A talent was not a unit of currency, but a unit of weight. The NIV translates this verse “ten thousand bags of gold,” but it is far more likely that silver would have been the precious metal involved in the transaction, as even ten thousand talents of silver would represent an almost unimaginably large amount. In fact, ten thousand talents of silver would be too large to have normally been a personal debt. The word “servant” Matthew uses could refer to a king’s high-ranking servant who had control of massive amounts of money as part of his work.
By contrast, the second servant in the parable who owed the king’s servant money was doubtless a far less powerful individual who had borrowed “one hundred denarii” (KJV “a hundred pennies,” NIV “a hundred silver coins”). We read in the parable that the servant who owed a huge amount that was forgiven was himself unwilling to forgive the individual who owed him a much smaller debt.
To get a true sense of the relative amounts Jesus spoke of, notice that in another parable – that of the men working in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) – Matthew specifically tells us that an acceptable rate of pay for a laboring man was one denarius per day (vs. 1, etc.). So, the debt of the minor servant who owed the king’s servant 100 denarii was the equivalent of a hundred days pay – some four months of wages calculated on a regular workweek – and certainly not a small amount.
But to get a sense of the debt for which the king’s servant was responsible, we must realize that a “talent” was equal to approximately 6,000 denarii in value, so that debt equaled ten thousand times about six thousand days pay for an average laborer – some 60 million days or 200 thousand years pay at 300 workdays per year – based on talents of silver, not gold.
So the price of the forgiveness given by the king to his servant in Christ’s parable was an astronomically high one – far beyond the realm of any possibility of being repaid. But it is easy to think that this parable was simply teaching that our neighbor’s spiritual debts to us are far less than what we “owe” God as a debt of forgiveness, but while that is true, the parable has greater depth than that.
Clearly, the king in the parable represents God, and the king’s servant represents us as debtors to God through our sin, while the minor servant represents those who are “indebted” to us through sins against us. But we should remember that the amount owed by the minor servant – a hundred days’ pay – was not a trivial amount. It is important to realize that Christ was not downplaying the “debts” or sins of others against us – rather his parable admits that those who sin against us may indeed sin to a substantial degree, leaving us significantly hurt.
But the parable also puts that hurt in perspective by showing that the astronomically high debt we have incurred through our own cumulative sins far outweighs whatever sin may have been committed against us – no matter how bad it was. As it is given in Christ’s example, the story shows a ratio of one million to one – the sins of others against us represent one millionth of our own sins against God. That is why Jesus ended his parable by saying that the unmerciful servant was severely punished by the king, and by saying “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (vs. 35).
Ultimately, however, Jesus’ parable is not about numbers or balance sheets. Its primary message, of course, is that we ought to forgive as our King has forgiven us. And we should not forget the context in which the parable was given. Matthew makes it clear that Jesus told this story in response to Peter asking how many times we should forgive those who sin against us: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king… (Matthew 18:21-23, emphasis added).
According to Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question, the forgiveness given to us is extravagant both in amount and in repetition, and finally it is extravagant in terms of the attitude with which the forgiveness is given. True forgiveness, Jesus tells us, is so extravagant that it cannot be repaid; it is so extensive that it does not run out in our lifetime; and it is so truly meant from the heart that no price can really be placed on it.
*Download our free e-book on the Parables of Jesus from this website, here.