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Bible Study

What is the Meaning of the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor? 

In Jesus’s earthly ministry, He often spoke in parables. These short but impactful stories were a powerful teaching tool He used to help explain very important principles in easy-to-understand ways.  

We can benefit from studying Jesus’s parables because they are full of wisdom, advice, and practical steps to help us in our lives today.  

And the parable of the unforgiving debtor is one of those very helpful stories with a very important lesson.

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What is the parable of the unforgiving servant?

The parable of the unforgiving debtor comes shortly after the parable of the lost sheep. And it can be found in Matthew 8:21-35. 

The apostle Peter knew that the Jewish rabbis taught that they should forgive someone three times. Often citing an Old Testament passage in Amos 1:3-13.  

And Peter’s guess was that by offering forgiveness when a brother sins against him more than double the number of times the Jewish rabbis taught, Jesus would be pleased with His answer.  

But Jesus’s response shows us the number of times isn’t really the right measurement to be using.  

“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’

Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” 

-Matthew 18:21-22 NIV

Right after this, Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving debtor. This story was a part of Jesus’s answer to Peter’s question about how many times we should forgive. And in this parable, Jesus reveals God’s heart on forgiveness.  

In the Kingdom of God, many things seem upside down.

For example, Jesus says the first are last. And the last are first. Those who want to lead must become servants.

And when it comes to the forgiveness of others . . . God has a pretty high standard.  

Because it’s not really about how many times we should forgive. (I mean, who is really counting up to 77 times????) 

But it is about the fact that we should ALWAYS forgive others.  

***IMPORTANT NOTE: Forgiveness is not the same as continuing to allow access. Yes, God calls us to forgive. But He doesn’t say we should keep trusting someone who continues to hurt us. Healthy boundaries are Biblical!*** 

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The Beginning of the Story

In this parable, a king was going through the account of his servants. And he discovered there was a servant who owed him a huge amount of money.  

10,000 talents to be exact. (Some translations say it was 10,000 bags of gold.) 

When the servant’s master, the king, demanded that he pay it back or be thrown in jail, the servant knew he was in real trouble. He began to beg and plead with the king for just a little more time to pay back the money.  

But the problem was it was an insurmountable debt. And everyone knew it. 

Some experts say that the 10,000 talents he owed is the equivalent of a several million-dollar debt today. (That’s a lot of money!) 

There was no way this servant would’ve ever been able to pay off the entire debt he owed. And yet because of the amazing grace of the king, he chose to offer this servant mercy.  

The gracious king gave the man full forgiveness for the massive debt he owed. Essentially setting him free.  

(I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have several million dollars. Let alone borrowing an enormous amount of money like that to someone and then just forgetting about it all!) 

A white background with the words, "God's grace is simply amazing."

The Plot Twist 

But then immediately after being forgiven for that huge amount of money, this wicked servant went out and found a man who owed him a small debt.  

About a hundred denarii. (Some translations say it was 100 silver coins.) 

For comparison’s sake, a denarius was a day’s wage and was worth about sixteen cents. (So, yes, the guy owed him money. And it was a sizeable amount of money in that day and age. But it was also a tiny fraction of the amount he had just been forgiven for.) 

This evil servant demanded instant payment from his fellow slave. But of course, he couldn’t pay him back right away. So, the poor guy began to plead and beg for just a little more time to pay him back. 

(Any of this sound familiar?) 

But when he couldn’t come up with the money right away, the unforgiving servant refused to offer him any grace. Instead, this evil man had the poor servant thrown in jail.  

He had just been forgiven for an enormous debt. And yet, he refused to show mercy to someone who owed him a small amount.  

Someone told the king about what had happened. And the angry king decided to do something about the injustice. 

He ended up throwing the unforgiving debtor in jail. To stay there until he paid the entire debt he owed.  

Which of course, we know he never would’ve been able to do.

A light green background with the words, "We need to remember how much we have been forgiven for. And offer that same forgiveness to others."

What is the lesson of the parable of the unforgiving debtor?

This story is also known as the parable of the unmerciful servant. Because while the king’s servant had been shown mercy. He was not willing to show that same mercy to someone else. 

While he had been given a second chance. He refused to offer that same second chance to another person in a similar difficult financial situation. 

The lesson in this parable can be seen when we realize that God is the forgiving King. We are the servants who owe a tremendous debt. And it’s all because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross that allowed us to receive the mercy of God.  

Just like the lord of that servant, our Heavenly Father has forgiven us for every wrong thing we have ever done. Even though our sin debt is even higher than the man in this parable, because of Jesus, our slate has been wiped clean.  

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God’s forgiveness isn’t based on anything we have done.

We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it.

