This Absurd Parable: The Forgiven, Unforgiving One

Matthew 18:21-35

And it is, of course, totally absurd.

Indeed, I went down a rabbit hole this week, trying to figure out exactly how much ten thousand talents was, at least in relation to 100 denarii.

It turns out there are a number of ways to make the comparison.

For instance, it seems it would take 700,000 days of a slave’s labor to pay off ten thousand denarii.  It would take merely 100 days to pay off the considerably smaller debt.

Another calculation says that one talent is the equivalent of 6-7000 denarii.

Yet another says that one talent was worth more than fifteen years’ wages of a laborer and that the denarius was the usual day’s wage for a laborer.

Ten thousand was the highest number in use at the time.

In today’s dollars, it would have been millions and millions.

It is absurd.

It is outside the realm of possibility that a mere slave could have accrued this much debt to start with. Which is, of course, what makes it a story with an intended lesson.

And it is also outside the realm of our imagination that one who had been forgiven so much could not find it in him to then, in turn, forgive so little.

Indeed, the lesson is obvious:

You and I who have been forgiven so much are then, in turn, called to forgive.

And yet, it is not always so, is it? Just as in the story Jesus tells today, it is not always so.

Recognizing this, I find myself going even a little deeper into the story now only to realize this.

The king forgave when he witnessed the full humanity of the one who owed him so much, he fell to his knees begging for another chance. And oh, I cannot help but wonder if the king shook his head in laughter when the one before him promised to pay back an amount which could not in many lifetimes be repaid.

And in what comes next, the one who had been forgiven so much was not able, in turn, to recognize the humanity of those begging for his forgiveness. For he continues to work by the old model of keeping track or keeping score which apparently still governs his life and most of our lives as well.  Indeed, having been forgiven so much, it appears he is not changed by this immeasurable gift. Not even a little.

  • Now I do not know exactly how one moves to such a posture of forgiveness, to a place of measuring the world not by what is owed but in response to what has been given. I do not know how one gets there, but I do believe that part of it is in at least glimpsing something of the full humanity of the one who has hurt us, who by the world’s measures somehow owes us. As the king did. Surely it must be all grace.
  • And I do believe that it can have something to do with recognizing how bound up we are with one another.  We are all broken and have the potential of doing harm. Indeed, we have all done harm. And still, we need each other.
  • And I have seen it to be so that sometimes we forgive each other so as to no longer bear such a heavy burden ourselves.

So I would offer some examples now of where I have witnessed such forgiveness.  And although I do not and will likely never know every nuance of how these came to be, they help me think more deeply about the transformation the unforgiving one in Jesus’ story today somehow never knew.

One is the story of a young man who had a serious falling out with his step-dad.  In his grief and in his outrage, he took the first job offer available and moved from Boston to Milwaukee in a matter of weeks.

I only heard the story much, much later as an adult myself when my dad would talk about how he wound up in the Midwest where he would meet my mother and raise a family.

Indeed, I only heard the story after many of the players had died and long after they reconciled.  I was fortunate to watch that reconciliation play out in acts of kindness and generosity as my dad stepped up to offer support and to provide care for his ailing mother.  I do not know how they came to that place.  I only know that somehow everyone was able to realize and live into the truth that something was much, much more important than those old hurts. And forgiveness bound them to one another again.

Another is some of my own experience of this last year.

I was at the hospital bedside of one of my closest friends. I could not have fully known then that the cancer would take her within a week and I certainly was not yet comprehending all this would mean for me in the more than year to come. I do remember her telling me she was sorry.  I brushed her off then, not realizing the context or meaning of her apology. I did know that years before she had asked me to be the executor of her estate. At the time I said, ‘yes.’  It was one of those things I could never have imagined would come to pass. And on that afternoon in her hospital room last May, I did not yet see the connection.

And so it was in the weeks and months and more than a year following her death, I was caught up in settling the affairs of one who never expected to die.  At least not so soon.  And while she was more organized than many, there were details I know she hoped to settle before the cancer took her so quickly.

For me it was one of those things you do out of love, but you do not love doing it.  Often as I met with attorneys and accountants, I would step away and find my frustration and fear near the surface.  I never really did feel that I knew what I was doing and I was afraid that I would err in some significant and/or irretrievable way.

Through those many months I would share where I was with a friend.  And with a wry smile she would say to me again and again, “Janet, she’s really sorry.”  And then I would laugh, because I knew she was or would be and there was really nothing to be forgiven. But those simple words repeated countless times over these last many months would remind me what and who it was about. That it was about relationship.  It was and is always about relationship.

And still another is the wisdom spoken by a friend.

I had just finished a book about the history of race in this country.  I cannot remember which book it was now, but I was sitting at lunch with a treasured friend: a black, Baptist pastor alongside whom I am privileged to serve.  I shared some of what was so fresh in my learning, and I said to him, “I do not know how you are not angry all the time.” And he replied, “I can’t afford to be angry. If I were, there would be nothing left of me.”

And I return to the end of Jesus’ story now where we hear about the torture the forgiven slave underwent, presumably for the rest of his life. And I realize this again. If we are unable to forgive, we are simply allowing ourselves to be tortured in our inability to see what is so very human in one another, in our unwillingness to make amends and to realize how bound up we are with each other.  As we hold on to those wounds, however justified we may be in doing so, we only take away that which is most precious.  Indeed, as my friend says, “there would be nothing left of us.”

In the end, I do still think this parable is utterly absurd. But Jesus well knew that is what would make it memorable. Indeed, maybe its very absurdity is what gives it the power to stop us short. Perhaps that is what helps it make its way into our hearts, transforming us even, from the inside out.

  • How will this parable preach or teach in the place you find yourself now? In your experience, does the fact that it is so absurd help or hinder its message?
  • Most of us are not familiar with ‘talents’ and ‘denarii?’ How might we make the comparison between the two in a way that has an impact?
  • In the first stories I offer today I have illustrated the point in terms of relationships between individuals.  The third one, however, begins to address the need for forgiveness with regard to even larger forces. I wonder if Jesus meant to get at something larger in his teaching today. What do you think?




  1. I think this parable condenses to a chiastic structure with disaster at both ends and the crisis of forgiveness in the center. The problem here is that the (first) servant begins and ends understanding relationships only in terms of credits/debits. When his life is saved by an act of amazing grace, he isn’t changed at all.

    That sounds like a lot of us; we sing amazing grace, but what do we do about it? The servant does…nothing. And loses his life.

  2. One point that is often not made gives the forgiven slave a motive for not forgiving his fellow slave: up to this point, any money he has actually belongs to the king because of the size of his debt. But now, freed from that debt, any money he receives belongs to him! That’s five dollars (or whatever) he can spend on himself!

  3. Ivy Gauvin says:

    Hi Janet,

    Thank you for sharing your insights on this passage. I used The Message version for this week’s gospel. Although they may not be accurate amounts, at least it uses dollars and cents, a bit more understandable for our people.

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