The Unforgiving Servant Parable: Story & Meaning

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  • 0:04 The Unforgiving…
  • 0:39 Context: Forgiveness
  • 1:38 The Parable Analysis
  • 4:32 The Role in Western Culture
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Christian Bible is full of parables that helped shape Western ideologies and attitudes. In this lesson, we'll examine one and analyze it within the context of 1st century Jewish culture.

The Unforgiving Servant Parable

Christianity has undeniably been one of the greatest cultural influences on the history of Western Civilization. The ideologies, moralities, and even anecdotes found in the Christian Bible have reappeared time and time again. From political decisions to art and literature, these ideas helped shape European lives for millennia.

One example is the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, a tale found in the Gospel of Matthew, 18:23-35. The story is one of forgiveness, surrounded by other stories of forgiveness, and what it means in the Christian doctrine.

Context: Forgiveness

In Matthew, Jesus and his disciples discuss various issues of morality, faith, and the nature of the forgiveness of sins. It's important to remember that these Jews are living in a time where Jewish law is absolute and very strict. Atonement for sins is difficult, and only achievable through very specific actions and rituals. That concept of spiritual forgiveness has impacted their culture beliefs about forgiveness on a personal level as well.

So, in Matthew 18:21, the disciple Peter comes to Jesus and asks how many times he should forgive someone: ''how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?''

Why seven? According to Jewish traditions, you should forgive a person who has sinned against you three times, so Peter thinks he's being pretty generous. Jesus responds by saying you should forgive someone seventy-seven times, a hyperbole implying there's no limit to forgiveness.

The Parable Analysis

At that point, Jesus tells Peter the story of a servant and a king. The servant owes the king ten thousand bags of gold, a clearly un-payable debt. Since the servant can't ever hope to repay the debt, the king orders him and his family sold into slavery. The servant begs for time and patience. The king, being merciful, agrees and cancels the entirety of the servant's debt.

The servant who cannot pay his debts, in a 17th-century French painting by Claude Vignon
unforgiving servant

At this point, the servant leaves and encounters a man who owes him a hundred silver coins (a much smaller amount). This man can't pay, so the unforgiving servant chokes him, demands payment, and has him thrown in debtor's prison.

The king then calls the unforgiving servant back, labels him as wicked, and asks him why he didn't show the same mercy that was given to him. The servant is then thrown in prison to be tortured in order to pay off his original debt.

The unforgiving servant choking the man who owes him money; an Italian 17th-century painting by Domenico Fetti
unforgiving servant

The key to understanding the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is the analogy of sin as a debt. Christ's message in Matthew frequently revolves around the idea that humans are imperfect and will inevitably sin against God's law. In the parable, the king (God) has a servant (any human) who has more debt than they could ever repay (more sins than could be atoned for through the Jewish rituals). It's only because the king forgives the servant, who isn't worthy or deserving, that the debt is abolished.

This is an important message to the Jews of the time. Christ's message was that the Jewish law was insufficient. The law needed to be replaced. That's the entire concept behind the messianic prophesy in Jewish culture, that a messiah would appear and replace the old laws with a new covenant, or a deeply held promise. So in this parable, Christ is also affirming that the Messiah has arrived and this new era of history has begun.

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