Home   Complete Index    2009-2010 Sermons   2004-2008 Sermons      2002-2003 Sermons      2000-2001 Sermons     1998-1999 Sermons 

Series    Topical     Short Articles




565  Sermons Available

The Unmerciful Servant

Matthew 18:21-35

James R. Davis

What should a forgiven sinner’s attitude be toward those who offend or sin against him?

The teaching embraced in this parable becomes powerful when  placed in its first century setting.

Let us look at the setting, the propensity to vengeance as seen in the pagan world, the rabbinical teaching concerning forgiveness, and the biblical context.

I. Historical Context

A. In the ancient world cruel treatment was practiced against debtors, often without regard to the debtor’s ability or intention to repay.

In Athens prior to the establishment of democratic rights, a creditor could demand slave labor of his debtor or of members of the debtor’s family as surety of payment.

Roman law provided punishment by imprisonment to the debtors.

The reason for imprisonment and cruel treatment was to force the debtor to sell whatever property he might secretly own, or to have the debtor’s relatives pay his debt.

The creditor would demand slave labor of the entire family so that the debt might be worked off.

There were legal restrictions to prevent extreme cruelty, but in spite of the laws the entire system of debts and sureties was recklessly abused in the ancient world.

The prophets frequently condemned violations of the laws.

Neh 5:6-13
when I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7 I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, "You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!" So I called together a large meeting to deal with them 8 and said: "As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!" They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say. 9 So I continued, "What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? 10 I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop! 11 Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them—the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil." 12 "We will give it back," they said. "And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say." Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. 13 I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, "In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied!" At this the whole assembly said, "Amen," and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised. (NIV)

The pagan world was extremely cruel; cruelty was not only practiced against enemies, but also against family and friends without remorse or any sense of guilt.

B. The desire for vengeance in the Greco-Roman world.

The desire for vengeance was usually regarded as obligatory so that one felt himself justified in inflicting maximum vengeance or mischief upon one’s enemies.

The desire for vengeance was often carried from one generation to another so that a son took satisfaction in wreaking vengeance upon the enemies of his father or perhaps the descendants of those enemies.

C. The Rabbinical teaching in the first century. The Jewish teachers encouraged personal vendettas by a faulty application of the "eye for an eye" precept.

Although this principle was originally intended for the court to insure that punishment for the crime would be commensurate with the crime committed.

The precept was given to curb excessive vengeance, but it had become erroneously interpreted and applied so that an individual could avenge his injuries and extract "justice" apart from due process of law.

The problem was a personal vindictiveness which was being perpetrated by a miss application of the judicial "eye for an eye" principle.

D. The Jewish Rabbis also taught that a man was to be forgiven three times, but no more.

The Jewish Talmud reads, "If a man commits an offense once they forgive him, a second time they forgive him a third time they forgive him, the fourth time they do not forgive him.

Amos 1:3 This is what the LORD says: "For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not turn back. Because she threshed Gilead with sledges having iron teeth, (NIV)

Amos 2:1 This is what the LORD says: "For three sins of Moab, even for four, I will not turn back. Because he burned, as if to lime, the bones of Edom’s king, (NIV)

No doubt they thought that three times was very liberal when contrasted to the pagan world.

Peter was born and reared in an environment where cruelty to debtors, desire for vengeance, and erroneous rabbinical teaching thrived.

Naturally he thought that forgiving his brother seven times would be unusually liberal and sufficiently generous.

E. Biblical context.

Jesus spoke this parable in response to Peter’s question.

In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus was teaching his disciples that they were to seek to be reconciled to those whom offended or sin against them.

Peter’s question was a natural response. He wanted to know the extent of his obligation to an offending brother.

F. Do we subconsciously adhere to the same ancient ideas?

Have you ever severed relationships with close friends after having been repeatedly offended?

How many have thought or said, "This is the third time that you have hurt me—I am sick and tired of it—our relationship is finished?

Man’s vindictiveness, retaliation, and unforgiveness have been prevalent in every age—not excluding our own.

 II. Man is a debtor to God.

 A. Interpretation.

God = the king
God must be reckoned with.

Mt 10:28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (NIV)

Ro 14:12 So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. (NIV)

1 Peter 4:5 But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (NIV)

Rom 12:19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. (NIV)

He 10:30-31 30 For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," and again, "The Lord will judge his people." 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (NIV)

Therefore " . . . whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men" (Col 3:23).

B. God is the Accounter and man is the accountee.

 All men are servants to the king; all men are debtors to God.

Mt 6:12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (NIV)

Luke 11:4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’" (NIV)

The accumulated omissions and offenses make up one consolidated debt of guilt.

Sin is an account that all men have with God. There is no way of counting the accumulated sins of a lifetime.

10,000 talents represented the enormity of debt.
Inflation makes it difficult to get an exact idea of how much 10,000 talents would be.

Silver—three million dollars

According to Jewish calculation—Ten million dollars.

Gold 150,000,000 dollars.

Twenty-nine talents were used for the construction of

Ex 38:24

Eight thousand to build Solomon’s temple.

1 Chr 29:4-7

Eight hundred talents was the total tax income for the five provinces of Palestine.

The servant's debt was over ten times the national budget. How would you like to owe ten times the amount of our national debt?

C. Day of reckoning arrived for the servant.

2 Kings 4:1 The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, "Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the LORD. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves." (NIV)

Neh 5:8 and said: "As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!" They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say. (NIV)

The king commanded that the servant and his family and all his possessions be sold that payment might be made.

The sale of his property not enough.

C. The servant pled for mercy. He did not understand the enormity of his debt.

A man in anguish will promise the impossible.

