The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Last evening the Life group which my wife, Leonora, and I host studied Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful or unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) guided by The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups’s questionnaire for beginning groups.

MT 18:21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

MT 18:22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

MT 18:23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

MT 18:26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. `Be patient with me,’ he begged, `and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

MT 18:28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. `Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

MT 18:29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, `Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

MT 18:30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

MT 18:32 “Then the master called the servant in. `You wicked servant,’ he said, `I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

MT 18:35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (NIV; all Biblical quotations are from the NIV))

The questionnaire was divided into two parts, Looking into the Scriptures and My Own Story. For each part I allowed at least five minutes for members of the group to answer the four multiple choice questions in it and then we shared our answers. Between doing the two parts, we discussed three of the five DIG questions that The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups asked about the parable.

Looking into the Scriptures
1. Do you suppose Peter had a special reason for asking how many times he needed to forgive his brother and, if so, what was it? – All of us chose, “he just wanted to know.”
2. What is the parable that Jesus told really about? – The only option that more than one of us chose was, “how to say thanks for God’s forgiveness.”
3. How would you describe the attitude of the servant toward the one who had wronged him? – We split between “don’t let the scoundrel off the hook” and “let him suffer.”
4. What’s the principle for you as a Christian in dealing with someone who has wronged you? – The majority of us chose, “only the forgiven know how to forgive.”

1. Offenders in Jesus’ day were forgiven up to three times; a fourth offense need not be forgiven. What does Jesus’ answer say about forgiveness in the kingdom?
– We agreed that Jesus’ answer said that forgiveness in the kingdom should be unlimited.
3. How does Jesus’ point in verse 35 compare with 6:12? Do we forgive others so God will forgive us, or does God forgive us so that we will have a forgiving attitude?
– Matthew 6:12 says, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Although both it and verse 35 seem to favour the first option, we agreed with the second option. Leon Morris comments on 6:12, “This must surely be taken as an aspiration rather than a limitation, or none of us would be forgiven; our forgivenesses are so imperfect. But the prayer recognizes that we have no right to seek forgiveness for our own sins if we are withholding forgiveness from others, and perhaps even that we cannot really seek it (The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 1992, page 147).
4. Based on this parable, is God’s forgiveness of us limited or unlimited? Conditional or unconditional? Likewise, our forgiveness of others?
– We agreed that God’s forgiveness of us is unlimited. Although our initial reaction was that God’s forgiveness of us is unconditional, we went on to agree that our initial reaction was based on our theology and that the parable and Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sin, your Father will not forgive your sins,” indicate that God’s forgiveness of us is conditional on our forgiving others. We had an interesting and fruitful discussion on how to reconcile the two. We agreed that our forgiveness of others should be unlimited and unconditional.

My Own Story
My Own Story’s being personal, I won’t report here on our answers to the questions in it.
1. What would you do [about the situation given in a case study presented in the questionnaire]?
2. What have you found helpful in dealing with sour relationships?
3. Who is the easiest [and who] is the hardest person for you to forgive?
4. How could you pass on God’s forgiveness to those who have wronged you?

2 thoughts on “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

  1. Allison

    Sounds as if your Life Group is having good discussions! I am currently part of group that is studying Philippians, and have been enjoying our talks too.

    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      Yes, Allison, our Life group is are having good discussions. I’m glad that you’re also enjoying the discussions of the Bible study group that you’re part of.


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