In a parable, our Lord Jesus Christ gives us a God’s eye view of sin and forgiveness (Matt 18:23-35).
An official owes his king ten thousand talents. The king is the Lord. You and I are the official. His debt represents our sinfulness. So, when Jesus describes this debt, he is actually describing our sinfulness, which concerns us personally and is worth considering carefully.
There are different estimates as to the actual value of ten thousand talents. We know that a talent was the largest unit of money at the time. It was worth about six thousand denarii, which was a day’s pay.
So, a talent was more than 15 years of pay. So, even if a day’s pay was equivalent to less than half of the current minimum wage in Michigan, ten thousand talents would still be worth more than 2 billion dollars. Imagine the burden of a debt like that! It is an impossibly large sum — more than a laborer could make in two thousand lifetimes.
It will help us to understand Jesus’ rhetoric a bit further if we also consider the word here for ten thousand — it’s μυρίος, which is the largest Greek numeral — and as such, it is sometimes used rhetorically and less technically to mean “countless” or “innumerable” — it’s where we get the word myriad. So the servant’s debt to his master is the largest numeral of the largest unit of money. In other words, it’s as big as it can be — that’s the point, I think.
And it’s also possible that Jesus is making an allusion — because this isn’t the first time that the sum of ten thousand talents is mentioned in scripture. In the book of Esther, Haman, the enemy of the Jews, feeling himself insulted by the Jew Mordecai, offers to the Persian King Ahasuerus — also known as Xerxes — ten thousand talents of silver if he will agree to destroy all Jews (Esther 3:9).
Haman was indebted to his king ten thousand talents, just like the official in today’s parable. And for what? — for seeking “to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate all Jews”(Esther 3:13) — the people of God. So this sum of ten thousand talents here is blood money. The debt of the servant in today’s parable represents our sin — and the wages of sin is death — and that death is born by the true Messiah of the Jews — Jesus Christ.
By our sins, we participate in the failed attempt to destroy Jesus, just as Haman, by his debt of ten thousand talents, participates in a failed attempt to destroy the Jews. In both cases, the Lord triumphs over sin and death. Through Esther, he delivers the Jews from oppression in Persia. And Jesus he raises from the dead. So there are meaningful parallels here, which show more clearly that this enormous debt is an image of sin and death.
It is fitting that Jesus describes all our sinfulness with a parable about money — because the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10). But even if we think our sins don’t involve money, we mustn’t think that if that this isn’t about us — we must not leave this comfortably in the abstract.
We should feel invited to place ourselves in this parable as the servant, to examine our own consciences, and to discover our own sins against God and against our fellow servants. Sins perish in the light and thrive in the darkness — so we must name them and confess them to one another (James 5:16).
I cannot judge you. You and God alone know which sins trouble your hearts — and I can only know my own sins. We must all bring our sins to God in holy repentance, as the servant did at first — falling on his knees and begging for the patience and kindness of the Lord. When we do, we will receive the Lord’s forgiveness — which is more than the servant begged for.
Actually, when the extent of his debt is revealed, the servant stupidly asks for more time to pay back his king — it should be clear to us that this is a sum no servant could ever repay. It’s an absurdly large sum! This, I think, is how it must sound to the Lord if we ever say that we’ll make it up to him by being good people for the rest of our lives. That won’t make it up to him! That is good and necessary, but that doesn’t mean that it’s enough. Nothing we do can ever earn our union with God.
We are utterly and absolutely dependent upon his grace. Apart from the energies of God, there is no theosis. We do not partake of the divine nature by our own power, but by the power of God, with which we cooperate. We must make every effort to supplement our faith with virtue, but we must never think that our efforts can succeed unaided (2 Pet 1:3-5). They spring from, are supported by, and succeed in and only in the life of God, freely and gratuitously given by God.
So the king does not give his servant more time to pay him back, which would be impossible — no, he forgives the debt completely! He gives more than the servant asks for. The Lord is gracious and we depend upon his grace.
We must realize that our sin is like a debt too large for us to ever repay, and, having received the forgiveness of that debt, let us turn from our sin, repent, and sin no more. We should allow this seemingly inexcusable, impossible forgiveness and lovingkindness to prick our hearts so that we do not remain inert and insensible to our wickedness.[i] With all our hearts, let us turn away from the evils to which we cling and to which we are habituated and enslaved.
This turning, this repentance, this conversion, this μετάνοια begins, as our Lord demonstrates in this parable, with forgiveness. Not only with being forgiven, but also with forgiving others.
Our Lord taught us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt 6:12). Or, a more literal translation is “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” which closely ties the prayer to today’s parable of debts. So as we forgive, we will be forgiven. And if we are to have any hope for ourselves we must have the hope for others that forgiveness expresses.
After receiving the forgiveness of such an enormous amount, the servant should quickly and easily have followed his king’s example when a fellow servant begged for patience regarding a comparably small debt – a hundred denarii – a tiny fraction of what he had been forgiven.
The wrongs we suffer from our fellow servants — which really are wrongs — sometimes terrible wrongs – are nonetheless small when you compare them to the weight of our own sins against the Lord. So, let us remember our own sins and forgive others, as our heavenly Father forgives us.
Do not nurse hurt feelings or brood on wrongs. Do not let resentments grow in your hearts like weeds growing ever deeper roots. For, according to the measure with which you measure, it will be measured to you (Matt 7:2). If you would be forgiven, you must forgive — even those who don’t deserve it — even those who don’t ask for it — as Jesus and Stephen forgave those who were killing them even as they were driving the nails and throwing the stones (Luke 23:33-34; Acts 7:59-60). Let us imitate this self-sacrificial love and forgive everything.
[i] cf. Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 61.1