek words.

  1. "Macro" means long.
  2. "Thumia" means anger.
  3. Put together, it means to take a long time before you get angry.

To be forgiving, you need to one who takes a long time before you get angry.  If you have a temper and have a short fuse, then it is going to be easy for you to carry a grudge.  If you have a difficult time controlling your temper, then you probably have a difficult time with forgiveness.  Forgiveness requires you to take a long time before you come to anger.  So if you want to be a forgiving person, you need to work on your temper.  Instead of being quick to anger, you need to be long in coming to anger and respond to those who have wronged you with kindness.

2.  Compassion

The idea of compassion is that you feel for the individual.  It does not mean to have hurt feelings because of the individual.  It means to have feelings for the individual.  If you are going to develop a forgiving heart, then you need to have feelings for them.  

3.  Pity

Some translations might use the word "mercy."  It is the idea of trying to help those who are wretched.  It is the idea of putting yourself in their shoes and then acting toward them the way you would want someone who act toward you.  Someone hurt you.  Someone sinned against you.  They are now coming to you asking for your forgiveness.  What do you do?  What would you want them to do if it were you seeking forgiveness?  You would want them to forgive you.

It isn’t treating someone the way they just treated you to show them how it feels.  It is treating them the way you would want to be treated if your situations were revered.  

If you do not show forgiveness for those who seek your forgiveness, then you will not receive forgiveness from God.  To be unforgiving is to be unforgiven.  

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