The Unforgiving Tax Collector

By: Chris Townley

Jesus tells some perplexing stories relating to forgiveness. One of those perplexing parables is about a tax farmer who is prone toward a credulous unforgiveness. 

The story Jesus tells reads like this in Matthew 18:23-35, 

23 Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.

26 But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

28 But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. 29 His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

31 When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.

35 That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.

Scene 1: The king in the story is a bookkeeper and Jesus, the shrewd storyteller that he is, makes the story initially about law, not grace. The king is getting his books right and first up in the story is a servant who owes him 10,000 talents which means the servant has racked up a debt of unpayable millions. 

The servant was, most likely, a “tax farmer.” A tax farmer would bid on collecting taxes for the king… so, a tax collector, right? I assume you get it. At this point in the movement of Matthew 18, the idea of a “tax collector” is quite interesting. 

First, the man compiling the story from Jesus is Matthew… the? Tax collector! Second, Jesus just said to treat the three times unrepentant person as a? Tax collector! Now here we are with a collector of taxes in debilitating debt. Masterful storytelling even if it is a bit complicated. 

The price to satisfy his debt is also exorbitant… everything of his, including his wife and children, was to be sold. It should be noted at this point: this would not have helped the king receive the money he had lost. But it was sometimes what the powerful authorities did to make a point – don’t lose my money or else!

At the moment of hearing the cost of repaying his debt, the servant falls before the king and asks for “patience to repay the debt.” Did you catch this? What does the servant ask for?

… (say it with me!). Patience to repay!

BUT the king has pity on the man, he felt compassion in his gut, and he released him from the debt entirely! Complete forgiveness! Interestingly, the servant couldn’t fathom such a thing… which leads us to the second scene.

Scene 2: So the newly forgiven servant goes and finds a man who owes him a small sum, especially in light of the debt he had accrued. Once he finds the man he grabs him by the throat insisting he pay back his debt… soooooooo, that escalated quickly. He does not feel compassion in his gut, but rather rage that leads to violence.

Why do you think the freshly forgiven servant acts like this? (Could it be he didn’t receive the forgiveness and thought he was still going to repay the debt… so he got to work gathering money?)

Back to the story: Let me just say it, a throat grab is intense. And the man being choked begged for patience and a little more time, which is the same phrase uttered by the man with his hands around his neck. But the collector wouldn’t have it and tossed him in prison until his debt could be paid. 

Which begs the question: What the heck?! Or more apt, how is that going to get a debt paid? How is this fair?

In this instance, the burden to repay the debt falls on more people as friends and family would have to pool resources to make the pay back a reality. But… 

Scene 3: Other servants of the king catch wind of the hypocritical action and start to get upset. Certainly news of the benevolence of the king to forgive the massive debt had made the rounds and everyone seems to take it personally that forgiveness is not again extended, and they report him to the king. No stitches for these snitches, only justice. 

Naturally, the king is livid and he wants to know why the man didn’t extend the mercy that he had already been given? 

PAUSE: It’s a great question isn’t it? Why don’t we? 

The first servant was so busy making plans for his own life that he missed the gift he’d been given. He never noticed the actual grace of the king. The servant chooses a losing life instead of a gracious death… and is thus condemned to live out the rest of his days aligned with the hardness of his heart. 


Jesus finishes the passage by reminding us that forgiveness must flow from the depths of who we are, our hearts.

And the only thing that can keep us out of the joy of the resurrection is to join the unforgiving servant in his refusal to die.

Meet the author:

I have long held the dream of planting a church that shares leadership and centers life around the table. After my wife, Kate, and I moved to PHX in 2014 as she began medical school the dream took on a new life. We partnered to plant Kaleo Phoenix in 2018. I love joining people as we walk the path of being transformed by the Spirit of Jesus whether we are drinking good coffee, sharing a meal in the neighborhood, or playing basketball.

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