Fresh Eyes On Jesus Parables—The Unmerciful Servant

Day 1 of 4 • This day’s reading


Appalling Behavior 

Jesus told this parable in response to Peter’s question about how many times we must be willing to forgive a person. Peter wondered if the expectation was upward of seven times. Jesus responded with “seventy-seven times” (or “seventy times seven,” depending on your translation) and then told a parable about a debtor who owed his master millions of dollars. 

After the man pleaded with his master to show mercy and not sell his whole family into slavery to repay the debt, the master canceled it entirely and let him go. However, almost immediately the forgiven man went out and found someone who owed him a couple bucks, and, in an atrocious display of mercilessness, the former debtor … Well, just read the text: “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt” (Matt. 18:28–30).

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could be so callous! How could someone who had been forgiven millions be so unforgiving over a couple bucks? In the parable, that was also the reaction of an audience of fellow servants who couldn’t believe their eyes when they witnessed the event. 

Jesus knew that anyone witnessing such an act of injustice, or hearing about it, would share the fellow servants’ point of view. So He crafted the story to place us among that audience of witnesses. We cheer their act of whistle-blowing. We would have done the same thing, and the momentum of this story rushes us toward a satisfying resolution. 

As part of the horrified onlookers, we are thrilled by how quickly the unmerciful servant had his forgiveness rescinded and his unpayable debt reinstated. Justice is wonderfully sweet.

However, the parable’s pace causes us to speed right past a moment that should be given more attention. A “fresh eyes” look at a Scripture text sometimes requires slowing down and not jumping so quickly from sentence to sentence or scene to scene without wondering what might have happened in between. This parable is a case in point. Between the cancellation of the servant’s debt and the time he started demanding his money from a fellow servant, a moment must have come when the unmerciful servant thought about what his fellow servant owed him.

Over the next few days, we’ll look at some examples to show how we also might have rationalized unforgivingness had we been in the unmerciful servant’s position. Each day, I will identify a possible root excuse and then share a few variations.