Jesus told this story to illustrate forgiveness: A king's servant owed him millions, so he ordered the man sold into slavery to pay off his debt. When the servant begged for mercy, the king pitied him and released him from the debt. However, the forgiven servant went out, grabbed a man who owed him a few thousand, and demanded instant payment. The man begged for mercy, but his creditor had him thrown into jail. When the king heard, he was outraged: "Shouldn't you have had pity on this man, just as I had pity on you?" He ordered the unmerciful servant thrown into debtor's prison. Said Jesus: "So will my heavenly Father do to you, if each of you doesn't forgive your brother from your heart." This story is told in Sunday school lessons on forgiveness.
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The king in the parable is universally understood to represent God; Jesus taught that all men are sinners, and therefore debtors to God for their sin. Jesus taught that this debt is impossible for men to pay, and that repentance, and pleading to God for forgiveness, is the only way to be free of it. In this parable, the king, when entreated, freely forgives the repentant servant for the staggering debt he owes, just as God will forgive a true penitent. The clear implication is that the forgiven servant should be so overjoyed that he extends the same mercy to others.
Sunday School activities can include a discussion of what mercy is, the last time we were shown forgiveness, and how we in turn can show forgiveness to others. The teacher can suggest examples, such as forgiving a brother or sister who steals a toy, or a playmate who cheats at a game.
The Forgiven Servant
In the parable, the forgiven servant is indeed overjoyed to be released from an impossible debt; however, he goes out immediately to grab a man who owes him a much smaller amount than the one he himself was just forgiven. He demands instant payment, and when the man begs him for mercy, he shows him none, but has him thrown into debtor's prison. The forgiveness he was shown has taught him nothing; he remains hard-hearted and pitiless.
Possible Sunday School activities could include colouring pages that depict the servant accosting his debtor; illustrations accompanied by fill-in-the-blank puzzles; or a word-search or crossword puzzle with relevant keywords such as "mercy," "forgive" or "debt."
With this parable, Jesus is teaching his disciples that they have been shown incredible mercy, and that they likewise must show mercy to others. This is stated very strongly, as a command, and it reinforces previous comments Jesus made in answer to Peter's question: "How often must I forgive a man who sins against me? Seven times?" Jesus tells his disciple that he must forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven--in other words, freely and without keeping score.
Possible Sunday School applications could include putting on a small skit dramatising this parable, or possibly everyday situations that might be opportunities for forgiveness; telling the story with the aid of a flannel board and paper cutouts; and singing songs that emphasise the need to forgive.
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant doesn't end with the command to show mercy. It goes on to make clear that hardheartedness angers God. The king in the parable reverses his decision and has his debtor thrown in jail after all; the king is angry that the servant he forgave showed no mercy to his own debtor. "So will my heavenly Father do to you, if each of you doesn't forgive your brother from your heart." Possible applications of this part of the lesson could include a reminder that just as parents expect obedience from their children, so too does God.
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