• Ewen Lin

How to forgive

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant



Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.


23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28


But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”


We come to another parable which Jesus uses to compare to the kingdom of heaven. Look at how he starts in verse 23,


23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.

Isn’t it interesting how the servants are in debt to the king? We tend to assume it’s the other way around, that God owes us. If we live a good life, God owes us what we deserve. If life takes a wrong turn, God owes us an explanation. But Jesus says the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. It is us who owe everything to God. Look how it continues.


24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.

What you have to know is that ten thousand talents is an impossible amount. It’s actually impossible to accumulate so much debt. It’s like saying you owe me a trillion dollars. Even if you wanted to, you can’t rack up so much debt. Which is what makes the king’s compassion so amazing. It’s not just that the king is willing to forgive the debt. Look closely at verse 26, "The servant fell on his knees, imploring or begging the king, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’" But surely ten thousand talents is an impossible amount! No amount of patience will be enough. It’s like me writing a cheque for my parents for childcare costs. What’s the number you going to put down?

It’s such a ridiculous thing to say, that the servant claims he can pay it back. It’s almost like he feels he ought to have the chance. What this shows us is that God doesn’t just forgive the debts of those who deserve it. He forgives the debt of those who think they are entitled to it. If it were me, I want to say to the servant I’d like to see you try! You must think I’m a fool. But God doesn’t say that. That is the great compassion of our God.

At this point you can’t help but be happy for this servant right. He just went from having his entire family sold into slavery to being completely debt free. Maybe I should think about a career in negotiations. Maybe open a small business. Obviously I’m good at it if I can negotiate myself out of a crushing debt. Look what happens.


28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.

Are you guys surprised? On one hand, we should be outraged that this servant would be so unforgiving especially after he himself has been forgiven by the king. But on the other hand, his behaviour is entirely consistent with his worldview. It’s not surprising at all. What do I mean?

When the servant said to the king, "have patience with me, I will pay you everything", He doesn’t dispute the fact that he is in debt. He doesn’t say I don’t owe you nothing. He also doesn’t dodge or avoid his responsibility. He doesn’t say yes but what about Hitler? He says I just need more time, I will pay you everything. Even when faced with an impossible amount, he can’t think of anything else to say except I’ll pay you whatever it takes. His is a worldview that operates on a simple principle - pay what you owe. He can't fathom a world where that's not the only option.

And it is this same worldview that demands others pay their debts. Because what else is there? Why is it that most Australians think that if someone gets into heaven, it’s because they have done good? That somewhere up there is a calculator adding up all the good that we do and all the bad. Then there’s a scale and if good outweigh the bad, we’re safe. Isn’t that how most people in Australia think about God and heaven? If that’s how we relate to God, it’s no surprise that we also relate to other people the same way. We’re just changing what you add up. The formula’s the same.

If someone is nice to us, we’ll be nice to them back. If someone doesn’t carry their weight in a group assignment, they shouldn’t get the same marks as me. She’s such an b**** to me, why should I go out of my way to be nice to her? I don’t owe him anything. What's going on when we think or act like that? We’re doing exactly what this servant is doing – pay what you owe. The currency might be different, but the principle is the same.

This same attitude is in all of us. But look what happens.


31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Jesus says we must be as willing to forgive others as God has forgiven us. Be as willing to forgive others as God has forgiven you. We are supposed to forgive people who sin against us, not once, not twice, but 77 times. Which is to say never ending.

How is that possible? And more than that, how is that reasonable? Now you don’t have to be a Christian to know that forgiveness is something we should aspire to. 2 kids fighting, any good parent will teach them to apologize and forgive. Christians don’t have the copyright on forgiveness. But what Jesus teaches here goes beyond what we would normally understand of forgiveness. It is a different kind of forgiveness. A forgiveness that is unconditional and limitless. Hence, this parable.

Think about it. When someone steals money from us, to forgive them is to accept the loss. Bear the cost yourself. You can’t say I forgive you, pay me back everything. Or pay me back everything and I’ll forgive you. That’s not really forgiveness. Or when someone cheats in a relationship, to forgive them is to bear the pain yourself. You can’t go and cheat on them – ha! Now you know how I feel, I forgive you now. That’s not forgiveness. No matter you do, to forgive someone is to carry by yourself the weight of the debt.

But if that’s what forgiveness means, then for Jesus to say do it again and again and again will just absolutely crush us. No. Jesus is showing us a different kind of forgiveness. And the parable shows us something that is very counter intuitive and counter cultural.

The point is this: It is better to owe an incalculable debt to a compassionate king than it is to owe a tiny amount to a calculating miser. It is better to owe a huge amount to a good king than a small amount to an evil one. You agree with me too. I would rather owe a million dollars to my mum who loves me more than money, than 10 dollars to cash convertors or my credit card. Wouldn’t you?

So why would you put the debts you have and the things you owe or are owed, onto your credit card, when you can hand it all to God? Put it on his account. It’s better to be in debt to God than to others. And the best part is, there’s no limit what you can hand over to God. That’s the difference that Jesus brings.

So for example. Say you got a new job and you were supposed to be paid 1000. And at the end, you only get paid 200. By right, you are owed 800 dollars. What do you do? Forgive. How? Tell yourself to move on, consider yourself unlucky. Don’t let me see you again. Is that forgiveness? Forgiveness is reminding yourself that the 1000 dollars isn’t really yours to begin with. It belongs to God so when you are missing that 800 dollars, take it to God. Present your case to God. Don’t immediately rush to call your lawyer or go to the police. And when you take it to God, you’ll very quickly realise what’s 800 dollars to God?

Or for example, someone you thought was a good friend, turns out was badmouthing you when you weren’t around. It happens in the workplace all the time because how do I make myself look good? By making others look bad. What do you do? Forgive. How? Start paying close attention to them. Watch how you act in front of them. Don’t show any weakness. Start sending emails, make sure things are in writing. Defend your name. Oh but don’t be angry with them. Forgive them. Is that forgiveness? Forgiveness is reminding yourself that you and I are just fellow servants. It doesn’t matter what people think. It matters what God thinks. What God sees when he looks at you is more important than what people see when they look at you. Do you think God is worried about your reputation? Does he stay up at night thinking how to control the narrative?

Jesus says that we must be as willing to forgive others as God has forgiven us. We don’t have to bear the cost ourselves. Jesus did that for us. And to the degree we realise that and put our faith in that, then we’ll be able to forgive others as God has forgiven us.

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