Forgiveness--Doing the Math

    Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.

    "Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, 'Pay what you owe.' So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." (Matt 18:21-35, ESV)

I'm a numbers guy, so this passage is right up my alley. And perhaps it's even fitting to be posting this in the twilight of my current career.

The challenge with passages like this is that since they refer to units of measure that we are unfamiliar with, they can sometimes lack the intended impact. It's like not being able to see it even though it's right there.

Traditionally, this challenge has been tackled in two different ways. Literal Bible versions have tended to use the traditional units of measure, the talent & denarii, and put a footnote of explanation. So, for example, the ESV's note about ten thousand talents reads "A talent was a monetary unit worth about twenty years' wages for a laborer," and for a hundred denarii it says "A denarius was a day's wage for a laborer."

This works ok, so long as your copy has the footnotes and the readers pay attention to them. Not only do they make versions without footnotes (blasphemy!), but you can't even guarantee people will read them when they do (Cretans!).

The second alternative is the one used by most dynamic translations & paraphrases--pick a comparable unit of measure in the functional language/culture, and then use the corresponding ratio. So, you have the first debtor owing millions of [silver coins, dollars, etc.], and the second debtor owing just a few (or perhaps a hundred).

Each of these is perfectly adequate, in their way, in expressing the message that this passage is trying to convey. And given my normal predeliction against paraphrase or even dynamic translation, I would be loathe to translate it any more loosely, even if they didn't.

But adequate isn't always enough when digging a little deeper. For instance, there is some evidence that this was more an idiom, as opposed to being literal. A study note in the MacArthur Study Bible indicates that "ten thousand talents" was commonly referred to as meaning a great or virtually infinite sum of money (kind of like the function that "million-billion," "gazillion," and "four hundred and two" serve in my household).

So, with this in mind, if I was teaching this passage (especially given my financial background), here's how I would frame it up:

The denarii was worth a day's wage. If we take a person making $5/hr, that equates to roughly $40 per day. If we further assume 250 working days per year, that gives our laborer an annual income of $10,000. Now we've got something we can work with. Understand, we've simplified the math here, in the interest of making the illustration accessible (and as a bonus, our base is a round number that you can easily factor into your own financial situation, should you so choose).

Since the second debtor owed the first about 100 days worth of wages, that comes out to about $4,000. Not an unsubstantial sum, to be sure.

But remember the talent? It was estimated to be approximately 20 years' wages. So, using the base that we just calculated, we see that each talent equates to about $200,000--meaning that our $5/hour employee has managed to run up a debt of $2,000,000,000.

Yes, you read that right--two billion dollars.

Are you starting to get the picture? The debt this guy owed was more than he could pay even if he lived multiple lifetimes, yet he refused to forgive a sum that, by comparison, is almost trifling. Knowing as we do the kind of grace he received regarding his own staggering sum, his lack of forgiveness is stunning.

The type of debt we owe God as a result of our sin is the staggering kind. And after having been forgiven a debt of that magnitude, to maintain a hard heart that would refuse to forgive others seems, well, unforgiveable.

from vacation, cent adds this: I have the bestest sidekicks in the whole world. But you should have said this, Gummby -- "the type of debt we owe God as a result of our sin is of the -unrepayable- kind; it is utterly out of our power to repay the debt we owe to God. Until we act like that's true, blogging about it or (allegedly) believing it only makes us more guilty."

(All Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)