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Matthew 18:21-35



        An 82-year-old man, who has lived with much discomfort following a cancer operation 20 years ago, always seems to smile and enjoy life.  In his youth he decided never to harbor feelings of bitterness or resentment.  No matter what hardships he endured or what unfair treatment he received from people, he kept his heart open to the Lord and sought to love even his enemies.  Now he says, "I am convinced that when we cheerfully accept our lot and forgive others as God has forgiven us, we are benefited physically!"  It was obvious from looking at him that he was relaxed and contented, and had a genuine sense of well-being.

        We shall see the physical and spiritual benefits of forgiveness illustrated in the narrative before us, as we continue to study the doctrine of compassion.  We have been studying "compassion" and the Greek word that is most often translated "compassion" in the New Testament.  The word is splagchnizomai 4697.  This word is translated "compassion" 11 times in the New Testament; 10 times of Jesus directly or in illustration and 1 time about God in illustration.  Today we shall study that one time that this word is used in illustration about God.  This occurs in Matthew 18:21-35.  Would you turn there with me please?  I invite you to follow along in your Bibles as I read this aloud for us.

        We have been studying the various narratives of the New Testament where Jesus demonstrates the compassion of Jehovah God.  We have been using a format that I devised to help us comfortably discuss narratives.  Treating narratives like hortatory text can sometimes be awkward and inefficient.

        Today we shall cover another category of narratives called parables.  A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.  The parables are snatches of everyday life.  But even though the narrative before us is a parable, we will not need to alter our format.

(So let's begin our study by looking at:)


We actually have two settings or sets of circumstances.

(Let's consider firsts:)

1.      The Circumstances That Precipitate This Parable.

The set of circumstances which precipitated the parable from Jesus was Peter's question about forgiveness.  Peter asked Jesus how many times he was to forgive a brother who sins against him.  Peter suggested seven times.  It is said that the Rabbis' prescribed three times.  Peter doubled the number prescribed by the Pharisees and did them one better.  He was sure that Jesus would commend His graciousness, but was utterly surprised when Jesus prescribed seventy times seven.  Jesus is not suggesting an actual number of times, but unlimited forgiveness.  This moves Jesus to share a parable illustrating His answer.

(Now let's consider:)

2.      The Circumstances Of The Parable.

The set of circumstances germane to the parable is a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.  This set of circumstances is likened to the kingdom of heaven, i.e. God's kingdom is comprised of a King, Jehovah God, who will one day settle accounts or judge His slaves, the Jews.

        Of course the parable can be applied to Jesus as the King and Christians as the slaves.

(Now that we have explored the circumstances, we are ready to get to know:)


1.      The Protagonist.

The protagonist in this story is the king or the Lord of the slaves.  He is portrayed positively by his actions, which we shall explore.

2.      The Antagonist.

The antagonist of this parable is the first slave.  He is portrayed negatively by the other character's responses to him, his own words, and his own actions.  We shall cover this portrayal during our discussion of the plot or conflict.

(So, let's go ahead and cover:)


The action of this parable revolves around typical character conflicts.  The first conflict concerns stewardship.  Isn't it natural to owe someone some money.  "Let me hear you say, `Yesssss!'"

        The first character conflict is between the king and the first slave.  The king wanted to settle accounts with the first slave, but his debt was enormous and he had no ability to repay his debt.  This one slave owed his master 10,000 talents.  We don't know if this is 10,000 talents of gold, silver or iron.  But let's bring the story up to date by calculating the price according to minimum wages in 1992.  Minimum wages is currently $4.25 per hour x 8 hours = 1 denarius or one day's wages of $34.00.  6,000 denarii = 1 talent and 10,000 talents were owed = $2,040,000,000.00, i.e. two billion and forty million dollars!

        This is not just the debt of the slave to his master, this is the debt of every one of us to The Master, Jesus Christ!  This was the debt of sin left to us by our parents:  Adam and Eve!

        This slave could not repay this debt.  We cannot repay our debt of Sin to God!

        So, the king ordered him to be sold to repay his debt, but the slave fell down and begged for mercy.  The response of the king is key:

1.      He Felt Compassion For Him.

felt compassion 4697 splagchnizomai "to have the bowels yearn," "to be moved in the inward parts," "to feel compassion."

splagchnizomai is from

4698 splagchnon "an intestine."

splagchnon "b. the bowels were regarded by the Hebrews as the seat of the tenderer affections, especially kindness, benevolence, compassion; hence equivalent to our heart, [tender mercies, affections, etc.]."[1]

compassion splagchna "The verb gives the oriental idea of the bowels as the seat of compassion."

