Let the Scriptures Speak
The Accountancy of Forgiveness
Forgive your neighbor's injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Peter knew well what his master taught about forgiveness. It was especially clear in the model prayer Jesus had taught the disciples: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That was clear enough; yet Peter's question was a very human one: “How far do I have to go in this forgiveness thing?” As an outside limit, he suggests the round number seven. Jesus (teasingly?) responds with the fuller round number seventy times seven—or 490, to be exact. And of course the point was that, like the lawyer who asked Jesus to define “neighbor” (looking for some boundary around the love commandment), Peter is wrong to inquire into the limits of the command to forgive.
Seeing that Peter wants to quantify forgiveness, Jesus tells a parable about forgiveness using numbers whose proportions are absurd. (“You want to talk numbers? I'll give you some numbers to think about.”) Jesus tells of a king calling his debtors to account and dealing with one who owes him ten thousand talents. Now, a single talent was a huge amount of silver, worth, our lexicons tell us, around 10,000 denarii (and a denarius was worth a day's labor). Thus, 10,000 talents would come to a hundred million denarii. If you like, you can estimate what a day's worth of labor is worth today in dollars and then multiply that by 100,000,000. But just trying to think of an amount worth the salary of 100,000,000 days' labor should be enough to help us realize that the NAB's paraphrase for “ten thousand talents”—“a huge amount”—while correct, is really an understatement.
When the king orders the debtor, along with his family and property, to be sold to recover a little of the debt, our debtor begs for mercy and make the absurd promise that he will pay the debt “in full.” The king overlooks the absurdity, allows himself to be moved by compassion, and forgives the man outright.
Still in the flush of what we must imagine would be a feeling of unexpected good fortune and gratitude, this liberated debtor runs into a coworker who owes him a mere hundred denarii (which comes to one millionth of what he had just been forgive—in case Peter is still trying to imagine 490 instances of forgiveness). And the man has the gall to demand immediate payment. When the coworker pleads with our forgiven debtor in the very words he had just used before the king, the man has him committed to the debtors’ prison. Knowing of the first man’s recent benefit, the other servants are rightly enraged, as is the king, when he finds out.
Jesus’ (satiric) numbers game answering Peter’s (misguidedly serious) numbers game is there for us to contemplate, if we dare to measure how much the Lord would have us forgive one another.
**From Saint Louis University