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Articles, Workshop How-to

The Unforgiving Servant, Lessons and Ideas

This topic is for ALL IDEAS and Lesson plans related to teaching the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Matthew 18:23-35.


This parable is not often taught in Rotation churches because there are so many parables and stories about forgiveness, and also because in Rotation we have to prioritize what we teach. In Rotation we only teach about 10 to 12 different stories per year because we concentrate on them for four to five weeks in a row (our "less is more" philosophy).




The following lesson ideas were originally published in our email newsletter as a Continuing Education Article by writers Phyllis Wezeman and Anna Liechty.

Our email newsletter contains many such resources and links to new resources at our site. Visit here to find out how to subscribe.

© 2009 Phyllis Vos Wezeman & Anna L. Liechty

As we continue a series on the Parables, let’s look at the familiar story of "The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant." To use this information as the basis of a Rotation Set, read the Scripture passages; then use the Springboard Suggestions as a starting point for developing lessons for workshop lesson plans.

Matthew 18:23-35


Discuss the importance of relief sculpture in architectural design. Use books with architectural photography to show how the detail adds to the appearance of a building’s columns or at the capital. Explain that often the images for reliefs were taken from famous stories, including Biblical literature such as the parables. Ask the students to imagine what scene from the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant could be done as a relief to remind the viewer of the story’s message. Ask them, also, to consider what kind of buildings might have been decorated with a relief about forgiveness.

Introduce the importance of scale in architectural design in order to create a sense of grandeur. If possible, visit the largest available public building such as a courthouse in order to experience looking up into a dome or high ceiling. Explain that such extended space impresses those who enter with their own smallness in comparison. Relate such architectural concerns to the story of the Unforgiving Servant. Discuss how the first servant might have felt in the King’s throne room where he was called to account for his debt. Ask the students to consider how the scale of the room might have impacted the servant’s humility. Connect these attitudes to the way we should feel when we enter God’s presence. Discuss what we can do to remind ourselves of God’s grandeur.

Have the class make an enlargement of something simple such as a candy wrapper. Divide the candy wrapper into 1/4" grids and then divide a large piece of white art paper into 3/4" or 1" grids. Have the children fill in one grid at a time using colored markers the same way it is done on the wrapper. Do the details first then the larger areas that might be all the same color. An M & M™ box is a good example of an easy object to enlarge. Point out that by following the pattern but increasing the size of the grids they could easily increase and recreate the image. Compare this understanding of scale to the difference between the amount to be forgiven each of the characters in the parable. Explain that while the students increased their image three or four times, the difference in scale between the two debts would be many thousand times larger. Discuss the obvious point Jesus was making about the debt we owe to our King versus the debts others owe us.

Introduce the idea of perspective by inviting the students to draw pictures that zoom out. Have them draw any scene they wish, or suggest that they draw pictures of their families. Next, challenge them to zoom out to the next level. For example, if they first drew a picture of their parents and siblings, they might zoom out to show their families standing behind the windows of their houses with details of their yards included. The next "zoom" might be to show the house from above as it sits among the city neighborhood, then the city as a part of the map of the state, then the nation, and ultimately the earth or beyond. Explain that playing "zoom" will ultimately take us to a perspective within God’s universe. Point out the importance in the parable of seeing things from another’s point of view, not just selfishly acting from our own small concerns. Use the picture book Zoom by Istvan Banyai (Puffin Paperback, 1998) as inspiration for this activity.

Create a "feelings" book about forgiveness using a variety of fabrics and textures. Have the students brainstorm the words they would use to describe the feelings of the two servants in the story. Ask them to consider how the first servant felt when the king forgave him that huge debt, then how the other servant felt when he was denied forgiveness. Explain that sometimes we can better remember ideas like forgiveness and unforgiveness when we associate them with something we can touch or feel. Have individuals or groups make a page for a book that says "Unforgiveness feels like …" Then have them cut and paste squares of cloth, sandpaper, or other textures that represent the negative feelings that they listed. Next, make a second page that contrasts with the first, "Forgiveness feels like …" using the textures that they would associate with the positive feelings listed. Tie or fasten the two pages together as a literal book of "feelings" about forgiveness.

