Matthew 18: THE PARABLE OF THE UNMERCIFUL SERVANT


Matthew 18:23‭-‬35 ASV

Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, who would make a reckoning with his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, that owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not wherewith 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. And the Lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out, and found one of his fellow-servants, who owed him a hundred shillings: and he laid hold on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay what thou owest.

So his fellow-servant fell down and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay that which was due. So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were exceeding sorry, and came and told unto their Lord all that was done.

Then his Lord called him unto him, and saith to him, Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou besoughtest me: shouldest not thou also have had mercy on thy fellow-servant, even as I had mercy on thee?

And his Lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due. So shall also my heavenly Father do unto you, if ye forgive not every one his brother from your hearts.

Matthew 18:23‭-‬35 ASV

There are a number of remarkable analogies in this heart-moving parable. The conduct of the unmerciful servant is so wicked as to be almost incredible.

ANALOGIES IN THE PARABLE OF THE UNMERCIFUL SERVANT

(It will be noted that this is the first of the parables in which God is represented under the analogy of a king).

1. God is represented by the king in this parable.
2. All men are servants of the king.

3. The servant with the enormous debt stands for every unredeemed sinner on earth whose debt is so large that it is impossible for him to pay it.

4. The king’s forgiveness, without any merit on the part of the unmerciful servant, indicates God’s grace.

5. The unfeeling conduct of the unmerciful servant shows how God looks upon the refusal of his children to forgive others.

6. The king’s forgiveness “because thou soughtest me” shows that sinners need only to apply (in the proper way) in order to be forgiven. They need not “pay” anything.

7. The ultimate punishment of the unmerciful servant shows that all forgiveness is contingent upon the continuing faithfulness of the redeemed. Jesus certainly taught in this that one may fall from grace.

8. Those who have received mercy must give mercy, or else have the mercy they have already received revoked.

The size of the debt is significant. The English Revised Version (1885) margin shows a talent worth about $1,000; but even that enormous sum falls short of the truth. If, as seems likely, the Hebrew gold talent is meant, the figure becomes truly astronomical. Eight thousand talents was the construction cost of Solomon’s temple! (1 Chronicles 29:4-7). Barker appraises this debt thus:

To give some idea of what a colossal debt this was, the total tax income of the five provinces of Palestine (Judea, Perea, Idumea, Samaria, and Galilee) was only eight hundred talents. In other words, the servant’s debt was over ten times the amount of the national budget.


The sale of the wife and children, as a proposed partial payment, rested upon the general assumption that they were his property. The utter lack of anything with which to pay shows, as Trench said, “the utter bankruptcy of every child of Adam as he stands in the presence of a just God, and is tried by the strictness of the holy law.”

Paul’s comment relative to being “carnal, sold under sin, etc.,” emphasizes the same thing (Romans 7:14).

There is a nice distinction in comparing Matthew 18:26 and Matthew 18:29. The unmerciful servant “worshipped” his lord (who stands for God in the parable), whereas his fellow-servant only “fell down and besought” his creditor. Origen hailed this parable as a real jewel, pointing out that the Scriptures are very strict in indication, always, that worship belongs only to God. The King in this place stands for God; the unmerciful servant did not; hence, his debtor does not appear worshipping him.

The fault of the unmerciful servant was his failure to realize the enormity and absolute hopelessness of his debt. His earnest promise to repay it showed that he did not have the slightest conception of how much he owed. He appeared to be blind to the fact that one hundred lifetimes would not allow him sufficient space to repay it. This blindness later ruined him.

A note of self-righteousness appears in his entreaty that if only a little time should be allowed he would repay it all! So many sinners fall into the same fault; their case, so they think, is not really so bad after all; they can make amends; their debt is nothing they cannot handle if allowed a little freedom; they can get along all right if merely let alone!

Oh, how utterly beyond self-redemption is the plight of sinful man. Let all unsaved persons behold in this parable the plight of every sinner. And let the saved take care to forgive others if they would not incur the whole debt again!

