The Unforgiving Slave
In Matthew 18 Jesus told a parable. There is nothing unusual about that. However, the world of Jesus’ parables is a strange place. Parables have often been described as “everyday stories that illustrate spiritual truths,” and that is correct, but therein also lies an interesting feature. You see, spiritual truths are not like human or worldly ideas. They do not fit neatly into the human categories in which we usually think, because spiritual truths are different in quality. Sometimes they are even the opposite of what the world thinks, and at the least they are radical compared to the world’s thinking (cf. 1 Cor 1.18-25). Because Jesus’ parables contain this intersection of the worldly (“everyday stories”) and the spiritual, they often present everyday people doing highly unusual or strange things, or who are caught in extraordinary circumstances.
It is with this understanding that we may now turn to think about the parable of the unforgiving slave in Matthew 18. The story is familiar to readers of the Bible. A slave owed his king a large debt which he could not repay, and he begged for mercy and to give him a chance to repay the debt. The king, however, did more than that: he forgave the debt. But then that slave demanded payment of a relatively small debt from a fellow-slave, and refused to show him any mercy. When the king found out how this slave had acted, he had him punished in the worst way.
We do not have to read too far into this parable to see the unusual thing here: it is the slave’s debt. Jesus said that he owed the king 10,000 talents.
One talent was 94 pounds of silver, equal to 3,000 shekels, and one shekel was equal to two denarii (a denarius was a day’s pay). Therefore one talent of silver was equal to 6,000 denarii, or 6,000 days’ pay. Silver was recently selling for $16.23 per ounce. That would mean that a pound of silver is worth $16.23 x 16 = $260 per pound (rounded off). One talent of silver was therefore worth $260 x 94 = $24,440 if we use the modern value of silver. The slave owed the king 10,000 talents, so he owed $24,400 x 10,000 = $244,400,000.
Or think of it this way: one talent was equal to 6,000 days’ pay, so one’ day’s pay was $24,440 / 6,000 = $4.07 given the modern value of silver. It would take the slave 60,049,140 days to earn what he owed the king (and this is working 365 days per year, with everything he earned going to pay for nothing but his debt, and assuming a zero-interest loan). That is a little over 164,518 years of work. The slave was never going to pay his debt.
There is another way to calculate this. According to government statistics, the average worker in the United States makes $115 per day. If we use this as our basis of calculation, then one talent was worth $115 x 6,000 = $690,000, so 10,000 talents of debt was $6,900,000,000. That’s almost $7 billion using our current average rate of pay.
What are the lessons that these large numbers are supposed to teach us?
1. God has been extremely kind and generous to us. Many of Jesus’ parables have something to teach us about God even if God is not the main character or subject of the parable. Consider the parable before us: have you ever wondered how a slave could accumulate almost $7 billion in debt to a king? For one thing, he must have had an optimistic and generous king! Likewise, there is a picture here of God for us to consider. Our heavenly king has been extremely generous to us. He has not only provided us with life, air, food, water, comfort, and almost every material blessing we can think of, but He has also blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph 1.3). And, like it or not, we are the slave in the parable. What have we done with the king’s bounty of gifts? More often than not we have spent them on our pleasures with little or nothing to show for them. Then we go back to Him over and over again, asking for more, only to receive more and waste them further. If we were ever called upon to pay Him back, it would be impossible.
2. The debts that others owe us are nothing in comparison to what we owed God. In Act II of the parable, the slave demanded payment of a debt owed by a fellow-slave. Now if anything, the slave should have known how hard it was to pay back a debt when one is a slave. However, he had no compassion for his fellow slave and demanded full payment immediately. How much did the fellow slave owe him? 100 denarii. If we use the modern value of silver for their currency, that would be $4.07 x 100 = $407. To most of us, that is not pocket change, but consider it in comparison to what the slave owed the king: the fellow slave owed him 407 / 244,400,000 = 0.0000017 of what he himself had owed the king. That is 1/625,000th of the debt the slave had owed the king. Perspective is everything.
How often have you heard it (or even said it yourself): “He needs to apologize to me.” “I helped her with all that work and she never did a thing to help me.” Friends, what others owe us is nothing compared to what we owed the Lord. If He can forgive such a great debt, certainly we can forgive such smaller ones. The apostolic exhortation is to let things go and not count trespasses, nor hold a grudge. When the Corinthians were suing each other over personal matters, Paul’s question to them was “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Cor 6.7). In other words, why not just let it go, and forget about it? Why not, indeed.
3. The way God has treated us is the model for how we are to treat others. When we think of receiving a gift, we think that it is just that, a gift. We did not buy it, so we do not have to pay for it. We receive it, we say “thank you,” and then we go on our way. It was not that way in the world in which Jesus lived, nor is it exactly that way with God. We did not earn what God gives to us, but God’s gift’s are not just gifts. Gifts create a kind of debt for the recipient, a debt called “obligation.” Now of course, the Lord does not expect us to repay Him. We have been forgiven of our debt against Him. But the Lord does expect us to learn something from the way He has treated us, and to put what we learn into action when it comes to how we treat those whom we think owe us anything. That is the obligation (at least one of them) that comes with being forgiven. The Lord expects us to “pay it forward.” So the parable ends with the slave being tortured for his refusal to forgive the small debt of his fellow slave, and the Lord says “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matt 18.35). Again, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matt 6.14-15). And, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph 4.32).
Hear the lesson of the unforgiving slave.