Make a wall hanging from burlap, muslin, and charcoal to represent our need for repentance and forgiveness. Discuss the message of the parable, that we owe a debt to God we can never repay. Allow the children to touch the burlap, and explain that sometimes in the past people used to wear scratchy cloth like burlap as a reminder to be humble before God. Also demonstrate writing on the muslin with the charcoal. Share that charcoal is made from burned wood and represents ashes that are often used to symbolize the sin in our lives that only God can forgive. Instruct the participants that they are going to create a wall hanging out of these materials as a reminder of our need for God’s mercy and Jesus’ message to forgive one another. Have the children select a verse from the parable such as "forgive your brother or sister from your heart" to write with the charcoal on the muslin. Then attach the muslin with fabric glue to the burlap banner. Create a pocket at the top of the banner for a dowel rod. Display the banner in a classroom or hallway.

Challenge writers to create a story in response to the parable in which characters pass on the misery or the good deed that was done to them. Encourage them to write about what they know; for example, what happens in the classroom after someone has pushed another student down on the playground? Let the students write collaboratively or alone, but encourage them to write a story or draw a cartoon series that shows several negative actions turned around by someone who refuses to "pass on" the angry, unforgiving attitude. Have the individuals or groups share their stories.

Introduce the poetry form known as the Cento – a poem made of up to 100 "borrowed lines" from other sources that are acknowledged or documented. Provide poems about forgiveness, as well as songs or hymn texts that focus on forgiveness. Explain that the goal is to weave the lines or ideas taken from sources into a new poem. After a time to read, copy lines, and rework the ideas into a Cento, invite the group to share their creations, explaining where they located the lines they used. Close by explaining that our lives are like Centos – God is the source of everything we are and have. Like the parable explains, we owe God more than we could ever repay. And, like the Cento, our goal is to create something beautiful with our lives to share with others.

Decorate a plate or a platter with non-toxic permanent paint to create a gift to pass on to another. Fill the plate with goodies such as cookies, dipped pretzels, or fruit and present the taste treats as a gift, requiring only that the recipient passes on the plate filled with other goodies as an offer of friendship and the challenge to keep the gift going. Explain the connection of "passing along the gift" to the parable’s message of offering freely to others what we have so freely been given by God.

Prepare a chocolate fountain and assorted fruits, angel food cake, or pretzels as the tidbits to dip in the chocolate. Enjoy the free flowing fountain and goodies, then relate the fountain to God’s overflowing forgiveness that is ours to enjoy. 

Ask the group to participate in a ritual of "passing the peace." Gather the participants in a circle and explain that they are physically going to offer a gesture or touch to the person on their left, passing the peace clockwise around the circle. Instruct them that the only rule in their communication with one another is that they must not speak, but physically communicate with the next person in a gentle and caring way that represents the commandment Jesus gives that we forgive and care for each other. 

Use body shapes and gestures to contrast the different postures of forgiveness and unforgiveness. Divide the class into two groups. Assign one individual in each group to be the "sculptor." Explain that the others are to be the sculpture and must assume the positions into which the sculptor moves them. Give one sculptor the task of designing non-verbal gestures and postures that suggest an unforgiving attitude; conversely, ask the other to "shape" the physical poses of group mates into open and forgiving gestures. Take turns viewing the "sculptures" designed and discuss how we communicate our attitudes through our physical appearance. Ask which postures reflect the challenge that Jesus gives us in the parable.

Recreate the scene of Peter’s question of Jesus about how many times we must forgive. Challenge the actors to suggest Peter’s smugness at thinking himself generous to forgive even more than the rabbis of the era required. Encourage the character of Jesus to communicate the enormity of the number of times he suggests that people must forgive each other. Debrief the scene with a discussion of the message of the parable that we owe God more than we can ever repay, so how can we deny others the forgiveness God infinitely provides.

Use improvisation and "freeze frame" performance to engage the group in discussing contemporary situations requiring forgiveness. Assign or let the groups come up with their own scenarios that represent daily life opportunities to forgive others from our hearts. For example: someone who steals a video game from a locker, someone who passes along a piece of gossip that is untrue, or a family member who breaks another family member’s cell phone. Just as the guilty party is confronted, call "freeze" and the actors must hold positions and remain silent while the group suggests possible ways to offer forgiveness and resolve the conflict. 

