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published: 10/8/13

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

What is the parable of the unforgiving servant?

The parable of the unforgiving servant was spoken by Jesus Christ and is recorded in Matthew 18:21-35. The unmerciful servant, or "serve nequam" might be summed up in two words: "Forgiven, forgive". This chapter 18 resumes the parabolic teaching; Christ sets the little child in the midst of His disciples as an example of humility, and tells the story of the Good Shepherd (verses 11-13) which St. John's Gospel repeats in the first person.

Undoubtedly, Christ said "I am the Good Shepherd", as He says here, "The Son of man is come to save that which was lost" (11). St. Peter's question, "How oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?" brings out the very spirit of Jewish legalism, in which the Apostle was yet bound while it provokes a statement of the Christian ideal.

Contrast, frequently employed to heighten the effect of our Lord's teaching, is here visible in the attitude taken up by Peter and corrected by His Master. "Until seventy times seven times", the perfection of the perfect, signifies of course not a number but a principle, "Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good" (Romans 12:21). That is the "secret of Jesus" and constitutes His revelation.

St. Jerome read a curious variant, plainly a gloss, in the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" (Loisy, II, 93). The proverbial number is perhaps taken from Lamech's song of revenge (Genesis 4:24) where however the King James Version reads "seventy and sevenfoid". This parable is the first in which God appears and acts like a king, though of course the title is frequent in the Old Testament.


21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.

24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.

25 But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

26 The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.

27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.

28 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.

29 And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.

30 And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.

31 So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.

32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:

33 Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?

34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.

35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

Further explanation

As regards the persons, observe that Our Lord does not give them names, which makes the story-telling more difficult. The "wicked servant" may be a satrap, and his enormous debt would be the tribute of his Government. That he and his were sold into slavery would seem natural to an Eastern, then or later. "Ten thousand talents" may refer to the Ten Commandments. "A hundred pence" owed by his "fellow servant" graphically depicts the situation as between man and man compared with human offences towards God.

The "prison" in which torture is to wring from the culprit all he possesses, represents what has ever taken place under the tyrannies of Asia, down to recent times. "Till he paid" might signify "never", according to a possible sense of "donec", and was taken so by St. John Chrysostom. Later theologians construe it more mildly and adapt the words to a prison where spiritual debts may be redeemed, i.e., to purgatory (Matt., v, 25-26, closely corresponds). The moral has been happily termed "Christ's law of retaliation", announced by Him aforetime in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt., v, 38-48), and the Lord's Prayer makes it a condition of our own forgiveness.

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