Alfred Usher Soord, 'The Lost Sheep' (1900)
Alfred Usher Soord, 'The Lost Sheep' (1900). Original is oil on canvas, 275 x 182 cm., St. Barnabas Church, Homerton, East London.

With a bit more than 100 parables, analogies, and sayings of Jesus, where do you begin? I'd like to start on an up-note with some of Jesus' winsome parables that teach us about God -- his love, his heart for the lost, his forgiveness, and his mercy. Here are the parables we'll be considering in this lesson.

1.1 Searching for the Lost

1.2 The Father's Forgiveness and Mercy

Remember Jesus' chief purpose here -- to train his disciples. So as his modern-day disciples let's see what we can learn from these parables.

1.1 Searching for the Lost

Welcoming and Eating with Sinners (Luke 15:1-2)

In Luke's Gospel, the Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son (or the Prodigal Son) are a series, set in a context of complaining and murmuring over Jesus' choice of friends.1

"1 Now the tax collectors and 'sinners' were all gathering around to hear him.
2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'" (Luke 15:1-2)

A crowd is gathering to hear Jesus teach, but over to the side some Pharisees and teachers of the law are complaining, murmuring, muttering. They are the strict observers of every part of the Mosaic law, as well as the oral law, and look down on the common people who aren't as strict as they. They are really upset that Jesus makes a practice of warmly welcoming2 and eating with society's outcasts -- tax collectors and sinners.3 In fact, one of his own disciples, Matthew/Levi is an ex-tax collector, who, at his conversion, had invited Jesus and his disciples to a great banquet at his house, along with all of his unsavory friends (Luke 5:27-32). When criticized on that occasion, Jesus had remarked:

"It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.
I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:31-32)

(We'll consider this passage and others in Lesson 12, Parables on Caring for the Lost.).

Jesus responds to the Pharisees' criticism with three parables about joy at finding something or someone that is lost, parables that help his hearers understand better the Father's heart and his value system.

Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-6a, §172; Matthew 18:12-14, §133)

"3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 'Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home.'" (Luke 15:3-6a)

The Hebrews had been a shepherd people as far back as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Though the economy had broadened considerably since then, sheep were still a solid part of agrarian life in Jesus' world. Sheep were raised for wool, for meat, and for sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem. A hundred sheep would be a fairly normal size for a small sheep farmer.4 Many families might keep a few sheep, but this farmer focuses his living on this considerable herd of sheep.

In Jesus' parable, the farmer is probably counting his herd at evening, as was customary. He finds one missing. No doubt he leaves the ninety-nine with a helper or in a sheep pen, and then goes off looking for the lost sheep until he finds it. He looks in the thickets and gullies, he climbs a hill or two looking. No doubt he has done this before and knows where sheep are likely to hide.

There is no blame directed toward a straying sheep; the emphasis Jesus is making in this parable is seeking out something which is lost, finding it, and celebrating the discovery as a joyful event. We could read other things into the parable5 -- but to do so would be to miss the point Jesus is making. Israel is not the lost sheep here, but the tax collectors and sinners -- they are the lost sheep of the house of Israel that Jesus is sent to (Matthew 10:6; 15:24; see Analogies of the Lost Sheep in Lesson 12.1). When the shepherd finds the stray sheep, he joyfully carries it on his shoulders back to the flock.6

Rejoicing over Sinners Repenting (Luke 15:6b-7)

"6b Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent." (Luke 15:6b-7)

It's time for a party, a celebration. The shepherd calls his friends and says, "Come on over for something to eat and drink. We're celebrating finding my sheep that was lost on the hills."

What does the parable mean? In this context, the lost sheep is a sinner and the ninety-nine sheep represent the righteous. This is Jesus' answer to the Pharisees who were grumbling about Jesus' welcoming tax collectors and sinners.

God rejoices, angels rejoice, when a sinner repents! There is a celebration for every victory, for every person who was in jeopardy and is now rescued.

It doesn't help this parable to identify the shepherd as Jesus, though Jesus is clearly the Good Shepherd in the Parables of the Good Shepherd and the Sheep Gate (Lesson 7.4). Rather, Jesus presents a situation familiar to his listeners -- a shepherd with a missing sheep -- just as the woman in the Parable of the Lost Coin is any woman who has lost a coin. Matthew 18:10-14 contains a very similar parable in the context of teaching his disciples. It concludes:

"In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost." (Matthew 18:14)

Having said that the parable itself is not about Jesus but any caring shepherd, as we apply the parable to our lives, it's inevitable that we think about Jesus searching for the lost, as in the case of Zacchaeus's salvation, Jesus says: "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). Jesus' redemption is no mass salvation, but one-by-one, person-by-person, name-by-name. Jesus is on a search-and-rescue mission. That's what the Kingdom of God is really like. Seeking the lost is Jesus' mission. We'll see further use of images of the shepherd caring for the sheep in the Parables of the Good Shepherd and the Sheep Gate (Lesson 7.4) and Analogies of the Lost Sheep (Lesson 12.1).

Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10; §172)

James J. Tissot, 'The Lost Drachma' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, 'The Lost Drachma' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York

Jesus continues in Luke with a similar parable that has the same point -- rejoicing when something that is lost is found.

"8 Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:8-10)

A woman's entire fortune consists of ten silver coins. The coin is probably a drachma, about the same value as a denarius, which was a day's wages. The ten silver coins might represent the woman's dowry, we're not sure. But one thing we know for sure: for a poor peasant woman that lost coin was extremely valuable. She couldn't afford to lose it!

Palestinian homes often didn't have any windows. So in order to search diligently, the woman lights a dim oil lamp with a sputtering wick. She holds the lamp high. Then she gets down on her knees and uses the lamp to light beneath the tables and shelves. No luck. Now she sweeps the house -- maybe the coin is covered in the dust of the dirt floor. Finally, she spots the glint of the silver coin in the flickering light. She reaches for it and holds it between her fingers.

She is so elated that she rushes out and calls to her friends and neighbors to whom she had earlier expressed her worry over the missing coin. Come on over! We're celebrating! I found my lost coin!

The meaning is similar to the Lost Sheep. The lost coin represents a lost sinner. And the party represents God's joy in a sinner repenting and coming to him.

A Matter of Focus

How we view these parables has a lot to do with how we view the Church's mission. Is our job to take care of the needs of the righteous who have gathered into our congregations? Certainly. But what about the lost who seldom or never attend? What about the husband of the faithful wife who stays at home to watch sports? What about those in our churches who seem to drop out of regular attendance? Who goes and searches for them until they find them and discover the reason for their straying?

What about the people who now live in the community that surrounds the church building? Once church people lived there, but now the neighborhood has changed. Who will seek after them? What about the Muslims? The Hindus? The agnostics? The younger generation that has fallen away? What about their spiritual welfare? What about their children? What about the lost?

Who is seeking the lost? Or have we gotten like the Pharisees, with a sense of superiority, blaming the lost for their sinful lifestyles and not caring at all about their eternal plight?

These two parables and the next (the Lost Son) reveal God as a Searching Father, looking for the lost, actively seeking them, and rejoicing when they are found.

"There is rejoicing in the presence of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:10)

An essential part of God's character is grace, extending favor and mercy to the undeserving. In Jesus, we see an active program of seeking out the hurting and oppressed, the blind and the imprisoned (Luke 4:18-19). This is the message of the cross, the message of grace, the message of active love.

One important part of this series of lessons are three to five Discussion Questions in each lesson. We learn by reflecting on what we have been taught, processing it, and thinking through its implications. Don't skip this step or you will have gained head knowledge without heart knowledge! I encourage you to write out your own answer to each question, perhaps in a journal. If you are studying with others, discuss it. If you are studying online, click on the web address (URL) following the question and read others' answers or post your own. (Note: You'll need to register on the Forum before you can post your own answers.

Q1. (Luke 15:1-10) What do the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin teach disciples about God's heart? In what way do these parables represent a contrast to the murmuring of the Pharisees? How should a disciple implement Jesus' value of seeking the lost in his or her own community?

Parable of the Lost Son or the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32; §173)

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, a detail from 'The Return of the Prodigal Son' (1667-70)
Bartolome Esteban Murillo, a detail from 'The Return of the Prodigal Son' (1667-70), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, oil on canvas, 236.1 x 261 cm. Full image.

Now we come to a favorite -- the Parable of the Lost Son or Prodigal Son, found only in Luke. The context is still the murmuring of the Pharisees and scribes about Jesus associating with sinners and tax collectors (Luke 15:1-2). In response, Jesus has told two stories about rejoicing when the lost is found -- the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. Now he tells a third parable.

Giving the Younger Son His Share (Luke 15:11-12)

"11 Jesus continued: 'There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, "Father, give me my share of the estate." So he divided his property between them.'" (Luke 15:11-12)

The three characters are introduced at once: a man with two sons -- a common enough occurrence. What was very uncommon was the youngest's request to inherit his share of the estate prior to his father's death -- and the father's willingness to grant his request.

The father is depicted as a wealthy farmer with servants and lands. His sons would have enjoyed privileged status in the community. But the youngest isn't satisfied with his lot. He wants everything that will be his, and he wants it now!