The unmerciful servant’s pitiful plea for mercy and his acknowledgment of that monstrous debt were all that was required to obtain mercy.

What an encouragement to sinful man! It is not repayment which God demands, seeing that it is impossible in the first place, but the true and righteous beholding one’s self in the true light of his own worthless and bankrupt condition, that makes one an eligible claimant upon the divine mercy.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory finds no support here. The forgiveness the king extended to the unmerciful sinner was total, complete, and uncluttered with any penalties whatsoever. It would also have been permanent if the servant’s conduct had not led to its revocation. That he later fell into condemnation was not due to any quality lacking in the full and free pardon that he received, but was due to his later conduct.

The size of the smaller debt is also significant. It was one hundred shillings, about $20, compared to $10,000,000. Christ said that “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you” (Matthew 7:2). The unmerciful servant, however, would have had it otherwise. He would receive by one measure and measure to others by a different measure. So he thought.

The spectacle of his fellow-servant falling down before him in supplication for mercy was a very similar thing to what he himself had done only a little while before. How strange it is that he felt no mercy, no little touch of pity, no forgiveness for one whose plight must surely have reminded him of his own. He could have alleviated the distress of his fellow-servant with such trifling cost to himself that one can only wonder at a heart so calloused. And yet, this outrageous occurrence is made by Jesus to stand as the true picture of all his followers who will not forgive others.

Even the worst of offenses committed by men against Christians are as nothing compared to the offenses all have committed against God. The tragedy of this heartless act was further compounded and multiplied by the fact that, failing to recognize the port in which he himself had so lately escaped shipwreck, he nevertheless dragged the unfortunate off to prison, thus unconsciously condemning himself and revoking his own pardon.

The sorrow of the lesser debtor and the sorrow of all the fellow servants at what was done shows that it is not merely in heaven that sorrow flows from a knowledge of man’s sin, but on earth too. When recipients of God’s mercy become themselves bitter, vindictive, and unforgiving, all who behold it, in heaven or upon earth, are shamed and grieved by it. A Christian simply does not have the right, in any case, to withhold forgiveness from others.

The re-arraignment of the unmerciful servant saw him confronted with the king’s sharp question, “Shouldest not thou also have had mercy on thy fellow-servant, even as I had mercy on thee?” His sin was not that, while NEEDING mercy, he refused it to another; but that while having OBTAINED mercy, he denied it to another. Those who have been forgiven must forgive.

The great problem in the parable is in the fact that after the unmerciful servant was forgiven, he yet landed in the hands of the tormentors until he should pay it all. The wise words of Richard Trench give the true explanation:

Nor may we leave out of sight that all forgiveness, short of that crowning and last act, which will find place on the day of judgment, and will be followed by a blessed impossibility of sinning any more, is conditional – in the very nature of things so conditional, that the condition in every case must be assumed, whether stated or no; that condition being that the forgiven man continues in faith and obedience … which this unmerciful servant had failed to do.

Note a little further with reference to the doctrine of purgatory. Roman commentators make much of the fact that the unmerciful servant was delivered to the tormentors TILL he should have paid all the debt. How strange it is to see the same commentators who so diligently labored to show that this same word had an opposite meaning in the case of Joseph not knowing Mary “till” she had brought forth her first born son, etc. (Matthew 1:25), laboring just as diligently to deny the same meaning here; As a matter of fact, the word “till” does have two meanings, and only the context may finally determine which is intended. In the case above, the debt is hopeless, and the expression “till he should pay all” does not envision any time, however remote, at which one should be able to work out a debt so large as this, even in purgatory! Again to quote Trench:

When the Phocaeans, abandoning their city, swore they would not return till the mass of iron which they had plunged into the sea appeared once more upon the surface, this was the most emphatic form they could devise of declaring that they would never return; such an emphatic declaration is this one.

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