Forgiving: the parable

Parable of the Debtors in context. 23 That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. The parable which makes up most of the rest of the discourse underlines the principle of unrestricted forgiveness which Jesus has just enunciated. Most of Matthew’s parables are introduced as illustrations of “the kingdom of heaven” (13:11, 24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47, 52; 20:1; 22:2; 25:1). Here that formula is especially appropriate, since the parable concerns a king and his subjects:  this then is how God rules. That application of the story will be made explicit in v. 35: the king’s action represents how “my heavenly Father” will deal with you.

The second part of Jesus’ dialogue, in response to Peter’s question, is a long parable, enforced with a brief explanatory comment in v. 35. In short, the parable is comparison of God’s operation of forgiveness and ours. Because there is no limit to God’s generosity to his undeserving people that they in their turn cannot claim the right to withhold forgiveness from their fellow-disciples. A community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community.

The parable is about a king and his slaves in order to explain how the kingship of God operates: 23 That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. The NAB translates doulos as servants. To be clear, these are not employed persons; they are owned. In the ancient world slaves, while not free to determine their own lives or to offer their service to anyone but their owner, could become highly responsible and trusted members of the household; a king’s slaves might hold positions of authority which today might be taken by civil servants, but they are at best indentured servants. I make this point to underscore the points made later on in the parable.

The parable’s characters are clear. The actions of the king in the parable indicate that he is to be identified with God. He demands a reckoning (v. 23), is approached as lord (v. 26), and shows great mercy in writing off the huge debt (v. 27). Yet the merciless servant failed to learn from the example of the king, and his cruelty toward his fellow servants results in the revocation of his own forgiveness (vv. 28–34). Note the use of the term “fellow servant” (vv.28,29,31,33) makes it clear that these servants form a community as do the disciples of Christ. The parable assumes that disciples are, by definition, forgiven people. It makes it unmistakably clear that the initiative is with God: it is because he has first forgiven that we can be expected, and indeed enabled, to forgive. It is with the compassion that disciples have been forgiven that they are expected to show that same compassion in forgiving others. As France [703] notes, the parable is in the tradition of the prophet Nathan’s parable of the ewe-lamb (2 Sam 12:1–7) told to King David. David reacts with indignation at the injustice of Nathan’s parable and wants the villain punished. It is then that Nathan reveals villain as he tells David, “You are the man!” In this same way, we the listener of Jesus’ parable was heartened when we hear the unforgiving servant get his just desserts in v.34, only to be brought up short in v.35 to know that “We are that man!”

It should be noted that the language herein will echo the “Lord’s Prayer” in Mt 6:12, “and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The parable in Mt 18 picks up that same language using “debt” for the sin which needs to be forgiven. This parable thus spells out what Jesus has stated in a stark propositional form in his comment on 6:12 in 6:14–15, that forgiveness must be reciprocal, so that God cannot be expected to forgive the unforgiving. It should also be noted that the imagery of the settling of accounts is not meant to represent the last judgment but forgiveness that has already taken place. But the forgiveness we have already received may be forfeited by our failure to forgive in our turn. It was freely given, but it must not be presumed on. The parable often has the effect in listeners of blending our natural fear of punishment with the more fundamental motive of gratitude and imitation of the grace of God.



  • R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007) 700-708
  • Scripture from the New American Bible: Translated from the Original Languages with Critical Use of All the Ancient Sources and the Revised New Testament. Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 1996.

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