The Unmerciful Servant

William Bacon Stevens, 1857

Matthew 18:21-35
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?"
Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
"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 talents 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.
"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.
"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.
"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
"Then the master called the servant in. '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?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless--you forgive your brother from your heart."


This parable, which Porteus says "is one of the most interesting and affecting that is to be found either in Scripture or in any of the most admired writers of antiquity," was drawn from our Savior by the inquiry of Peter: "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"

In a conversation with his disciples just before, our Lord had directed what course to pursue in reference to a brother who sins against you, and in what way to seek redress of our grievances. The subject arrested the attention of Peter. The duties enjoined and the precepts delivered by Christ, were new, striking, important. Peter was anxious for more information, and for some specific rule. He knew, doubtless, that the rabbinical law of forgiveness said, that "three offences were to be remitted--but not the fourth," and putting what, perhaps, he supposed an extreme case, he asks if he shall forgive his brother "Up to seven times?" thus more than doubling the number which the Talmud required him to pardon.

To this question Christ promptly answers, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times;" thus inculcating a breadth of forgiveness widely removed from the narrow law of the Rabbis on the one hand, or the supposed liberality of Peter on the other.

But our Lord did not design to affix any definite limit to the number of offences which it was our duty to forgive. Seven, as is well known, was, among the Hebrews, a number representing perfection, and therefore is frequently used in the Scriptures to denote frequency, fullness, multitude; so that, to forgive "seven times" means to forgive many times--but to forgive "seventy-seven" expresses the full and perfect forgiveness which should be manifested towards all offenders.

Here, then, was the utterance of a great and heaven-born principle--the unlimited forgiveness of injuries! And to illustrate this principle on a scale commensurate with its real greatness, our Lord related the parable of "The Unmerciful Servant."

In this parable "a certain king" is represented as taking "account of his servants," or fiscal managers, to whom were committed the farming and collecting of his royal revenues. He had scarcely "begun to reckon," before his attention was drawn to one who "owed him ten thousand talents." When he "was brought unto him," it was found that he had nothing with which to pay, being hopelessly bankrupt. He was evidently a tributary prince or treasurer, in whose custody were placed the revenues of the realm, and who had abused the confidence of the king by appropriating to himself "ten thousand talents." This amount, even taking the talent at its lowest value, was more than equal to the enormous sum of fifteen million dollars, and evinces, at once, the elevated dignity to which this servant of the king was raised, and the boldness of the embezzlement which he attempted on the royal treasury.

Confessing his inability to pay, the king, termed here "his master," because, in those countries, all subjects, from the lowest to the highest, were the virtually owned servants of the monarch, "commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made." This severe penalty for insolvency was one often used in the East, as is testified to by sacred and profane writers; and, even in the Roman law, wife and children being part of the father's possessions, were sold with him into slavery, when he could not pay his debts.

As soon, however, as he learns the order of his king, and knowing the miserable servitude into which it will plunge him--an abasement, the more galling because of the height from which he fell--he falls down, and, in oriental fashion, "worships him"--prostrating himself upon his face before him--"saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will payback everything!" Touched with the abject misery of the suppliant, and feeling in his own heart the relentings of compassion--the king orders his fettered prisoner to be loosed; revoked the sentence which consigned him to the auction-mart of the slave; restored to him his wife, his children, his goods; and "forgave him the debt."

What a sense of relief must that wretched criminal have experienced as the word "forgive" fell upon his ear! What a change in his condition--from a prostrate, condemned beggar, ordered out for sale, with his wife and children--to freedom, wealth, and happiness!

Yet his subsequent conduct proved how unworthy he was of this royal clemency; for, as the sacred narrative leads us to infer, he had scarcely gone out from the presence of his king, relieved of his extreme debt, when he met "one of his fellow servants," who "owed him a hundred denarii," or about fifteen dollars. But, instead of being softened by the mercy which he had experienced--he lays violent hands on him, and "took him by the throat, saying, Pay back what you owe me!"

The action of prostration, the plea for patience, and the promise eventually to pay all, which he had just made to his king--is now made by his fellow servant to himself. There is an identity of act and language, in order to give greater force to the unforgiving nature of this imperious creditor. Though that abasement and plea found mercy for him--it obtains no mercy from him. One would have supposed, that touching that tender chord would have procured at once a compassionate response; that the hundred denarii would at once have been forgiven, in view of the ten thousand talents remitted by his master.