Inheritance laws in Israel were designed to favor the older son, giving him a double share, probably with the purpose of keeping a family's land holdings together and preserving the family farm intact.7 If there were four sons, the older son would receive two shares, with each of the other three sons one share apiece. Typically, the older son would be the executor and assume the role as family head after his father's death. Sometimes an older son would decide not to split up the family holdings between the brothers (Luke 12:13).

Dividing up a father's estate before his death was known8 but frowned upon.9 But if this were to happen, the father would continue to enjoy the usufruct, that is, "the right to utilize and enjoy the profits and advantages of something belonging to another so long as the property is not damaged or altered."

Squandering Wealth in Wild Living (Luke 15:13)

"Not long after that, the younger son got together10 all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living." (Luke 15:13)

So long as his father is alive, his sons have a responsibility to support their father each with his share of the family wealth, but the younger son ignores this and spends it all on himself, squandering it.11 His focus is on "wild living" (NIV)12 -- wine, women,13 and song. The money might have lasted for a few years, but then he is broke -- a destitute foreigner in a strange land.

Reduced to Feeding Swine (Luke 15:14-16)

His friends desert him, his Ferrari is repossessed, he is evicted from his penthouse apartment. He is out on the street.

"14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything." (Luke 15:14-15)

There is a prolonged famine that puts everyone, even average farmers, on the edge of survival. Where the prodigal son might have gotten a job in normal times, now few are hiring. Crops have failed, and, in the agrarian economy of the first century, the landless are out of luck.

The son eventually finds a job, but the job requires him to feed carob pods14 to swine -- and he can't even eat the pods he is feeding the pigs. Only the very poor would eat such food.15

Not only is his food almost non-existent, his job of feeding swine is considered abhorrent, since swine are unclean animals for Jews. For a Jewish man, nothing could be lower! There isn't even anyone to help him by giving alms. Jesus says, "no one gave him anything" (Luke 14:16b). He is in a "far country" and "the practice of almsgiving was little observed among the Greeks and Romans."16 The picture Jesus paints is of a man reduced to the lowest of the low. There is no direction to go but up.

"17 When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' 20 So he got up and went to his father." (Luke 15:17-20a)

He begins to compose a confession to say to his father. His apology includes four essential points:

  1. He confesses sin against God -- expressed in Jewish fashion as "against heaven" -- for his moral failures and sinful lifestyle.
  2. He confesses sin against his father for squandering property that legally and morally should have been conserved to support his father.
  3. He renounces any legal claim to sonship. Though he is a son by birth, his father would need to use his older brother's resources to support him, since his father has already divided the property. He recognizes that he has no legal claim to the rights of sonship.
  4. He asks to be hired as a servant at the estate. While his father no longer legally owns the estate, he is still running it, and will do so as long as he is physically able.

The Prodigal has worked out what he will say and how he should say it.

The Father's Compassion (Luke 15:20b-21)

"20b But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21 The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'" (Luke 15:20b-21)

I love verse 20: "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him." The father has been longing for his son's return for many years. His eyes often turn to the road coming into the estate. This afternoon he glances up to the road as he has thousands of times before.

Far down the road is the figure of a man coming towards the house. The father recognizes his son's characteristic walk when he is far off. The old man gets up and begins to run to his son.

On the one side is the son, rehearsing his speech, afraid that his father will not receive him, moving at an uncertain pace toward the house. And on the other side is the father running, running, his robes blowing behind him as he hurries to his son whom he has longed for.

This is no stiff, awkward meeting. The father throws his arms around his son in a happy embrace and kisses him as a sign of welcome and love. The son begins his rehearsed speech about sin and lack of worthiness, but the father stops him.

Kill the Fatted Calf (Luke 15:22-23)

The father turns to the servants who have tagged along after the running father:

"22 Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate." (Luke 15:22-23)

What is necessary now is a proper celebration of the father's joy.

  • The best robe. He honors the son who has dishonored himself.
  • A ring. He lavishes on the boy a sign of his love and wealth.17
  • Sandals on his feet. His boy is destitute, barefoot. The father is quick to clothe him and care for his needs. Sandals were the sign of a freeman as opposed to a slave.
  • The fatted calf. A man of the father's station would have a calf that had been specially fed in order to be ready for a special occasion such as this.

Dead and Alive Again (Luke 15:24)

The father calls for a feast and a celebration.

"'For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate."18 (Luke 15:24)

The father expresses his joy in extravagant language. Dead, lost. That is the way it had seemed from the father's perspective. But now his son for whom he had despaired of hope was now alive and found! So far, this falls in line with the previous parables -- losing, finding, and celebrating.