Some believe that if God will only allow them long enough they will make amends of their sin.

Many believe that future obedience can make up for past obedience.

Ro 10:3 Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (NIV)

No sinner can pay the debt.

Many think that they can hide behind respectability, a cloak of self-righteousness, and religion thinking that their deficit will not be noticed.

Others hide in darkness so their evil deeds will not be exposed.

John 3:20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. (NIV)

There will be no escape.

Heb 2:3 how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. (NIV)
A day of reckoning will come for every soul. On that day noting will be hid.

Ro 2:5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. (NIV)

One can reckon with God before the final judgement. One can receive forgiveness today.

The final day will be too late.

Mt 25:41 "Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (NIV)

On that day nothing will be hid.

Ro 2:16 This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. (NIV)

III. Magnitude of God’s forgiveness.

 A. This parable demonstrates the magnitude of God’s forgiveness.

God will show mercy toward the humble penitent man and will cancel the debt of sin entirely

In God’s sight no offense is so great or so frequent as to be beyond forgiveness.

What would life be worth if one could outstretch the limit of God’s forgiveness?

God is willing to forgive seven times each day, seventy times a day, and 4900 times a day! There is no stopping place with God.

Isa 1:18 "Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. (NIV)

Isa 55:7 Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. (NIV)

Ex 20:2,6 "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery . . . but showing love to a thousand of those who love me and keep my commandments. (NIV)

1 Kings 8:23 and said: "O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way. (NIV)

2 Chr 7:14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (NIV)

B. The truth about God’s unlimited forgiveness is very hard to grasp.

Man has the ideal that when he sins it is difficult, if not impossible, to receive forgiveness and to be reconciled to the love and favor of God.

In history the Hindu mother feeds her baby to the crocodiles, to appease the wrath of her God.

Some fast and agonize in prayer.
Others punish and mutilate their bodies.
But it is not difficult to get God to forgive.

IV. Man’s forgiveness is conditional on forgiving others.

A. The unmerciful servant went from the king’s presence and forgot that he had been purged of his old sins.

2 Pet 1:9 But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. (NIV)

Gal 6:1 Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. (NIV)

He remembers his fellow servant’s debt; he forgets his past experience.

He takes his fellow servant by the throat and demands that payment be made.

He did not listen to the man’s plea.

He had been so freely and fully forgiven, but he failed in the extending of forgiveness.

There was no love, no compassion, only hard-heartedness.

B. It is so easy to forget our deep need of mercy and forgiveness and to become harsh and unforgiving to others.

This outrageous occurrence is made by Jesus to stand as the true picture of all his followers who will not forgive others.

The man had just been forgiven, yet he cast his fellow servant into prison without even an extension of time.

He extracted the utmost punishment till the debt was fully paid.

C. God forgives more freely than man forgives.
We think mercy is a good thing as long as we are the objects of it.

How difficult it is to deal with others as God has dealt with us.

The unmerciful servant probably thought that he had a right to treat him that way, "after all I am only asking for what is rightfully mine."

Mt 7:2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (NIV)

We desire to measure our fellow man by one standard and ourselves by another.

It will not work.

We must not stand on our own rights and exact our dues; we should be moved by the desire to promote the welfare of our fellow man.

Ro 15:2 Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. (NIV)

F. Man’s debts to God are much greater than man’s debts to man.

Comparison in the two sums owed 1 to 1,250,000.

Forgiven of $150,000,000 and refused to forgive $16 debt.

The worst offenses committed against men are nothing compared to the offenses all have committed against God.

Usually quarrels among men are a look, a word loosely spoken, an expression carelessly dropped.

Is our shame for our sins against God as intense and real as our indignation concerning the injuries done to ourselves?

Eph 4:32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (NIV)

Mt 5:7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (NIV)

G. Forgiveness must never be refused when sought with repentance.

Luke 17:3-4 So watch yourselves. "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him." (NIV)

In the meantime you must maintain a forgiving spirit whether the offender repents or not.

Forgiveness without repentance leaves a man’s evil nature unchanged.

Forgiveness must be from the heart.
Do we really have a clear conscience in our relationship with others?

Is the atmosphere between men and my fellowman open and unclouded by hostilities?

Do I still harbor old hates in my heart?
Are we inclined to hold a grudge?

Is there a gnawing grudge against someone that is tucked away secretly in the back of your memory?

Is there a bitter root of recrimination buried deep down in my subconscious mind whenever I am reminded of some abuse of injustice I have suffered?

Do the wrongs I have endured from others eat away inside me like a consuming cancer?

These probing questions get below the surface of our superficial attitude.

A backlog of lingering ill will, hostilities, resentments, and animosities clouds many of our relationships with others.

They are still demanding restitution. They want their pound of flesh.

H. This parable teaches that forgiveness can be revoked.

James 2:13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! (NIV)

All forgiveness is conditional; the condition in every case is dependent upon the forgiven continuing in faith and obedience.

Jesus said, that having received grace, one must show grace or he will fall from grace.

V. Final punishment of the unmerciful and unforgiving.

He forfeited his wife and children.

It would have been impossible for him to repay the debt while free, even less of a chance now.

He shall have justice without mercy; he shall always be paying; yet he shall never pay off the debt.

That’s what hell is about.


In this parable our Lord announces the law of unlimited forgiveness as one of the essential laws of his kingdoms.

Forgiveness cannot have a limit. Forgive until seventy times seven . . . which indicates unlimited forgiveness.


Home   Complete Index    2009 Sermons 2004-2008 Sermons      2002-2003 Sermons      2000-2001 Sermons     1998-1999 Sermons 

Series    Topical     Short Articles