But no! Avarice is . . .
--and cannot hear;
--and cannot see;
--and cannot feel.
It has no affections of mercy--no finely strung sympathies! It is relentless in its grasp--cruel in its aims; and the horse-leech cry of its insatiate appetite is "give! give!"

To get gain, it will steal from the treasuries of kings; or grind the face of the poor! It will wrench open the clenched hand of poverty for it's uttermost farthing; and wring from the widowed mother, the pittance which gives her children their daily bread. Of all such oppressors, God declares, "His food will turn sour in his stomach; it will become the venom of serpents within him. He will spit out the riches he swallowed; God will make his stomach vomit them up. He will suck the poison of serpents; the fangs of an adder will kill him. What he toiled for he must give back uneaten; he will not enjoy the profit from his trading!" Job 20:14-18. And this is but part of that remarkable portraiture of a wicked, grasping, avaricious man, drawn at such full length in the book of Job.

Refusing to listen to the cry of his fellow servant, the heartless creditor "went and cast him into prison until he should pay the debt." This conduct was soon reported to the king, who, indignant at his course, ordered him into his presence, and, addressing him in stern and angry words, said, "Oh, you wicked servant! 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?" Well might the king be "angry;" and, with a justice which commended itself to every observer, he revoked his cancellation of the debt, and "turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed!" He merited his doom by his avarice--and he brought it upon himself by his extortion.

Having thus shown the injustice of this man's proceeding, and the iniquity of an unforgiving spirit, Christ draws the moral--"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart!"

The design then of the parable is to teach us forgiveness of injuries, and the Christian grounds of it. The doctrine of heathen philosophers on the subject of forgiveness of injuries, was altogether vague and unsatisfactory. Some, indeed, as Plato, Maximus Tyrius, Epictetus, and Marcus Antoninus, commend clemency. But others, of equal name and learning, as Aristotle, Cicero, Democritus, held revenge to be a duty, and forgiveness of injuries to be a narrow-minded weakness. Cicero, in his "Offices," gives it as the character of a good man, "that he does good to those whom it is in his power to serve, and hurts no man unless he be provoked by an injury."

Many modern infidels have followed in the track of ancient moralists. Bayle declares that the precept prohibiting revenge "is contrary to the law of nature," and Tindal goes so far as to make the doctrine of forgiving injuries an objection to the Gospel. It was important, therefore, that there should be some divine and immutable legislation on this subject, so that the world would know the truth, and have before it a certain guide. This great want the Lord Jesus supplied, not only by the delivery of this parable--but in various other passages, in a manner at once clear, full, and authoritative.

Let us examine, then, the basis on which this doctrine rests, and the arguments by which it is sustained. The foundation of this virtue is the revealed fact, that God has announced himself as a sin-pardoning God. Had there been no forgiveness in the Divine mind--there could have been none in the human; for while the vices of men are self-begotten, their virtues are in every instance copies in miniature of some of God's perfections. Hence the whole superstructure of forgiveness of injuries, and of loving our enemies--is built upon those unfoldings of the Divine character, which represent Him as a God who pardons iniquity and shows mercy to the unrighteous. It was necessary that this trait should first be seen in Him, that He should pattern it forth in His own acts, and illustrate its workings in His own dealings with the sinful and the rebellious; for how would we know what it was, or how it was to be exercised--had we not previously beheld it in operation; or how could we have been commanded to exercise a virtue, which God had not himself manifested in nature or revelation? But He has not thus required a moral impossibility of us. How He has forgiven, is admirably set forth in this parable; and the relations between ourselves, as debtors, and God, as a merciful creditor, are there strikingly illustrated.

We are debtors to God in sums beyond our ability to pay; we owe him love, obedience, faith, and the duties of a Christian life; we owe him our minds, our souls, our bodies. And when He calls us before Him to take an account of us, He finds us in arrears to the full extent of the Law, which we have not obeyed, and of the salvation which we have rejected, so that as he "who offends in one point of the Law, is guilty of all;" and as he who is not with Christ, "is against him"--it follows that we are moral bankrupts, owing more than ten thousand talents of service--yet unable to pay down the first instalment of spiritual duty! He has called upon us to "bring all the tithes into the store-house," tithes of Christian offerings and devotion--and we have brought none. He has given us talents, with the injunction, "occupy until I come"--and we have gracelessly "wrapped them in a napkin," or buried them in the earth. He has called to us, "give an account of your stewardship"--and we have stood before him as speechless bankrupts.

Could we fully obey God's law, we would then fully pay all our moral indebtedness to Him, for, in the words of the Prophet, "what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" He who keeps God's law does all this; hence he who keeps the law does all that God requires, and cannot therefore become a debtor.