Play a relay game with the object of filling trash baskets faster than the other team(s). Provide or gather a mound of cast off clothing, wadded up paper, empty boxes, and/or miscellaneous unbreakable debris. Instruct the teams that the object is to fill up their trash receptacle before the other teams. One at a time team members race to the pile of "stuff" and select one item to place in the bin identified for their teams, before returning to send the next person in the relay to do the same. Explain that they must hurry, but also that they may stomp or push down the discarded items in the other teams’ baskets, remembering the object is to fill theirs to the top first. After a few lively rounds of "stuff the trash baskets" connect the race to the parable’s message. Ask how anyone can be a "winner" in a race to fill up the garbage. Explain that humans seem to be better at trashing their lives than receiving and giving forgiveness, but that God specializes in "taking out the trash." 

Try a competitive game of balloon smash, then counter it with a cooperative game of balloon lift. For balloon smash, tie a balloon to each person’s ankle with enough string so that the balloon trails on the floor. Instruct the participants to step on other people’s balloons while trying to protect their own. The last one with an intact balloon is the "winner." Then change the game so that the goal is for the group to keep one balloon aloft with taps of their hands for as long as possible. Encourage them to keep beating their best time without letting the balloon touch the ground. Be sure to express forgiveness toward the person who lets the balloon fall. Point out the differences between the two games. Tie the message of the parable to the games’ contrast of being out for oneself versus working together and understanding that any of us is capable of dropping the balloon. 

Involve the participants in a search for hymns about forgiveness. Look in the topical and Scriptural index to identify songs on the theme found in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Choose one or more to sing and discuss the message of the hymn text in relation to Jesus’ words.

Obtain the song, "Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive" (Composer, David Ashley; Text, Rosamond E. Herklots). Practice and present the music as a culmination of the study of the parable.

Use visual images to represent the theme of "new beginnings." Provide pictures from calendars or use art photography that symbolizes forgiveness and an opportunity to begin anew. Consider images such as a sunrise, a gentle rain, or a budding rose. Gather the pictures for a display on a bulletin board or wall titled "Forgiveness Reigns."

View the film Finding Neverland (Director Marc Forster. Performers Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. Miramax, 2004). Discuss the loss that comes from unforgiveness and the importance of love in helping God change the world.

Create puppets from recycled materials such as bottles, paper tubes, cans, or broken objects. Make puppets for each of the characters in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant and use them to re-tell the story.

Have the group search for other Biblical stories about the importance of forgiveness and create puppet presentations to tell those stories. Consider texts such as Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 45:4-15) or Jesus and the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43). 

Research and retell the story of the Japanese families and friends of Fuji Bank employees who folded 10,000 paper cranes to hang in the 9/11 Visitor Center in April 2007, to commemorate the loss of life during the World Trade Center disaster. Explain that each of the origami birds that represent peace in the Japanese culture had been folded by hand. These cranes were the first exhibit at the Visitor Center contributed by a group outside the United States. Discuss Jesus’ message of the role that forgiveness plays in creating peace, and relate the forgiveness necessary on both sides for the United States and Japan to be allies today.

Tell a story from the desert nomads about the importance of forgiveness. Explain that in the harsh climate of the dessert, the rule is that one offers shelter from the sun and something to drink even to one’s enemy. Dramatize the story of someone lost amid burning sand and the scorching heat, only to stumble into the clutches of his or her worst enemy. Yet, amazingly, the rule of the dessert prohibits the enemy from taking advantage; instead the lost wanderer is given a cool sip of water and is offered a shady spot to rest and be restored. Conclude with the moral that life is a struggle no matter where we live. We should all live by the rule of the desert and remember to be forgiving of one another just as the parable teaches.

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"Godspell"This parable is acted out in the movie where Jesus is teaching the disciples. 

Veggie Tales "God Wants Me to Forgive Them?!"

Forgive Us Our Debts  from Nest Entertainment

"After Peter clashes with a tax collector, Jesus speaks to him about forgiveness. Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (also known as the Parable of the Unforgiving Official) with the teachings of Jesus to His disciples. 

Jesus teaches Peter about the power to forgive and how to control his anger at those who do him wrong. Christ tells the story about a man who owes his King ten thousand talents to demonstrate that the ability to forgive comes from our Heavenly Father. In the end, the King takes pity and forgives the man of the debt. Ironically, however, the pardoned man leaves the King’s presence and immediately casts one of his own debtors into prison."

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