And yet, God’s grace is available to all. We just have to call out to Him. 

The king’s forgiveness was extravagant. And so is God’s.  

When we remember our own debt. And the astonishing grace we have been given.  

It makes it a lot easier to forgive others.  

Because as we see in this parable, the second servant’s debt was small compared to the huge debt the first servant owed.  

And in the same way, the debts people owe us for the hurts they have caused us are much smaller than the debt we owe God for all the wrongs we have ever committed. 

As Christians today, we need to remember how much we have been forgiven for. And in turn, be willing to offer others a little bit of the grace and mercy we have received.  

“Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’” 

-Luke 23:34 NIV
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What is the meaning of unforgiveness in the Bible?

In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus tells us to pray: 

“And forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.”

-Matthew 6:12 NLT

And when Jesus concluded the parable of the unforgiving debtor He said this: 

“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

-Matthew 18:35 NLT

Meaning how the king, the master of that servant, threw the unforgiving debtor in jail when he didn’t show mercy to his fellow servant.

And there are other passages that also talk about how we will be forgiven the same way we forgive (Matthew 6:14, 7:2, and Luke 6:37). 

Which should make us realize that God takes this seriously.  

While the forgiveness of God is not based on what we do. Our actions do reveal the depth of our faith. And if we really get God’s grace.  

Because when we truly grasp the depth of God’s forgiveness for us, we will be willing to offer that same forgiveness to others.  

If we felt appalled at all while reading this parable that the servant would not forgive someone who owed him very little after he had been forgiven for an insurmountable sum . . . then we should also feel appalled when we choose not to forgive.  

Because in those moments we are acting just like unforgiving servant.  

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What is the spiritual principle of forgiveness?

Forgiveness is a spiritual principle. And it takes conscious effort. It involves letting go of our resentment, bitterness, anger, negative emotions, and evil thoughts towards someone who has hurt us.  

It is not about condoning what happened.

It was wrong. Whatever it was.  

But by choosing to forgive, we are actively choosing to no longer suffer from what happened.  

We are letting go. And letting God handle it.  

Which in the end, gives our hearts peace. 

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” 

-Colossians 3:13 NIV

The Process of Forgiveness.

People can be quite mean. They may attack us on social media. Or through physical violence as many of our brothers and sisters in Christ experience who live in nations hostile to the gospel.  

But when we forgive someone, we aren’t letting them off the hook. We are simply placing them in the right hands (God’s). And trusting Him to enact justice. 

I wish there were easy ways to forgive. A simple three steps and you’re done. But unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  

Forgiveness is more of a process. A daily commitment.  

The hardest sentence in the world to say can be . . . “I forgive you.”   

Forgiveness takes hard work. Time. And truthfully, the only way we can offer this kind of forgiveness is by leaning on the Holy Spirit every, single day.  

We can’t do it in our own strength. But in our weakness, God can be our strength (Phil. 4:13).

As we pray, turn to Him, and lean on Him to help us . . . we can learn to forgive those who have hurt us.  

Because there are good reasons God calls us to forgive.  

“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” 

-Romans 12:19 NIV
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Why Forgiveness is Good for Us.

The truth is forgiveness is good for us.

Having an unforgiving spirit means we end up reliving the hurt again and again. Holding onto the hurts that have been done to us is a burden we were never meant to carry.  

As someone once said, “Choosing not to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” 

This quote shows the necessity of forgiveness. Because people who have an unforgiving character end up drinking a poison that eats away at their hearts and souls until they become angry, bitter, and lonely.  

Which is why God calls us to forgive and let go. Because He knows what is best for us. And He knows the truth . . . forgiveness is the key that sets us free. 

  • To grow in our own life.  
  • To help us accomplish effective kingdom work.  
  • And to make a real difference in this world. 

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” 

-Ephesians 4:32 NIV

The Power of Forgiveness

Jesus’s parable here helps us to understand the power of forgiveness.   

We are way worse than we could ever imagine. We have sinned more, messed up more, and owe God more than we could ever hope to repay.  

But because of Jesus, God has forgiven us for the large debt we owe Him.

And in turn, He simply asks us to forgive the small debts people owe us.  

The truth is the Kingdom of Heaven is filled with sinners who have been forgiven. 

When we enter Paradise someday we’re going to see people we will be surprised made it in. (And they may be surprised to see us there, too.) 

What it comes down to is this:

We have been given the amazing gift of forgiveness. Much grace. And great mercy by our loving Heavenly Father.  

All of which we do not deserve.  

So, how could we not in turn offer the same thing to our fellow sinners? 

If you found this inspiring, then please share it so it can inspire others!

And be sure to check out these other inspiring reads: 

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