But, as each act of disobedience, each failure in duty, each moment's continuance in a state of rebellion, is a debt, a perpetually accumulating debt--not one item of which we can, of ourselves, pay; and which, aggregated, are faintly represented by the ten thousand talents of the parable--so do we find ourselves in the condition of this servant, brought into the presence of our Lord, with a perfectly unpayable debt, threatening us with its impending woe! If we cannot balance our accounts with God, He will, He must, if He is true to Himself and just in His moral government, require us to make up our delinquencies, "even to the uttermost farthing;" and, as we cannot pay all that is due unto Him--so must He visit our defaulting souls with the punishment due to such great transgressors.

This punishment is everlasting ruin, to be sold, not as the Jewish law directed, for six years only--but forever; and thus made the slaves of the Prince of Darkness, with no year of release at hand, no jubilee of emancipation in prospect. The language of the Bible in reference to every unrenewed man is, that "he is sold under sin," that he is "a servant of iniquity." For, "know you not," says the Apostle, "that he to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey--his servants you are, whether of sin unto death, or of righteousness unto holiness?" In this condition of bankruptcy and servitude, lay the whole human race; and had God, like an inexorable creditor, refused to forgive us our debt, we would, even now, be under the hand of tormentors, and yet without any hope of paying what was due unto him.

But this was not like God. He was a God of mercy, as well as justice. And in His counsels, He has purposed to "deliver from curse and damnation, those whom He has chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honor." To this end Christ became incarnate of the Virgin Mary--"God manifest in the flesh"--taking upon him the sinner's nature; standing in the sinner's place; and by the one sacrifice of himself, once offered--made a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, atonement, and satisfaction for the sins--so that now forgiveness of sin is proclaimed to mankind, a forgiveness which is bestowed freely; and without price, upon all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and who make him the alone hope of their salvation.

The greatness of this act of forgiveness, we can never know this side the eternal world, because we can never, here, fully measure . . .
the malignity of the sins which we have committed,
and the dreadfulness of the curse which has been remitted,
and the blessedness of state to which, through this forgiveness of sins, we are to be introduced.

These elements, which enter into a consideration of the munificence of God in pardoning our debts, are but faintly understood here; but in the world to come, where we shall see . . .
in its full deformity,
and the curse in its direful reality,
and the bliss of Heaven in its unspeakable glory
--then shall we know somewhat of the infinite grace and mercy which God manifested when he was "moved with compassion" toward us, and "freed" us from the bondage of death, and "forgave us the debt."

Its consideration will fill us with ever-increasing praise and wonder. Its greatness will loom up more and more clearly. The mercy of God will develop its riches with a perpetually growing glory. And, as the great cycles of eternity turn upon the axles of love--we shall still discover new grace, new grandeur, new cause of thanksgiving--that there was with God forgiveness of sin, that the ten thousand talents of man's indebtedness to His holy law have been remitted, and guilty mortals were now, through the payment of this debt by our Divine Substitute and Surety--made "kings and priests unto God."

It is this forgiveness . . .
divine in its nature,
eternal in its duration,
world-wide in its compass, and
unchangeable in its operation--

which is the basis on which rests the superstructure of what we term, the virtue of forgiving the sins of our fellow men.

The arguments by which we enforce and sustain this virtue, have great force and authority, and may be reduced to two general heads, namely:
those which are derived from our relations to God, and
those which spring from our relation to our fellow men.

Beginning with this lower argument, we find a forgiving spirit is that by which we most secure the love and favor of our fellow men. We are all erring creatures! We daily offend in word or deed, designedly or undesignedly, against those around us. If each of our offences was severely judged and rigidly condemned--we would be forever miserable, and the sweet amenities of life would be altogether lost; so must we be ever ready to forgive others; for he who makes haste to take his fellow servant by the throat, with the inexorable demand, "pay back that you owe me!" will be most likely to meet with the same rough treatment himself. The uncommiserating, unforgiving man--is generally uncommiserated and unforgiven. There is always a fearful reaction to the outgoings of hatred and revenge. There is a return tide which washes back upon the heart, the evils that flowed from it; and it often rolls in upon the soul with aggravated power.

Surely we are too sinful ourselves--to act rigidly towards the frailties of our fellows. We too much need forgiveness--to be ourselves unforgiving. The cultivation or manifestation of a unforgiving spirit--is sure to bring down upon us the unpitying vengeance of those among whom we dwell. So that policy, pride, self-love, personal comfort, social position, and other even selfish motives--combine to press upon us this important yet too much neglected duty; for the experience of the world confirms the truth uttered by James, "He shall have judgment without mercy--who has shown no mercy."

