The Unmerciful Servant

Ordinary 24A

Matthew 18: 21 35


This text follows on immediately from the instruction given by our Lord, on how to treat fellow disciples who sin against you. Jesus, on the request of Peter attends to one or two matters needing clarification.

So ends the fellowship section of this Gospel which is regarded as one of the greatest chapters in the whole of the New Testament.

Some Notes On the Text

Verse 21

Peter is pursuing an earlier discussion with Jesus and wants to clarify a fairly important issue: "Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Should I go as far as seven times?"

If someone commits the same offence against you seven times, it's likely you would feel hard done by. So Peter's suggested threshold of toleration is rather generous.

Verse 22

Jesus replies in words equivalent to: "Definitely not seven times but seventy seven times (or seventy times seven)."

The Greek text can indicate either number but both have the same meaning: there is no limit to forgiveness!

Many a reader has stalled here, asking an intriguing question: by this teaching, are Christians obliged to forgive another his private wrongs as often as he does them, and especially if he keeps on doing them?

Matthew Poole in 1685 wrote:

But it seems hard that Christians should be obliged to forgive another his private wrongs so often as he doth them, if he will go on without end multiplying affronts and injuries to us; we must therefore know, that our Saviour by this precept doth not oblige any to take his enemy into his bosom, and make him his intimate or confidant again; but only to lay aside all malice, all thoughts and desires of revenge towards him, to put on a charitable frame of spirit towards him, so as to be ready to do him any common offices of friendship. Thus far we are obliged to forgive those that do us injuries, so often as they stand in need of forgiveness.

Verse 23 25

Our Lord now gives a powerful parable which helps us to see the spiritual realities to which we would otherwise be blind.

The parable opens with (to be technically correct): "The kingdom of heaven has become like a king who wanted to settle his accounts with his servants." One of the first to be called up owed him millions, whichever modern strong currency you are used to. Since he could not pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and children and all his possessions be sold to help repay the debt.

Verse 26

The servant fell on his knees in front of his master and begged him: "Be patient with me and I will pay back everything." Since, in fact, he would never have been able to pay back this out-of-control debt, he was being rather hopeful.

Verse 27

Contrary to expectations, the master took pity on him and immediately cancelled the debt and let him go free.

Verses 28 30

The same servant, quickly forgetting how narrowly he had escaped ruin, went and found a fellow servant who owed him about three months wages; a lot of money, but not impossible to pay back, given a reasonable chance. He took this poor man by the throat demanding everything he was owed, and right away!

His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged for a little time to pay back the debt in full. The plea was refused and he was sent to prison until he could pay the debt. Since there was no way of earning any money while he was in prison, there was no way he was ever going to get himself out! His situation was hopeless.

Verses 31 34

The rest of the servants were distressed at what had taken place and reported the incident to their master. Without delay the master called the servant back to him, and dealt to him:

  • "Your actions are nothing less than evil."
  • "I cancelled the whole of your debt simply because you begged me to."
  • "Was it not fair that you should have shown mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?"
  • "I am turning you over to the gaolers until your original debt is paid!"

Verse 35

Jesus ends the lesson with a simple warning which in many respects became the foundation of all his teaching:

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


Would it not be fairly accurate to say that for many of us, this parable has a similar effect on us as the parable of the "Publican and the Sinner"? When we have heard the parable, we are shocked at how callous and insensitive is the attitude of the scoundrel in the story. We might even feel grateful that we are not like that!

Don't be surprised if this is your experience. Our Lord's technique for developing spiritual insight in his disciples is to confront us all in this way. It is not that he sets out to trap us so much as to hold up a mirror for us to see that really, there is a bit of that callousness or insensitivity in all of us, and frankly, it has to go! The saints of the Church, down through the ages, have learnt to understand that it is a great spiritual privilege to be shown our shortcomings by the Lord. It is seen as a sign of God's favour for him to reveal to us our ungodliness so that we have a chance to make amends. When our Lord drives home these high standards, we also find in the same text, that he provides the answer: the way ahead.

A rushed and superficial reading of this, or any text, will never yield the richness of its spiritual treasure. As we know from our meditations and waiting upon the Lord, we must show reverence for Sacred Scriptures, and God's Holy Presence, as we approach his Word. As we ponder and wait upon him, his Holy Spirit unfolds the precious truths for us to take in. This is never more so the case than when we approach this text with its urgent message.

So important is its theme, we have assembled a small cluster of reflections, devotional as well as academic, to share some of the Judaeo / Christian understanding of mercy and lovingkindness down through the ages. We hope you will give them much thought.

Mercy and Lovingkindness

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