The Older, Stay-at-Home Brother

There is a second part of the parable that we must ponder if we want to understand Jesus' whole teaching in this passage. The parable so far has been about sinners being found. Now Jesus parable turns to those who are trying to live righteous lives.

The unfairness of the father receiving the undeserving son bothers the older son. Grace sticks in his craw. Sibling rivalry is on display.

Hearing the Celebration (Luke 15:25-30)

"25 Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'19 The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him." (Luke 15:25-28)

The older son remains adamant. He begins to blame his father.

"29 Look! All these years I've been slaving20 for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!" (Luke 15:29-30)

The elder brother's attitude reminds me of Jonah. God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, Israel's greatest enemy, to call them to repentance. And when they repent, instead of rejoicing at their salvation, Jonah is angry that God would forgive Israel's enemy.

Everything I Have Is Yours (Luke 15:31-32)

In the parable, the father remonstrates with his son.

"'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.'" (Luke 15:31)

We can be angry with God, too. Perhaps because we haven't really gotten to know the Father, to enjoy his best blessings and glory in his bounty. Perhaps our religion, like the Pharisees', has been reduced to joyless duty. The father explains,

"But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." (Luke 15:32)

The father ends with an explanation of the idea that concludes each of the "Lost" Parables: The lost is found! We must celebrate!

This parable has a personal application we must learn from. But, as mentioned, it has a larger meaning. The father is God. The younger son represents Jewish sinners. The older son stands for the self-righteous Pharisees who can't accept the concept of grace, God's love for undeserving sinners. This parable and all the "Lost" Parables include a strong warning to the Jewish leaders. Sadly, they rejected God's purpose for them (Luke 7:30) and turned the nation away from the Messiah God sent to save them.

As we probe for meaning, we need to pause. We get into difficulty when we try to press any parable. Parables are only illustrations Jesus is using to make a point, but no illustration has complete correspondence on every point, as would a full allegory.

Let's consider some implications.

  1. God does not prevent us from sinning and rebelling. We have freedom to do so.
  2. Repentance is necessary for us to return to God. Without repentance we act as if we have a right to something. Repentance recognizes and confesses our moral bankruptcy and changes direction. Repentance is a strong theme here, since Jesus mentions it in each of these three parables (Luke 15:7, 10, 17-19).
  3. Even though he loves us immensely, God waits patiently until we "come to our senses." We can't talk, pursue, or persuade people into repenting. It is a conviction they must come to by themselves with the help of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8). Of course, the Holy Spirit can work strongly through anointed preaching and witnessing, but without the Holy Spirit's work, such preaching can come across as judgmental.
  4. The sinner is morally bankrupt and has absolutely no claim on the Father, only the Father's love.
  5. God our Father is ready to show abundant mercy. The son deserves nothing, but the father heaps upon him the privileges of sonship. These are not due to merit but to mercy. Part of the charm of this story is the utter graciousness of the father contrasted with the stinginess and jealousy of the older son.

If this is the way my Father in heaven feels towards the wayward and sinful -- full of compassion and mercy -- so must I nurture his attitude toward the lost around me. As a disciple I must not be proud or self-righteous, but boast only of the grace of God. It is not a matter of fairness toward sinners, but of love. And we, if we are older brothers, need to learn both to seek the lost like our Father seeks and to celebrate what our Father celebrates.

Q2. (Luke 15:11-32) What does this parable have in common with the Parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin? What does the parable tell us about our Father's way of operating and his values? In what ways does the older son hold his father's values? In what ways does he lack them? What should disciples learn from this parable to equip them for ministry?

1.2 The Father's Forgiveness and Mercy

The Parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Lost Son show us a Father who is searching, seeking out his lost children. This leads us to consider two parables that further illustrate the Father's forgiveness and mercy.

Parable of the Two Debtors (Luke 7:41-43, 47, §83)

Also known as the Parable of the Two Cancelled Debts

The Parable of the Two Debtors, found only in Luke, is tucked into the midst of a larger account of the anointing by a sinful woman (Luke 7:36-50). I'll recap it briefly.

Jesus has been invited to dinner by a somewhat hostile, well-to-do Pharisee named Simon. Simon doesn't invite Jesus because he wants to be a disciple, but rather because he believes that hosting a famous rabbi will enhance Simon's reputation as a social power in town -- and perhaps provide an opportunity to trip up the Healer.

Anointing by a sinful woman
'Anointing by a sinful woman' unknown artist. If you know the artist, please let me know so that I can give appropriate credit.

Somehow, a woman of the town, a known sinner, comes to the house to see the famous guest. Weeping, she begins to wet Jesus' feet with her tears and anoint them with an expensive perfume that fills the house with its fragrance. Simon thinks to himself that Jesus can't be much of a prophet, if he doesn't know the kind of woman this is. Jesus knows Simon's thoughts.

