Forgiving: the debt

24 When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.25 Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt.26 At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’27 Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.

What v.24 describes as “a huge amount” is literally, “ten thousand talents.” The talent was a unit of coinage of high but varying value depending on its metal content (gold, silver, copper) and its place of origin. As France [706] writes: “A talent was originally a weight (probably about 30 kg.) of metal; when used as a monetary term without specifying the metal involved it would probably have been understood to be of silver. While the exact amount varied, a talent of silver was conventionally reckoned at 6,000 denarii. If one denarius was an acceptable day’s wage for a laborer (see 20:1–15), a single talent would then represent what a laborer might hope to earn in half a lifetime. It was, at all events, a very large sum of money. Ten thousand talents (sixty million denarii; or some 300 tons of silver!) is therefore a sum far outside any individual’s grasp.  Ten thousand (myria, hence our “myriad”) is the largest numeral for which a Greek term exists, and the talent is the largest known amount of money. When the two are combined the effect is like our ‘zillions.’ What God has forgiven his people is beyond human calculation.”

A debt of ten thousand talents is far beyond what any individual might owe the king, much less a slave. But then, it is a parable and so is not necessary to reflect a real situation. The huge amount has a purpose to play: engender amazement both at the unheard-of generosity of the master and at the stupidity of the slave.

In v.25, the king intends to serve justice by selling the servant, his family and property, in payment of the debt. The scholar Jeremias reports that top price for a slave was 2,000 denari. Thus if one does that math, unless the servant has 30,000 children and/or lots of property, the king will not recover the amount of the loan (v.27). The servant throws himself on the mercy of the king even giving him an empty promise of repaying the debt in full (v.26). The absurd proposal only serves to underline the generosity of the master who, far more than simply giving him time, freely writes off the whole debt out of compassion. The parable thus speaks of the totally unmerited grace of God which forgives his people more than they could ever imagine because they are unable to help themselves

Unto others…28 When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’29 Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’30 But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.

Clearly the first servant has authority as indicated by his ability to place the second servant in debtor’s prison (v.30). It is not clear the first servant recognizes the great mercy shown him. Just having been forgiven “a zillion dollars,” he brow beats a fellow servant about “a much smaller amount,” literally, a hundred denarii – perhaps a 100 days of wages. Not insignificant, but certainly in the realm of being able to be repaid. (For the record, it represents only one six-hundred-thousandth of the debt the first slave has just been forgiven.)

It should not be lost that the pattern and the words of appeal matches the earlier exchange of king-and-servant. Yet, the second servant does not ask for anything but patience. But for naught. For his troubles, the servant is choked and put in prison. There is no compassion, mercy or justice. The first servant offers no part of what he had already received.

What goes around…31 Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair.32 His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.33 Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’34 Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. 35 So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”

We are not told what motivated the other slaves to take up the case. Imprisonment for debt was not in itself illegitimate (cf. 5:25–26); the first slave was acting within his rights. What shocked them was his failure to exercise toward his fellow-slave even a little of the generosity with which he himself had been treated (cf. 7:12). And that is the charge the king now puts into words. The phrase “entire debt” puts it all in perspective and prompts the hearers to reflect on the extent of their own indebtedness to the grace of God.

The king tells the servant that what he received (pity/mercy) he should have paid forward to his fellow servants. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” (Mt 5:7) If mercy is the characteristic of the king/God, it should be also the characteristic of his servants/people. Conversely, where God’s people do not show mercy they cannot expect to receive it (Jas 2:13).

The forgiveness which was freely granted is now withdrawn, not because the servant is any more likely to be able to pay the debt, but because he has proved himself unworthy of his master’s mercy. And this time it is worse: in place of being sold, he is to be tortured.

But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” (Mt 6:15) – as already made clear, God, whose generosity is beyond measure, will nonetheless not forgive the unforgiving. They must expect the punishment which their unforgiven sin deserves. And the forgiving-ness which he expects of his people is not a reluctant or merely verbal concession which leaves the underlying problem unresolved, but a genuine, warm forgiveness “from the heart” so that the broken relationship is fully restored. Those who will not forgive must not expect to be forgiven; the measure they give will be the measure they get back (7:1–2).


Notes

Mt 18:22 seventy-seven times: Some translations render the underlying Greek as “seventy times seven” (i.e. 490 times, e.g. KJV). That rendering is a literal reproduction of the idiom ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά which is better understood as an idiomatic way of expressing the adverbial form of the compound number “seventy-seven” in Greek. Its meaning here is determined by the clear allusion to Gen 4:24, where the same phrase ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά in the LXX translates the Hebrew šibʿîm wešibʿâ, “seventy-seven.”

Mt 18:24 a huge amount: literally, “ten thousand talents.” By way of comparison the total annual tax income from the whole of Galilee and Perea in 4 bc was only two hundred talents (Josephus, Ant. 17.318).  The annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. Jeremias, Parables 211, gives 500 to 2,000 denarii as the price of a slave.

Mt 18:24 pay you back in full: an empty promise, given the size of the debt.

Mt 18:26 debtor/servant: Some commentaries offer the suggestion that this is not a household servant, but a “civil servant” who through mismanagement of the king’s resources or taxes has incurred this debt. The text does not support the conjecture and the only reason to offer such is to conceive of a way such a debt could accumulate. Let a parable be a parable.

Mt 18:28 a much smaller amount: literally, “a hundred denarii.” A denarius was the normal daily wage of a laborer. The difference between the two debts is enormous and brings out the absurdity of the conduct of the Christian who has received the great forgiveness of God and yet refuses to forgive the relatively minor offenses done to him.

Mt 18:34 Since the debt is so great as to be unpayable, the punishment will be endless.

Mt 18:35 The Father’s forgiveness, already given, will be withdrawn at the final judgment for those who have not imitated his forgiveness by their own.

Sources

  • Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew” in vol. 8 of New Interpreter’s Bible (ed. Leander E. Keck. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994–2004) 117, 378-83
  • France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007.
    The New International Commentary on the New Testament. [700-708]
  • The New American Bible: Translated from the Original Languages with Critical Use of All the Ancient Sources and the Revised New Testament. Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 1996.
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