If you’ve ever read Matthew’s biography of Jesus, the story stands out. In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus tells an account of a servant who, having been forgiven a big debt, aggressively demands the payment of a smaller debt that he is owed. It’s striking because of the profound hypocrisy of the servant, and helps us to see something of how such unforgiveness utterly fails to recognise the debt we have been forgiven as Christians. But I wonder if you’ve ever done the maths?
The footnote of my Bible says a denarius was a day’s wage for a labourer. So when the servant was owed 100 denarii (v28), it’s roughly a third of a year’s wages. Why do I draw attention to it? Because it’s a real amount of money. It’s not negligible – that is, it’s not ‘a penny’. We’ll see the contrast in a minute, but it’s worth noticing that the debt this servant was owed would have been experienced as a real sum of money. When we’re wronged, we are genuinely suffering wrong. Sometimes we create such a caricature of the parable that it sounds like we need to pretend it wasn’t very much, or that we only need to forgive tiny offences – forgive the pennies (e.g. a thoughtless action), but not the thousands of pounds (e.g. a deliberate attack). No, Jesus is honest – the debts we are called to forgive feel like thousands of pounds.
But then look at the debt the servant was forgiven. If a talent was 20 years’ wages for a labourer, then most individuals would have probably earned 3 talents in their life time; this man owed 10,000 (v24)! Turn that into today’s money, and I reckon it works out to around £5 billion!! There are few people in the world who can even conceive of having that much money, let alone having that much debt. It’s deliberately extreme – and it’s only a small picture of what we have been forgiven. It’s not an overstatement. The offence of our sin is beyond comprehension, but Jesus has died our death, taken our place, and forgiven our debt. Such is the forgiveness we as Christians have received. Such is the forgiveness available to anyone who would turn and follow Jesus.
So next time I am wronged – whether it be the offence of pennies or the offence of thousands, remind me of this parable. My debt was incomprehensible, but in Christ: forgiven. “And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (v33).