First, Jesus asks permission to speak, and then tells a short parable to make a point. The story recalls the appreciation one would feel to be absolved of the crushing and fearful load of debt to a moneylender, one who has the power to throw non-payers into debtor's prison.

"41 'Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?'

43 Simon replied, 'I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.'

"You have judged correctly," Jesus said." (Luke 7:41-43)

Five hundred denarii might amount to a year and a half's wages. Fifty denarii might amount to one month's wages. The purpose of the parable, of course, is to point out that the person who is forgiven the greater debt would be expected to have greater gratitude to the creditor than the one forgiven less.

Jesus uses the parable to contrast Simon's lack of warmth in welcoming his guest with the woman's extravagant expression of love with her kisses and anointing (verses 44-46). The point is:

"Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven -- for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little." (Luke 7:47)

The woman came to Jesus with overflowing thankfulness because she knew he had forgiven her many sins. I am guessing she had been to Jesus' meetings and heard his promises of God's love and forgiveness. But Simon had no sense of thankfulness or love toward Jesus at all.

In this instance, the parable itself isn't the center of the teaching; rather it prepares the hearers for Jesus' public declaration of forgiveness of the woman's sins.21

Q3. (Luke 7:41-43, 47) According to Jesus' Parable of the Two Debtors, do you think the woman was saved prior to the dinner or during the dinner? How effusive is your love for Jesus? How should we as disciples express our gratitude for salvation?

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-35, §136)

(Also known as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Ungrateful Servant, or Wicked Servant)
Harold Copping (British illustrator, 1863-1932), 'The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.'
Harold Copping (British illustrator, 1863-1932), 'The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.'

The parable begins with the words:

"The kingdom of heaven is like ...."

Jesus is trying to help his disciples distinguish the nature of his heavenly kingdom from what they expected -- that the Messiah would restore David's physical kingdom and free the Jews from their oppressors.

Indeed, several parables begin this way.22 In Lesson 7 I have grouped several of these parables to be considered together. But we will consider this parable here under the theme of God's love and forgiveness.

A Massive Debt (Matthew 18:24-27)

Peter has just asked Jesus a question:

"21 'Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?' 22 Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.'" (Matthew 18:21-22)

Now Jesus illustrates his answer with a parable.

"23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts23 with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him." (Matthew 18:23-24)

It is obvious in this parable that this king is powerful and fabulously wealthy. From time to time the king would audit his books to make sure he wasn't being cheated by his underlings. His bookkeeper finds an unpaid debt of 10,000 talents. A "talent" (talanton, the denomination of money referred to in the Parable of the Talents, Lesson 11.2) was first a weight, then a unit of coinage. In general, one Tyrian talent would be worth about 6,000 denarii,24 a denarius being the average amount that a laborer might earn for one day's work. If you calculate that a day laborer working six days per week might earn $150 to $200 USD, here's how you might calculate this administrator's debt:

10,000 talents = $15 to $20 million USD

Considering the sums involved, I would guess that the debtor here is probably a provincial governor or perhaps a tax farmer who had agreed to remit to the king a specific amount of taxes for a tax district.25 It is a staggering debt!

Foreclosure and Slavery (Matthew 18:25)

Alas, the debtor couldn't pay -- not even a portion!

"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." (Matthew 18:25)

Perhaps he had collected the taxes, but then invested them in some scheme that had failed miserably -- or perhaps they had been stolen by bandits during transfer to the king, or even lost when a ship went down. We don't know.

In ancient times, there were two main remedies for unpaid debt: either (1) sale of the person's goods to pay the debt, or (2) debtor's prison, or both.

Debtor's prison was not a punishment so much as a means to induce the debtor's relatives and friends to collect money to pay his debt in order to bring about his release. But in light of the immense size of this administrator's debt, there is no way his family could be induced to pay even a portion to get him out of debtor's prison. Nor would the sale of the debtor's estate cover such a massive debt. Nevertheless, his property and lands ae seized to be sold for what the king can get out of them and the administrator and his family are ordered sold into slavery -- a common fate for those who couldn't pay a debt.26 (For more, see Appendix 6. Slavery in Jesus' Day.)

Mercy (Matthew 18:26-27)

The administrator's case is hopeless, so he does the only thing he can do. He begs.

"26 The servant fell on his knees27 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." (Matthew 18:26-27)

The administrator doesn't ask for mercy. Rather he asks for time. He requests the king's patience and rashly promises to "pay back everything." The king knows that such a promise of repayment is both impossible and silly. And he realizes that even if he gains a pittance from the sale of the administrator's estate and the value of his family as slaves,28 it won't even make a dent in the massive debt owed. So the servant's master takes pity29 on him, cancels the entire debt,30 and releases him.31 (verse 27). The king's compassion wipes out the entire obligation. The administrator is clear of his immense debt! He is free!

