Therefore, the kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king of flesh and blood who was going down to settle accounts with his servants. (Mattai 18:23)

Yeshua told the parable of the unmerciful servant to emphasize His point about freely forgiving. The parable also illustrates Matthew 6:15, “If you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”

According to the parable, the kingdom is like a king settling his accounts. He found a certain servant who owed him ten thousand talents, a fabulous and ridiculous debt, equivalent in modern terms to something like one-hundred million dollars. Since the man could not possibly repay the enormous debt, the king ordered his possessions liquidated and the man sold as a slave along with his wife and children.1 The man prostrated himself before the king, begging for more time to repay the loan. The king felt compassion and forgave the debt. The forgiven servant left the king’s presence and immediately sought out a man who owed him a hundred denarii, something like several thousand dollars. He seized the fellow by the throat demanding immediate repayment. The man begged for mercy but received none. The forgiven debtor mercilessly had the man who owed him money thrown into prison. When the king heard about the matter, he revoked his previous release of debt, arrested the man, and placed him under torture until he should repay the whole debt. The Master explained, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35)—a truly disquieting promise.

Rabbinic parables often follow a similar form, comparing God to “a king of flesh and blood,” i.e., a human king. In the parable, the man’s indebtedness to the king symbolizes sins which Yeshua likens to debts that a man owes to God. The smaller debt which the unmerciful servant attempted to extract from his fellow symbolizes sins committed against a man by his fellows. The teaching of Yeshua often used the language of debt to symbolize sin and guilt.2 The Aramaic language of the day employed the same word (chovah, חובה) for both “debt” and “sin,” making the metaphor particularly apt. Following the same metaphoric language, the remission of debt in the parable symbolizes the forgiveness of sins.

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23ff)

  • The king = God
  • The servant = a penitent sinner who harbors unforgiveness towards others
  • The accounts = records of sins and merits
  • The debt = accumulated sins
  • Slavery/Prison = punishment and/or Gehenna
  • Canceling the debt = atonement, forgiveness, and pardon
  • The servant with the smaller debt = a man who sinned against the first servant
  • Meaning = If you do not forgive men their sins against you, God will not forgive your sins.

Disciples of Yeshua who petition God for forgiveness do not have the luxury of holding grudges, nursing bitterness, or retaining resentments for personal offenses. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mathew 5:7).

The Forgiveness Principle

His master became angry and gave him over to the torturers until he paid his whole debt. My Father who is in heaven will do the same to you if you do not pardon others wholeheartedly (for their sins). (Mattai 18:34-35)

The principle of forgiveness at work in the parable of the unmerciful servant operates on the biblical concept of middah keneged middah (מדה כנגד מדה), i.e., “measure for measure.” With the same measure we use, it will be measured to us. Just as the indebted servant did not forgive the small debt of his fellow servant, the king refused to forgive his great debt. The concept of forgiveness on the basis of measure for measure occurs frequently in rabbinic literature:

He who is merciful to others, mercy is shown to him by Heaven, while he who is not merciful to others, mercy is not shown to him by Heaven. (b.Shabbat 151b)

He who is merciful to men, toward him God is merciful in heaven. (b.Sanhedrin 51b)

James the brother of the Master explains, “Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy [but] mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Jewish wisdom tradition also conveys the same sentiment:

Forgive your neighbor the offense he has committed against you, so too shall your sins be forgiven when you pray. Can a man bear hatred against another and seek forgiveness from the Lord? Can a man be merciless toward another man like himself and then ask forgiveness for his own sins? (Sirach 28:2-4)

The parable’s settling of accounts imagery also invokes themes from the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. According to rabbinic legend, God convenes the heavenly court, opens the book of deeds on Rosh Hashanah, reviews a person’s accumulated merits and sins, and issues a verdict on Yom Kippur.3 He acts as the king settling accounts. The liturgy for these holidays entreats God for mercy, forgiveness, pardon, and grace. Before the penitent can ask God for forgiveness, however, he must first forgive others who have wronged him and seek forgiveness from those he has wronged. Preparations for Yom Kippur require the issuing of apologies and extension of forgiveness.

Whoever refrains from exacting his measure, the heavenly court forgives his sins, as it is written [in Micah 7:18], “Who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act.” Whose sin does he forgive? One who passes over sins. (b.Rosh Hashanah 17a)

For sins a man sins against God, the Day of Atonement makes atonement, but for sins a man sins against his neighbor, the Day of Atonement makes atonement only if he has first appeased his neighbor. (m.Yoma 9:9)

  1. Jewish law in the apostolic period no longer allowed debtors to be sold as slaves (cf. Leviticus 25:39; 2 Kings 4:1; Nehemiah 5:5), the parable has the Imperial Roman court in view. “The entire procedure and setting in this parable is Roman. According to Roman law, the creditor was permitted to take the debtor forcibly before the authorities” (Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 273).
  2. E.g., Matthew 6:12, 14-15; Luke 7:41ff, 16:1ff.
  3. Jewish theology regards the annual Yom Kippur verdict as God’s judgement upon sins committed in the previous year. The verdict pertains to punishments that He will mete out in the coming year, that is, whether or not a person will live to see another Yom Kippur.