Compassion is "a deep feeling for and an understanding of suffering with an accompanying desire to relieve that suffering"  (Webster's Third New International Dictionary).  The king, who represents either God or Christ, was moved with or felt deep compassion for this slave.

        There is a greater debt than that owed to J. C. Penney's.  There is a greater debt than that owed to Visa.  There is a greater debt than your mortgage.  There is the debt of sin!!!.

        God felt such compassion for those of us who were indebted to Him because of sin, that He sent His only begotten Son to pay the debt of sin.  Jesus felt great compassion for His creatures who were overwhelmingly indebted to Him because of sin, that He paid the debt Himself, with His own blood.  Now all we have to do is accept His payment on our behalf through faith!!!

(Not only did He feel for this slaved:)

2.      He Released Him.

released 630 apoluo Literally to loose away from.  Strong defines the word as "to fully free."  "to release a debtor, i.e. not to press one's claim against him to remit his debt; metaphorically to pardon another his offenses against me."

        God has pardoned us and He will pardon the Jews on the basis of the death of Jesus Christ.  He has chosen to not press His claim against us for the debt of Sin.  Why?

Jesus paid it all.  All to Him I owe.

Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow!


Jesus released us, i.e. set us free from the bondage of sin.

(The king felt compassion for the slave, released him, and:)

3.      He Forgave Him His Debt.

863 aphiemi to pardon or release from debt.

"To forgive means to pass over an offense and free the offender from the judgment deserved."[2]  The word `forgive' actually means, "forth-give," that is, to dismiss absolutely from thought.  When God forgives, He forgets!  (Lockyer).  Jesus has not only released us from the debt of sin, He has forgotten about our sin.  He has trampled our sins under His feet.  He has cast our sin into the depths of the sea.  He has cast our sin in the small of His back.  He will never remember our sin again.  That is true forgiveness!!!

"When God passes over our offenses and releases us from the judgment they deserve, it is as though He says to us:

1.      I shall not use these against you in the future.

2.      I shall not talk to others about them.

3.      I shall not dwell on them Myself."[3]

        From the protagonist's action, we can surmise the important values in life are compassion, release and forgiveness towards those who are indebted us.

        Are you willing today to do this for your husband, your wife, your children, your relatives, your parents, your boss, your employee, your fiance, your fiancee, your friend, your brother or sister in the Lord?

        The second character conflict is between the first slave and the second slave.  The first slave went out and found a fellow slave; who owed him 100 denarii; and he seized him and began choking him and saying, "Pay back what you owe me!"  By our previous standard that would equal $3400.00.  The second slave fell down before the first slave as the first slave had fallen down before the king.  Now his fellow slave went through the exact same motions and words that he had just gone through.  The words in verse 29 are almost identical to those in verse 26.

        The suspense of this parable is generated by having the audience wonder how will the first slave respond to the same situation in reverse.  He was the debtor and now He is the creditor.  This is a classic plot in all literature.

        When the second slave falls down in front of the first slave and begs for mercy, we expect him to act in the same manner as the king had acted towards him.  But, he does not!  Unwilling to forgive the debt, He threw his fellow slave into prison until he could pay back what he owed!!!  It is remarkable that people can act so different when the shoe is on the other foot!

        There is also a moral conflict here with respect to how we ought to act towards those who owe us money.  We should act graciously towards those who are debt to us.  If you cannot act that way, don't lend people money:  give it to them!

        We should act graciously towards those who are in any kind of debt to us, i.e. debts of love, gratitude, appreciation, etc.

        There is also a spiritual conflict here.  The parables are secular stories with spiritual meanings, i.e. they are earthly stories with heavenly meanings.  Therefore, the parables teach a practical truth and a spiritual truth.  The spiritual conflict is between severity and kindness; strictness and leniency; law and grace; unforgiveness versus forgiveness; a lack of compassion versus compassion.  The king had an understanding of and feeling for the pain of the first slave, plus a desire to relieve him.  The first slave, ironically, did not demonstrate an understanding of nor a feeling for the misery of the second slave, nor a desire to relieve that misery; even though he had just experienced the same misery.  That is remarkable to me; but it is just like people.