The Tiny Debt (Matthew 18:28-30)

In a happy daze, the administrator begins to leave the palace grounds. Now the plot thickens.

"28 But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. 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 you back.' 30 But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt." (Matthew 18:28-30)

The man sees one of his fellow government servants, one whom he has loaned 100 denarii, worth about 100 days' work, perhaps $15,000 to 20,000 in US currency. It is a considerable sum, but nothing compared to the debt our administrator has just been forgiven, that is, $15 to $20 million USD. It a mere 0.1% of the amount!

Yet in anger the man grabs the fellow servant violently and begins to choke him. He demands immediate payment. When the fellow servant asks for patience and promises to pay it in full -- which was probably just possible with such a sum -- the man refuses and has him thrown into debtor's prison until the debt is paid in full.

His action might be understandable and perhaps even legal, but in light of the mercy he has just received, it is grossly inappropriate.

The King's Wrath (Matthew 18:31-34)

But others have seen the ugly incident.

"31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed32 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 mercy33 on your fellow servant just as I had on you?'" (Matthew 18:31-33)

The king recalls the man to his throne room. Livid with rage, he shouts that he is "wicked."34 He has forgiven the man an astronomical sum. Why couldn't his debtor have the common decency to do the same for a relatively small sum? To refuse to do so was an insult to the king's own mercy.

"In anger his master turned him over35 to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed." (Matthew 18:34)

This is more than debtor's prison. This is the kind of active torture36 reserved for the king's enemies. In Jesus' day people would have nodded sadly. Though torture was prohibited by Jewish law as inhumane, scourging was commonly used by the Romans to interrogate prisoners. Jeremias observes:

"Torture was regularly employed in the East against a disloyal governor, or one who was tardy in the delivery of the taxes, in order to discover where they had hidden the money, or to extort the amount from their relations or friends. The non-Jewish practice in legal proceedings ... is drawn upon to intensify the frightfulness of the punishment."37

Jesus intends this parable to stick in his disciples' memories.

Jesus' Warning (Matthew 18:35)

But then Jesus says something unexpected and terrible.

"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." (Matthew 18:35)

Jesus refers to God as "my heavenly Father" in an intimate and formal title. Forgiveness "from your heart" is in contrast to forgiveness with one's lips only.38 The forgiveness must be genuine.

The Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12, 15)

Jesus is quite serious about forgiveness! Consider the fifth petition of the Lord's Prayer, and Jesus' subsequent commentary on it:

"Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." (Matthew 6:12)

Three Greek words are used in relationship to sin in the Lord's Prayer in Matthew and Luke. Christians from different traditions use different words as they recite the Lord's Prayer -- "debt," "trespass," and "sin."39 But they amount to the same thing.

This prayer, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" is a sort of trick prayer. It is a prayer Jesus uses to teach his disciples the elements of praying aright. The Greek word hōs, is a conjunction marking a point of comparison, meaning "as."40 Jesus teaches us to ask God to forgive us "as" we forgive others. In other words, if we forgive others only a little and hold grudges, we are asking God to forgive us only a little and bear a grudge against us.

Then Jesus clarifies this point:

"For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matthew 6:14-15)

How could it be plainer?

Love and Forgiveness

If we are to know and understand God, we must love. He is filled with grace; so must we be. We must know and understand forgiveness. If we reject this part of God, we reject the essence of who He is (1 John 4:16-21). So when Jesus puts it so bluntly -- you must forgive in order to be forgiven (Matthew 6:14-15) -- we dare not reject this truth.

Some ask: Isn't this a sort of "works righteousness"? If you are required to do something before you can be forgiven, then isn't this righteousness by works? No.

To be free you must let go of unforgiveness. Is that meritorious so as to earn heaven? No, not any more than repentance from sin is meritorious. We don't earn heaven by repentance or by forgiving. But we must let go of our bondage to sin and hate if we want to receive something better. (For more on forgiveness, read my article, "Don't Pay the Price of Counterfeit Forgiveness,"

My dear friend, I know that it can sometimes be very, very hard to forgive. Sometimes it seems impossible. So here is a place to start. Pray this kind of prayer. "Lord, I know I should forgive so-and-so, but I can't seem to be able to. So I ask you to make me want to forgive. Soften my heart, I pray. In Jesus' name and with his power. Amen." Don't keep bitterness. Start somewhere to rid yourself of it, and you'll be set free indeed.

