A Parable About Forgiveness

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

When Peter asked Jesus a question about how often he should forgive his brother, Jesus answered and told him to forgive his brother “seventy times seven” times (Matthew 18:21-22). His point was not that we should keep a record of the number of times we forgive someone and then after the four hundred and ninetieth time we refuse to forgive them again. Instead, Jesus’ point was that we should always be ready to forgive.

After Jesus answered, He used a parable to explain His answer. In the parable, He showed that we must forgive because we have been forgiven. There are several lessons to be learned from this parable about forgiveness.

The King

For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves” (Matthew 18:23).

The kingdom of heaven is a spiritual kingdom (John 18:36). As a kingdom, it naturally has a king – Jesus (John 18:37). “He is Lord of lords and King of kings” (Revelation 17:14). Though Jesus mentioned God the Father at the end of the parable (Matthew 18:35), we can still safely conclude that the king of this parable is Jesus since “the Father…has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22) and has given Him “all authority” (Matthew 28:18).

In the parable, the king set out to “settle accounts with his slaves” (Matthew 18:23). A slave is one who is expected to obey his master and carry out his will. This is our responsibility toward Christ. Since He has “all authority,” we are to “observe all that [He] commanded” (Matthew 28:18-20). This obedience does not earn us anything. It is simply expected. Jesus explained: “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done’” (Luke 17:10).

The king settling accounts with his slaves meant he was calling them before him to give an account for how they had served him. This is parallel to the final judgment in which we will be called “before the judgment seat of Christ” in order to be judged “according to what [we] have done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). This judgment will be for all men (Acts 17:31).

The Ten Thousand Talent Debt

When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:24-27).

Jesus’ parable is about forgiveness. The “debt” represents sin. Jesus used this type of language in the model prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).

Why did Jesus refer to sin as a debt? Through the prophet Malachi, God said, “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings” (Malachi 3:8). In other words, they were robbing God because they were not giving Him what they should have been giving to Him.

Sin is a violation of God’s law – lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Our lives are to be wholly given to the Lord. Paul said, “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). Failing to do this – just as failing to bring the proper offerings in Malachi’s day – is like robbing God. By robbing God and not giving Him what we should be giving to Him, we are incurring a debt. When we sin, we cannot undo what we have done.

Jesus described the debt owed to the king as being worth “ten thousand talents” (Matthew 18:24). Different commentaries and footnotes will give various amounts that are supposed to roughly correspond to our currency today. Regardless of the exact amount of money this would be in our modern time, the “ten thousand talents” represented an amount that could never be repaid. We need to realize that when it comes to sin, we cannot ever make up for it ourselves. This is why salvation is by grace (Ephesians 2:8; Titus 3:5).

Some believe that in order to secure our forgiveness, Jesus paid our “sin debt” on the cross (we owe a debt and He paid the debt). However, this is not accurate. This idea of Jesus paying our “sin debt” is rooted in the concept of Jesus taking the punishment for our sins. Yet the punishment for sin is eternal separation from God. Jesus did not face this. He did not die “in our place” as if we would have been crucified if He was not. While Jesus certainly used this parable to describe sin as a debt that we can never repay, He does not describe forgiveness as being dependent upon this “sin debt” being paid.*

Two fundamental characteristics of God are mercy and justice (Psalm 86:15; 89:14). Forgiveness is about mercy – not giving us the punishment we deserve. Without forgiveness, God would exercise His justice in giving us the punishment we deserve. Many believe that God will forgive us because Jesus was punished in our place. Yet how is punishing someone who is innocent (Jesus) merciful or just?

One interesting fact about this parable was that the debt was forgiven, not paid. The slave in debt did not pay off the debt, nor was it paid by one standing in his place. Jesus’ blood washes away our sins (Hebrews 9:14, 22; Ephesians 1:7) when we meet His conditions (Acts 2:38; 22:16).

The One Hundred Denarii Debt

But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed” (Matthew 18:28-30).

In the parable, the forgiven slave went out and found another slave who owed him “a hundred denarii” (Matthew 18:28). This debt was not nearly as much as what the first slave owed to the king, but it was still a substantial amount. The second slave pleaded for mercy – just as the first slave had done – but no mercy was shown. The forgiven slave did not learn a lesson from his experience before the king.

The King’s Anger

So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:31-35).

When word got back to the king about how the forgiven slave refused to forgive his fellow slave, the king became angry and punished the previously-forgiven slave. This shows us that God’s willingness to forgive us depends upon our willingness to forgive others. We noticed Jesus’ model prayer earlier: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). He went on to explain, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:14-15).

This again shows that forgiveness is not based upon a debt being paid. If the ten thousand talent debt was paid – even by someone standing in place of the first slave – it would be unjust for the king to still require it of him (Matthew 18:34). This should remind us that though our sins are washed away in baptism (Acts 22:16), we could still be lost. This is why the Hebrew writer warned Christians that they could become “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” and “[fall] away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12-13).


Forgiveness is available in Christ no matter what we have done in the past. Even Paul – the “foremost of all” sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) – could be forgiven. But as Jesus explained in this parable, we must be willing to forgive others. Regardless of the severity or quantity of wrongs that others commit against us, they cannot compare with the sins we have committed against God. As He has forgiven us, we must be willing to forgive others.

*For more on this point, see the article: Whose Place Did Jesus Take on the Cross?

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