Misreading “The Unmerciful Servant Parable”


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

-Matthew 18:23, NIV

This is the opening verse to a famous parable Jesus told to illustrate our need to forgive others. It is often labeled something like “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” or something like that.

Here is DM’s paraphrased version of the parable:

A servant owes the king a vast sum. We are talking like millions of dollars. It’s a lot, and the king wants his money back, but this servant cannot pay. 

The king is about to sell this servant and his family into slavery to recuperate some of the debt. However, the servant pleads with the king for mercy saying that he will pay the king back the loan if given more time. The king decides to cancel the million dollar debt.

This servant then turns around on a colleague who owes him thousands. Unlike the king, the servant does not respond with mercy and debt forgiveness when his colleague begs. Instead, the servant throws his colleague into debtor’s prison.

Word gets back to the king, he calls the servant back and rescinds the forgiveness of his million dollar debt. Rather, he puts the servant in prison to be tortured until the millions are repaid. 

Jesus closes the parable with the lesson that we will be treated by God as the King treated the unmerciful servant if we fail to forgive from our hearts.

I recount this parable as way to introduce an astute comment submitted by one of the blog’s readers, Michael.

He shares some good insights from this story as a corrective to the unilateral forgiveness narrative often propagated by well-meaning, but wrong, Christian teachers/counselors. I have chosen to feature the comment as I think many may benefit from Michael’s wise insights regarding this particular parable, which is easy to misread (I know that I have in the past).

Michael wrote (responding to another blog commentator),

One good thing that came out of my exes adultery is that God used it to help me understand His Word better. I also got Matt 18:21-35 thrown at me by my Christian marriage counselors. They tried to frame it as consequence for those who are unforgiving. While this is not entirely untrue, some key points were conveniently left out. I’d like to point out a few things I learned as I studied these verses more closely.

1. The first servant was unwilling to forgive the second servant who was repentant. Repentance is the key here as always, and consistent with the rest of the Bible.
2. Forgiveness can be revoked – the first servant had his forgiveness revoked and ended up suffering a sentence more serious than his previous sentence because he failed to extend the grace which he himself received. God considers this to be evil.
3. The condition for forgiveness (repentance, Luke 17:3) is illustrated but not directly stated as in Luke 17:3. My marriage counselors completely missed this nugget in Matthew and also in other verses with regards to forgiveness. Where the Bible talks about forgiveness it doesn’t necessarily mention repentance but it is always implied. And since God’s word does not contradict itself, it’s safe to say we can understand it in an additive way.

Also as a side note, the verses immediately following Luke 17:3 tells us not to expect praise for doing our duty.

As for the potential condition of bitterness – nowhere in the Bible does it say that forgiveness is more for the forgiving than the forgiven. That is a worldly idea where the burden of responsibility is opposed to the Bible. Bitterness rather, is a condition that comes from unforgiveness towards those who are repentant. The responsibility of making amends is always with the offender, not the offended.

Indeed a person who is hurting you and has not repented is still hurting you. It would not follow a Godly model to forgive that person because God Himself requires one to turn from sin before asking for forgiveness, never mind actually receiving it.

3 thoughts on “Misreading “The Unmerciful Servant Parable””

  1. Thanks DM. Your work means a lot to me and so does the fact that a man in your position is not afraid to be counter cultural in the church and sticking to God’s word.

  2. Since my divorce, part of my study has been on the Jewish practices involving repentance and forgiveness. There is little doubt that the sinner is/was not forgiven without repentance. It is my belief that repentance was considered such an essential requirement for forgiveness that it was seldom stated in the Gospels. Why would you state the obvious?

    It’s interesting that you would have Matt. 18:21-35 thrown at you, because it follows shortly after Matt. 18:15-17 where the unrepentant sinner is eventually treated as a Gentile and a tax collector. He is not forgiven without repentance, but is ostracized instead.

    Just this week I have concluded that Bible English translations have compounded the confusion about forgiveness by using forgive for two different Greek words. Today, forgiveness is defined as “ceasing to feel angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.” That is, it is releasing an emotion. In contrast, the definition of absolve is “to set or declare (someone) free from blame, guilt, or responsibility.”

    The Greek words are charizomai meaning to show one’s own graciousness, and aphiemi meaning to remove (send away) a debt. If charizomai was translated as forgive, and aphiemi as absolve, then I think there would be much less confusion. I believe that Christians need to overcome their anger at the one who sinned against them even when they don’t repent, but I don’t think we should absolve them of that guilt when they don’t repent.

    I don’t think that’s very clear. I hope I can do better as I understand it better, and I hope that is helpful to readers.

  3. Hi OKRickety,

    Your response was so interesting and profound that I had to read it twice and I also think it’s an answer from God that I didn’t even know to ask. Let me explain:

    Just the other day, as I was writing my first response thanking DM for posting my reply, I actually deleted a large range of my response. I was writing about how unforgiveness and anger are actually separate but are so often confused. I ended up deleting that part of my response because I hadn’t thought it through thoroughly and didn’t want to come across the wrong way. I knew nothing about the Greek words that you pointed out at the time. But I knew I was onto something, by His grace. Your reply confirms what I was thinking and you’ve put it more elegantly than I would have. I believe this is the Holy Spirit working to get this point across.

    I am absolutely certain now that forgiveness is a choice apart from emotion, in this case anger. I can think of occasions when someone said or did something offensive then apologized. Though I was quick to forgive them, emotionally I didn’t settle down immediately. So even though I absolved them, I was still angry but that eventually went away.

    I am about a year out from d-day. And though my ex-wife doesn’t owe me anything (I’ve even told her this) I am still angry when I think about what she did. But that anger is decreasing over time and I am sure by next time this year it will mean nothing to me.

    The Word says “Be angry but do not sin”. Anger is only an issue if you let it drive you to do something sinful, which would be something harmful to yourself or others. That is an exercise of freewill. Righteous anger however is a healthy response and should not be curtailed because it is a correct response, potentially leading to a corrective response, potentially given by the Spirit. Not all anger is bad anger. And I think part of the problem is that anger is labelled as a bad emotion by society and this unbiblical train of thought has crept into the church. It is one of those subtle tactics that the enemy uses to derail the church ever so slightly. Little by little is one of Satan’s most profound strategies, like the proverbial frog in a tank that boils slowly. Some people are being driven increasingly further from the truth and don’t even know it and unfortunately some of these are leaders in churches.
    If you don’t know the real thing you wouldn’t know a counterfeit.

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