Q4. (Matthew 18:23-35) In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, where do you see justice? Where do you see grace? Where do you see greed? Where do you see unforgiveness? What lessons from this parable are disciples to incorporate into their lives?

Jesus' Parables for Disciples, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats

We've been studying Jesus' parables that talk about the Father's seeking and joy in finding the lost. A parable about forgiveness that engenders love in the recipient. And a parable about the need to forgive. Jesus is teaching us what his disciples are called to be -- sons of the Father!


Father, forgiveness is so hard, especially when the people who hurt us are close to us. Help us to learn to forgive, to will to forgive those who sin against us. Help us to love like You do. To love the lost like You do, and to seek them with the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. In His holy name we pray. Amen.


References and Abbreviations

[1] In Matthew, the context of the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12-13) is found among Jesus' teaching about little children, then the "little ones" who believe in Jesus (Matthew 18:1-10). Jesus concludes the parable with the words, "In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost" (Matthew 18:14).

[2] The verb "welcomes" (NIV, NRSV), "receives" (ESV, KJV) is prosdechomai, "receive," here, "receive in a friendly manner" (BDAG 877, 1a).

[3] The Pharisees followed the Rabbinical dictum: "Let not a man associate with the wicked, not even to bring him to the law" (M. Ex. 18:1 (Luke 65a), cited by Strack and Billerbeck II, 208; cf. I, 498f).

[4] Jeremias, Parables, p. 133.

[5] Psalm 119:176; Isaiah 53:6; Jeremiah 50:6; Ezekiel 34:8, 11, 16, 31; Matthew 10:6; 15:24; 18:10-14; 1 Peter 2:25.

[6] I've heard some foolishness about the shepherd having to break a sheep's legs, but I've never seen it in any reputable source. The parable isn't about having to correct the sheep, but about the joy the shepherd has in finding his missing sheep.

[7] Numbers 27:8-11; 36:7-9; Deuteronomy 21:17.

[8] Tobit 8:20-21.

[9] Sirach 33:20-24.

[10] The younger son's share of the estate may have been partly in land, but the phrase, "got together all he had," indicates that he sold what he needed to and turned his share into cash. The Greek word, synagō, here has the sense "turn into cash" rather than its normal meaning "gather together" (Marshall, Luke, p. 607).

[11] The Greek word is diaskopizō, "scatter, disperse," and in our passage, "waste, squander" (BDAG 236, 2).

[12] The Greek adverb is asōtōs, "wastefully, prodigally" (BDAG 148), from the noun asōtia, "wastefulness" then "reckless abandon, debauchery, dissipation, profligacy" (BDAG 148, see Ephesians 5:18; Titus 1:6; 1 Peter 4:4). The English word "prodigal," which we often use to name this parable, comes from a Latin word prodigere, "to drive away, squander."

[13] His brother protests to the father that the prodigal brother has wasted all his inheritance on prostitutes (Luke 15:30).

[14] These are the pods of Ceratonia siliqua, a Palestinian tree.

[15] Rabbi Acha (about AD 320) remarks, "When the Israelites are reduced to carob pods, then they repent" (Lv. R. 35 (Luke 132c); SB II, 213-215, cited by Marshall, Luke, p. 609).

[16] Green, Luke, p. 581.

[17] The ring might also represent authority, especially if it were a signet ring, but we are not told this. Marshall (Luke, p. 610) argues that the ring is a symbol of authority, especially of royal authority, and cites 1 Maccabees 6:15; Josephus, Antiquities 12:360; and Esther 3:10; 8:8. However, I disagree. That all rings represent authority seems to me to be stretching the evidence.

[18] "Celebrate" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "make merry" (KJV) is euphrainō, "to be glad or delighted, enjoy oneself, rejoice, celebrate" (BDAG 414-415, 2).

[19] "Safe and sound" is Greek hygiainō, "to be in good physical health, be healthy" (BDAG 1023, 1).

[20] "Served" (ESV, KJV), "slaved" (NIV), "worked like a slave" (NRSV) is douleuō, "perform the duties of a slave, serve, obey (BDAG 259, 2aα). He could have used a milder word diakoneō, "to serve," but he uses the stronger word that refers directly to slavery.

[21] For a full exposition of the larger passage, see

[22] "Like a man who sowed good seed..." (Matthew 13:24 = Mark 4:26); "Like a mustard seed..." (Matthew 13:31 = Mark 4:30 = Luke 13:18); "Like yeast that a woman took..." (Matthew 13:33); "Like a treasure hidden in a field" (Matthew 13:44); "Like a net that was let down into the lake..." (Matthew 13:47); "Like the owner of a house..." (Matthew 13:52); "Like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants" (Matthew 18:23); "Like a landowner to went ... to hire men to work in his vineyard" (Matthew 20:1); "Like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son" (Matthew 22:2).