Rising to those higher motives derived from our relations to God, we find that the forgiveness of injuries done to others, is one of the conditions of our salvation. This truth is clearly established by God's Holy Word. In the sermon on the mount, our Lord declares, "If you forgive men their sins--then your Heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you forgive not men their sins--then neither will your Father forgive your sins."

On another occasion he instructed His disciples, "When you stand praying, forgive if you have anything against any--that your Father also which is in Heaven may forgive you your sins; but if you do not forgive--neither will your Father who is in Heaven forgive your sins." And on yet another occasion he exhorted them, saying, "Forgive--and you will be forgiven. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

Were anything more necessary to establish this point, it is found in the last verse of this parable, where deserving and ignominious punishments are threatened if we do not "from our hearts" forgive every "one his brother their sins." These passages, every one of which fell from the lips of Christ himself, prove demonstrably that one of the conditions on which we receive salvation--is forgiveness of others in the injuries which they have done to our persons, our names, and our estates; and that this forgiveness must be not of the lips, not in professions merely--but "from the heart;" and will be judged of by Him "who searches the hearts and tries the thoughts of the children of men."

And as we cannot begin the Christian life without taking this initial step--so neither when once taken, can we continue it under any other condition. There can be no sanctification in the heart which is filled with strife and anger. The Holy Spirit is a spirit of peace, of love, of unity, and He cannot tabernacle with discord and anger; and whatever then drives away the Sanctifier, or neutralizes His influence, hinders our sanctification. And, consequently, we can never, so long as He is absent from the heart, "be made fit for the inheritance of the saints in light." Let no one who harbors an unforgiving spirit pretend to say, I am a Christian. John has denounced such as liars; for, says this "beloved disciple," "if he loves not his brother whom he has seen--then how can he love God whom he has not seen?"

In looking at this subject in the light of our relations to God, we further discover that an unforgiving spirit not only will destroy the grace of God within us--but will turn our prayers into invocations of wrath. Our daily prayer is, "forgive us our debts or sins--as we forgive those who sin against us. That is, we pray that God would forgive us--just in proportion as we forgive others. If we forgive others wholly--then we pray that we may be wholly forgiven. If we forgive but little--then we pray that we may be forgiven little. If we forgive not at all--then we pray that we may not be forgiven.

What a fearful prayer! To go upon our knees, to clasp our hands and close our eyes, to bow our heads--and then, in the solemn tones of prayer, ask God never to forgive us our sins! never to blot them from the book of His remembrance! But as we cherish with emotions of hatred, the sins of our fellow mortals against us--so we beg God to cherish the remembrance of our transgressions, and to nurse up His wrath against us until the judgment hour!

He surely is unworthy to receive of God forgiveness of his ten thousand talent debt--who is unwilling to pass over the hundred denarii trespass of his fellow servant!

"And think not," says Archbishop Leighton, "to satisfy God with superficial forgiveness and reconcilements, saying I will forgive--but will not forget," etc. Would we be content of such pardon of God? to have only a present forbearance of revenge, so that He would not quarrel with us--but no further friendship with him? And yet such are many of our reconcilements of our brethren. God's way of forgiveness is both thorough and hearty, both to forgive and to forget. His language is, "I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." And if your forgiveness is not so--then you have no portion in His, for you only ask God to "forgive you as you forgive others."

Lastly, there is laid upon us, a Divine injunction to the performance of this duty. In addition to the directions of our Lord, already quoted, there are very many other texts enforcing the same truth.

Paul's sentiments may be condensed in his directions to "owe no man anything--but to love one another," "be kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake has forgiven you."

James' views are expressed in the words, "He shall have judgment without mercy--who has shown no mercy."

Peter's earnest exhortation is, "above all things, have fervent charity among yourselves!"

And John declares, "he who loves not his brother, abides in death."

And when to these apostolic testimonies you add the great law that comprehends within itself all the duties of the second table, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself;" and the grand exemplification of this rule in the example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whose steps we are to follow, whose mind we are to possess, whose spirit we are to copy--then what more cogent motives could be found to press upon us this holy and forgiving spirit with which God is so well pleased?

As Christians then--as followers of the meek and forgiving Jesus--as those who hope that the immense debt of their sins has been forgiven by God--let us go out into the world and act towards our fellow men as God has acted towards us; for to forgive, as we are forgiven by God--is Divine!