6 Lessons on Forgiveness from the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

Jesus knew how to wield a parable as a powerful teaching tool. I think this is because he knows our hearts and expects us to look for ourselves in stories. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus shows how we’re to handle the gift of forgiveness. And he knows it’s hard. 

But like every weakness God knows is part of us, he can redeem even our selfishness or bitterness for his glory; and our freedom.

Of the over 30 parables Jesus told during his earthly ministry, the parable of the unforgiving servant may be one of the hardest to hear. We don’t want to identify with it, but it always hits home.

Let’s look at where this story appears in the Bible, and what we can still learn from it today.

What Is the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant?

When Peter famously asks Jesus in Matthew 18:21 how many times he should forgive a brother or sister who has sinned against him, Jesus exponentially increases Peter’s guess of “up to seven times?” with a shocking number.

Some biblical translations of Matthew 18:22 say Jesus answered “seventy-seven” and others say “seventy times seven.” Nevertheless, in his winsome style, Jesus then spreads out a verbal blanket and begins to paint the picture with a parable:

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 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. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. – Matthew 18:23-27

As the story opens, the servant is unable to repay, and we hear the punishment that could occur. But because the servant asks for mercy, he is set free. Free of having to repay what he cannot. Totally forgiven. No fighting, no negotiating. Just immediate mercy from the heart of a king moved by the servant’s surrendered heart.

However, as the story goes, this forgiven servant heads directly out from the grace of the king and throws a chokehold on someone who owes a small debt to him. He turns, fully forgiven, and does not offer an ounce of that gift to another. Instead, he threatens, harms, and imprisons someone else who cannot repay. 

When the forgiving king hears about the unforgiving servant, he calls him in, and lays down the law of this lesson:

…‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ – Matthew 18:32-33

So instead of forgiveness, the king chooses ‘fair,’ and puts the servant in jail until he can repay. The hardest sentence of all to process is the last in this parable:

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” – Matthew 18:35

What Is the Meaning of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant?

In Jesus’ day, it was common practice to forgive three times. So Peter is going all out to double and add one, asking if we’re expected to forgive seven times. Seven is also the biblical number for perfection.

But Jesus raises consciousness beyond the “seventy-seven times” mentioned all the way back in Genesis 4:24, and calls us to forgive as many times as it takes to be set free from desiring vengeance.

Whether God is asking us here to forgive 77 or 490 times isn’t as relevant as the concept of not counting sins against others. It’s forgiving so often that we can easily lose count. He knows we will experience hurt, betrayal, deceit, and a host of other offenses—but love covers this multitude of sins. He has shown us that forgiveness remembers our sins no more (Hebrews 8:12).

We repent, he forgives, he calls us to do the same. But when others say, “I’m sorry,” or “I can’t repay,” do we forgive?

Even if we never reconcile with people who’ve hurt us, God asks for our humility to surrender our unforgiveness, self-righteousness, and proclivity for paybacks to Him.

Author Scotty Smith explains this countless forgiveness in an article for The Gospel Coalition, saying “…the toxins of bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness are too deadly to store on the shelves of our hearts. Help us rehearse the gospel, more than the ways people have failed/hurt us, at a ratio of 100 to 1.”

How Does This Parable of the Unforgiving Servant Relate to Christians Today?

Today we have lots of freedom, conveniences, and easy ways to put on a good face to the world through social media or a variety of surface connections. We can ghost, swipe, and move on. We can pretend we have no need for resolution and focus on our ‘best life now.”

But until we truly lay down the sins inside us that cause us pain, God cannot fully forgive. We have to be willing. And by admitting our need for forgiveness and feeling his grace, we are able to let go of the chokehold we have on others.

Wendy Pope of Proverbs 31 ministry says that God’s desire in this parable of the unforgiving servant is to “work in and through me to surrender a part of myself that has been displeasing to Him: self-righteousness and an unforgiving spirit.”

Let’s look at some of the takeaways for Christians today.

6 Takeaway Lessons on Forgiveness from the Unforgiving Servant

1. We’re all sinners, not one better than the other.

When Jesus says “this is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” he is leveling the field. We are all his children, and as such we are family. Families are chock-full of grievances and imperfections.

Being unmerciful is merely competition to set ourselves above, rather than join ourselves to, each other. Even by holding on to anger, we’re sinning against God and holding ourselves in darkness. Forgiveness is needed for everyone.

2. We are not able within our own power to repay God’s grace.

Jesus illustrates here that God gives us the power to forgive, and expects it to flow out to others. But until we humble and empty ourselves, and admit we’ve been forgiven, we’re not able to forgive from our own reserves. So, open the valve. Admit your need for God to show you how to forgive. Then show it—however He leads you.

3. God knows everything we hide.

In the parable of the unforgiving servant, the king is told of the wicked servant’s poor choice by others who witness his meanness. This is a relatable way to recognize that our deeds aren’t hidden from our King. It’s a word picture that says, “go and show that you understand what mercy does.”

4. When we confess and repent, God fully forgives.

In this parable, the servant fakes out the king. He’s not really repentant; he hasn’t really accepted how gracious the king’s forgiveness is. He makes small of it by refusing to share with others how forgiveness blessed his own life.

But the point to notice here is that the king’s forgiveness of an unpayable debt is kindhearted, immediate, and full.

5. We are able to forgive because we are forgiven.

Just as we love because God loves us, the same goes for forgiveness. Not one of us is without sin. And yet, God in the flesh was crucified to take on all the sin that hinders us. It’s not something natural to any of us. It’s supernatural, and we need God’s grace daily to have the ability to forgive as we should.

6. God desires peace, not bitterness.

Do you feel good when you hold onto agony and anger? When someone has hurt you, does it help to relive it over and over? God doesn’t desire for you to stay stuck when imperfect humans fail each other. He desires that we uplift one another with grace. By doing so, you can ultimately replace pain with His peace.

Any of us will be the unforgiving character in this story sometimes. We may accept grace from others, but forget to extend it. Or worse, choose to withhold it in self-righteous blindness to our ongoing need for mercy.

What Jesus wants us to know from this parable is this: what God graciously supplies, we are empowered—and expected—to share. Forgiveness is fellowship with God that moves his kingdom work forward.