[23] "Settle accounts" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "take account" (KJV) is synairō, used here in a commercial sense as "settle accounts, cast up accounts" (BDAG 964). Also in verse 24 as "reckoning/reckon," "settle/settlement." "Accounts" is the common noun logos. We often see logos used in the sense of, "word, message." But here (and in Matthew 18:23) it is used in a special sense as "computation, reckoning" (BDAG 603, 2b).

[24] "At 6,000 drachmas or denarii to the Tyrian talent, a day laborer would need to work 60,000,000 days to pay off the debt. Even assuming an extraordinary payback rate of 10 talents per year, the staggering amount would ensure imprisonment for at least 1,000 years" (Talanton, BDAG 988).

[25] Josephus tells of an occasion when Ptolemy Ephinanes, King of Egypt (reigned 203-181 BC), asked principal men in his empire to bid for the position of tax farmer or tax collector for the provinces of Celesyria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria. They bid 8,000 talents -- and were accused by Ptolemy of conspiring to bid too low. Whoever bid successfully for such a contract would be instantly liable to the king for a debt of 8,000 talents (Josephus, Antiquities, 12.4.4).

[26] Jewish law prohibited sale of a man except for theft, and sale of the wife was forbidden, so this parable was cast in a non-Jewish context (Jeremias, Parables, p. 211, citing Sota 3.8; Tos Sota 2.9).

[27] Proskyneō, "to express in attitude or gesture one's complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure, (fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully." Frequently used to designate the custom of prostrating oneself before persons and kissing their feet or the hem of their garment, the ground, etc. The Persians did this in the presence of their deified king and the Greeks before a divinity or something holy (BDAG 883, b). The KJV "worshipped" expresses a chiefly British, now archaic, use of the term, "to honor a human being."

[28] Jeremias (Parables, p. 211) notes that the average value of a slave was 500 to 2,000 denarii, citing b Qid 18a (Bar.); B.Q. 4.5.

[29] Took pity" (NIV), "out of pity for him" (ESV, NRSV), "was moved with compassion" (KJV) is splanchnizomai, "have pity, feel sympathy, with or for someone" (BDAG 938), from splanchnon, "the viscera, inward parts, entrails," considered in ancient times as the center of the emotions.

[30] "Cancelled the debt" (NIV), "forgave the debt" (NRSV, KJV) is two words, daneion, "loan" (BDAG 212) and aphiēmi, here, "to release from legal or moral obligation or consequence, cancel, remit, pardon" (BDAG 156, 2).

[31] The word "let him go" (NIV), "released" (NRSV), "loosed" (KJV) is apolyō, a legal term meaning, "to grant acquittal, set free, release, pardon a prisoner" (BDAG 117, 1).

[32] Lypeō, "become sad, sorrowful, distressed" (BDAG 604, 2a).

[33] Eleeō, "to be greatly concerned about someone in need, have compassion/mercy/pity" (BDAG 315).

[34] Ponēros, "pertaining to being morally or socially worthless, wicked, evil, bad, base, vicious, degenerate" (BDAG 853, 1aα).

[35] Paradidōmi, "hand over, turn over, give up a person," as a technical term of police and courts, "hand over into [the] custody [of]" (BDAG 762, 1a).

[36] "Jailers to be tortured" (NIV), "to be tortured" (NRSV), "tormenters" (KJV), is basanistēs, "guard in a prison, frequently under orders to torture prisoners, oppressive jailer," in our verse, "merciless jailer" (BDAG 168). The word is closely related to basanos, "severe pain occasioned by punitive torture, torture, torment" (BDAG 168).

[37] Jeremias, Parables, pp. 212-213.

[38] Matthew 15:8, quoting Isaiah 29:13.

[39] "Debt" (Matthew 6:12), Greek opheilēma, 1. "debt = what is owed, one's due." 2. in a religious sense debt = sin (as Aramaic hobah in rabbinical literature) (BDAG 743). "Trespass" (Matthew 6:14-15, KJV), Greek paraptōma, "in imagery of one making a false step so as to lose footing: a violation of moral standards, offense, wrongdoing, sin" (BDAG 770).[39] Paraptōma is a compound word from para- "beside or near" + piptō "to fall." Thayer defines it as "a lapse or deviation from truth and uprightness; a sin, misdeed" (Thayer 485). "Sin" (Luke 11:4), Greek hamartia "sin. The action itself as well as its result, every departure from the way of righteousness..." (BDAG 43-44). Literally, "a failing to hit the mark" (Thayer 30).

[40] Hōs, BDAG 1103-1106.

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