Spiritual Meaning of the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor

The Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor is a classic story that Jesus told. But what does that parable really mean? What is the spiritual meaning of the Parable of the unforgiving debtor? How can we apply the lessons of the Parable to our lives? 

The parable of the unforgiving debtor is truly a lesson on the grand scope of God’s forgiveness, a call for us to forgive, and a reminder that God protects those who are persecuted. Through the characters and relationships elaborated on in the story, Jesus paints a word picture of the importance of forgiveness. 

Let’s start out by asking, “What is a parable?” and “Why did Jesus use them?”

Understanding parables

A parable is simply a story the Jesus used to communicate very important principles. Jesus was not just a miracle worker, He was an incredible preacher. The way that Jesus preached was through parables. 

The parable is a powerful teaching tool that is used to communicate an important lesson. Jesus used parables in His Earthly ministry to communicate sermons in ways that we easy to understand. 

The principles of the Kingdom of God might be difficult to understand, so Jesus uses parables to help people understand them better. Many preachers have adapted this approach into their own teaching style, so preachers use stories to communicate a Biblical idea. 

Now that we understand what a parable is, let’s look at the context of the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. 

Background Behind the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor

In this parable, Jesus is teaching on the principle of forgiveness, because people were not being forgiving towards others. Many people had become too judgmental and not merciful enough, so Jesus taught this parable to show people why they should forgive others. 

This parable is also referred to as the parable of the unforgiving servant or the parable of the unmerciful servant, but it is the same parable. It is the same message. God’s forgiveness is greater than anything else, we should forgive others, and God protects people who are persecuted. 

The Passage

The Prompting of the Parable 

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

The Parable

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 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.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

Jesus’ explanation of the Parable 

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Matthew 18:21-35

Meaning of the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor

Peter’s Question 

The parable starts with the Apostle Peter asking Jesus a question. He asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone, and he suggested that it might be seven times. Peter’s guess however was wrong, and Jesus answered that it was seventy-seven times that he should forgive. 

Jesus’ response was to show that forgiveness should not have a cap. Although he said that it was seventy-seven times, He didn’t say that there is something magical about forgiving seventy-seven times. 

Instead, Jesus is teaching that the number of times that someone should forgive is way beyond what we expect. The number is not near what is required, and we should continue to forgive indefinitely. It is irrelevant the number of times we should forgive, but we should always forgive. 

After telling Peter this, Jesus launched into his parable. 

The Characters of the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor

As we read the parable, there were a few different characters that each emphasized a point. 

The King 

The first character that we are introduced to in the story is the King. The king is in the process of settling his accounts with the people who owe him money. At this time, a servant who owes him 10,000 bags of gold was brought to him. The servant could not repay it, so the servant asked for an extension on his debt. 

The master of the servant decided to forgive the servant’s large debt. This act of kindness is a reminder of God’s grace. Just as the master was a forgiving king so is God. 

When we sin, we put ourselves in spiritual debt. There is a payment that is due for our sins, and the payment is death. However, the forgiveness of God is shown through the grace of the king. When we ask for God’s forgiveness we are met with great mercy. We don’t have to pay our debt anymore. 

Just like the king forgave the king’s servant of an enormous debt. God forgives us of our debt to him. 

The Wicked Servant 

The second character present in this story is the wicked servant. The wicked servant was forgiven of his huge debt, but he refused to forgive the small debt of his fellow slave. 

He had a lack of mercy. You would think that because he was forgiven of a huge amount, that he would be willing to forgive the second servant of the small amount that he owed. 

The amount the second servant owed was a tiny fraction of the 10,000 bags of gold that the first servant owed. The wicked servant was a wicked servant because he was an unforgiving character. 

He received much grace, but he still demonstrated a lack of mercy for his fellow servant. In this case, the wicked servant might represent someone who asks God for forgiveness but isn’t willing to offer forgiveness to others. 

We see through the rest of the story that the wicked servant got caught for his unforgiveness, and he had to repay the debt that he originally owed.

The Second Servant

The final character that we can observe from this story is the second servant. The second servant was not perfect. He was still an indebted servant, so he had done something wrong. However, the second servant’s debt was minuscule compared to the debt of the first servant. 

He didn’t owe a massive debt, but he still requested an extension on his debt. The wicked servant was being harsh and unforgiving to him. 

The king heard about this situation and had the wicked servant removed. The king was actually protecting the second servant by removing the first. 

This might be a reminder to us that God protects people from judgment. The servant didn’t owe a massive debt and he was still being judged for his debt.

Lessons from the Story of the Unforgiving Debtor

Now that we’ve looked at the characters and who they represent let’s look at the specific lessons that this parable is trying to communicate to us. Let’s ask, “How can we apply this to our own lives today?”

God is Merciful 

The first and most significant lesson from this parable is that God is forgiving. The king forgave the man who owed 10,000 bags of gold, and God can forgive us of the penalty we owe for our sins. 

The lesson is that Jesus paid our own debt, so we don’t have to pay it anymore. The gift of forgiveness is ours. 

There is a freedom that comes with not being in debt anymore financially. You don’t have to be worried about the payments, and the same is true for our sin debt. We don’t have to be worried about the penalty of our sins anymore, because God is merciful. 

God hates Unmerciful Behavior

The second lesson from the story is that God hates unmerciful behavior. Judging others can become a natural tendency in our own life. We might think that our way is the best way, and it might be the best way. The only problem is that it is God’s decision to determine who owes what. 

Because God forgave us, His expectation is that we are willing to forgive others. The forgiveness of others is an important part of experiencing the forgiveness of God. We have to give others a second chance.

God hates when people are unmerciful. 

God Protects People Who are Mistreated 

The final lesson that can be gleaned from this story is the God protects people who are mistreated. The wicked servant was mistreating the second servant, so the king disposed of the wicked servant. The king was protecting the second servant. 

This idea is perfectly demonstrated in John 8:1-11. In that passage, there is a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. The religious leaders were going to stone her for her sin, but Jesus defended her. He reminded the religious leaders of the debt that they owed and made them leave.

It is the same concept in this parable, God protects people who are being mistreated. 

Ultimately the meaning of the parable of the unforgiving debtor is that God is merciful, that he hates unmerciful behavior, and that he protects people who are mistreated.