        The foil of the king's attitudes and actions, in contrast to those of the first slave, heightens what is most important in the story.  We can see from the story that leniency constitutes good moral behavior.  We can also see that compassion and forgiveness are the values that matter most in dealing with our debtors, if not in life in general.

        The first slave encountered a moral test.  The test was how would he treat his fellow slave.  But this also highlights a spiritual choice.  And the first slave failed the test by making the wrong spiritual choice.  The behavior that the first slave should have exhibited is stated in a question,

"Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?"

But he chose to be unfeeling, unmerciful, and uncompassionate.

        That choice demonstrated His character:  wicked!  The king or Lord of the slaves calls him wicked.  He is portrayed negatively by his actions:  He went out and found a fellow slave, seized him, began to choke him.  Unwilling to forgive him, he threw him in prison.  He is even portrayed negatively by His own words, "Pay back what you owe!"

        Certainly the king represents God or Jesus Christ.   The settling of accounts represents salvation or judgment.  The test for us as slaves of Jesus Christ is how will we treat our fellow slaves, in the light of the way that we have been treated.  We have a spiritual test to pass!  What are your midterm grades?

        The detail of the first slave being reported to the king is a very interesting one indeed.  It may be just a part of the story with no typical meaning; but to me it suggests the obligation of every slave to report, in prayer, to the King of kings and Lord of lords, the evil behavior of a fellow slave.

(We have covered the circumstances, the characters and the conflict.  We are now ready to cover:)


The climax of this story is not only gripping, but it is particular instructive because of the feelings and words of the king.  The king was angry.  We studied this in the Old Testament under

Observation 2.4:  We know that God's compassion can run out, but now we can also see that God is angry when His compassion runs out!  When God's compassion runs out, He refuses to forgive.  When His compassion runs out, He pours out His justice.

Being moved with anger, The King handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.  This means he would never get free, because His debt was infinite.

        In this parable, we are introduced to a new narrative convention.  It is call a punitive plot.  A punitive plot, according to Leland Ryken in his book, How To Read The Bible As Literature, is one in which an unsympathetic or villainous character undergoes an adverse change in fortune as a punishment for misdeeds.

        The poetic justice of this uncompassionate, unforgiving slave eventually receiving his just deserts is pleasing from a life perspective and a literary perspective.  In certain situations, we long to see justice.  This is a much used movie plot.

(Most of the narratives, that we have explored, have not contained a direct commandment, moral or principle.  Narratives often make an implied comment on what is important.  But this narrative does have a stated commandment, moral or principle.  Let's deal with it!)


The commandment, moral or principle of a narrative or parable is often implied in the climax of the story.  The same is true of this parable, but Jesus wanting to make sure that Peter got the answer to his question, gives Peter a command,

"So shall my heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart."

There are many obvious and implied truths in that statement.  First it helps us to understand that the king is the Heavenly Father.  Secondly, it gives us the action that we should imitate:  forgiveness.  Thirdly, it ties compassion and forgiveness together.  There can be no forgiveness where there is no compassion!!!

        Likewise, if we do not extend forgiveness to our brothers and sisters, we will not experience the forgiveness of God.  If we do not realize that we are forgiven, how can we experience it?  So God will hand us over to the torturers!  "The `torturers' of today for people who refuse to forgive are broken friendships, cold marriages, estrangement from parents and children, split churches, horrible memories of times and places when lack of forgiveness was evidenced by words and conduct.  To Forgive is hard; to live with the consequences of not forgiving is harder yet!"[4]

        So, there are physical and spiritual benefits in being compassionate and forgiving to those who are indebted to us, even as our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has been compassionate and forgiving towards us.

(Now is the day of Salvation.  Come to Jesus, now!)

Invitation:  "Is anyone here today aware of their debt of sin to Jesus and want to be forgiven?"

Call to Discipleship:  "Is there anyone here today who is choking another person with unforgiveness and wants to release that chokehold so you can experience God's forgiveness?"


[1] Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon Of The New Testament, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Nineteenth Zondervan Printing 1978, pp. 584-585.

[2] Randy Patten, Why Should I Forgive?, Cedarville Torch, Volume 11, No. 4, Fall Issue, 1989.

[3] Randy Patten, Why Should I Forgive?, Cedarville Torch, Volume 11, No. 4, Fall Issue, 1989.

[4] Randy Patten, Why Should I Forgive?, Cedarville Torch, Volume 11, No. 4, Fall Issue, 1989.

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