21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

The world of the author’s community

The world at the time of the text

Questions for the teacher

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas / phrases / concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today / challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Matthew.  

The world of the text

Text & textual features

The structure of this passage will be familiar to us: someone asks Jesus a question and he replies with a parable. The literary form parable rotates around a comparison and in Mathew’s telling of this event, the comparison is made explicit. It may be useful to separate the context of the parable (the question and the return comment at the end, vs 34) from the actual parable itself so that the parable is not confused with the literal context of its telling. 

This text explores the expectations of members of the community when there are disagreements between them. Jesus uses the parable to teach Peter and the other disciples about what is expected in relation to forgiveness as an essential component of community. In asking his question Peter in using the number seven appears to be generous, but Jesus’ response of seventy seven times or in some translations seventy times seven times is indicating that he expects Peter to always forgive.

The parable in response to Peter’s question regarding forgiveness is followed by further instruction relating the story to the listeners’ lives. A parable is an apparently simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, to teach a great truth or to challenge the hearers to change their own behaviour. 

Parables usually conclude in an open-ended way however this parable concludes with the king handing the slave over to be tortured and a warning of God’s punishment if we do not forgive. It is felt by some scholars that these two lines are contrary to the message of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness and that they are more likely to have been added in by Matthew rather than spoken by Jesus. This could provide a good opportunity to explore this image of God in the light of other images of God. Alternately these last two sentences could refer to the bitter resentment that tortures people when they are unable to forgive.

This parable appears only in Matthew’s gospel reinforcing that it was probably a story known in the community and may have been specifically addressing an issue in the community of the writer of Matthew’s gospel.

Characters & setting

The interaction between Jesus and Peter provides an opportunity for Jesus to tell the parable.

The parable is set in a palace with a king, his slaves and a torturer. The king represents God while the slaves are all people. Two slaves in particular figure prominently in the story:

  • the slave who is forgiven but in return offers hardness of heart to a fellow slave, and
  • the fellow slave who also begged for forgiveness.

This parable was more relevant when people were more familiar with kings and slaves but still has an important message for people today.


Some important things people of the time this was written knew:

  • The number 7 in the bible signifies completeness.
  • The number 77 indicates no limits
  • A hundred denarii was equivalent to one hundred days wages.
  • Ten thousand talents was equivalent to one hundred and sixty thousand years of wages!

Questions for the teacher:

What is the text saying? What am I wondering about the text?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text? What might they wonder about?
What of this information is important to share with the students?

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher:

Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.

How do you respond to the text?
What does the text tell us about the world that God desires? What might the Holy Spirit be asking you and asking us to do?
In what ways do you hope your students will respond to the text? What do you want them to know, believe and do?

Meaning for today/challenges

This story and its teaching is an example of how Christians are called to move beyond community values and expectations to the radical love expressed by God in Jesus for us. God’s unlimited, unconditional love and forgiveness are a challenge for us to go and do the same. While we do not have to ignore the hurt or forget what has happened we must be willing to forgive, ask for forgiveness and be reconciled.

There are many examples in the world today of people holding on to hate, looking for revenge or just withholding forgiveness. Being able to forgive is essential for moving on and healing the hurt that has been caused. Holding onto hurts rarely harms the person who is not being forgiven but causes emotional harm and bitterness to the one who does not forgive. Forgiveness brings freedom.

We do have some very public examples of forgiveness below. These stories provide the challenge for us. If we are amazed by the courage of these people we still need to challenge ourselves to live radical Christian lives.

The Abdallah Family

John Paul II

A South African Mother Forgives

Church interpretation & usage

This parable is used to emphasise that God’s forgiveness is limitless and he expects the same from us. It’s use in the liturgy is linked to the mercy of God. The collect for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) is:

Look upon us, O God

Creator and ruler of all things,

And, that we may feel the working of your mercy,

Grant that we may serve you with all our heart.

Liturgical Usage

Gospel reading for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – A

This text may also be used in Rites of reconciliation.