Jesus is no stranger to hyperbole in his parables, but the parable of the unforgiving debtor (Mt. 18.21-35) takes it to a whole new level.
The story opens with a king who is looking to collect on his accounts, a slave is brought to him who owes 10,000 talents. My first thought when I read that is some vague notion that it is a fairly large sum, then I wonder why a slave would have asked for and then be entrusted with that kind of money, and then I move on with the story. To clarify, we aren’t talking 10,000 dollars, nor even 100,000. One talent by itself was fifteen years wages for a labourer, the lowest earning person in ancient society. In Manitoba, a full-time minimum wage employee earns about $18,500 after tax. Based on that, 10,000 talents worth in today’s dollars would be 2.775 trillion dollars. I very quickly realize that amount is something no one person could ever hope to repay. Bill Gates himself, the richest man in the world with a comparatively insignificant net worth of $65 billion, would be unable to pay that. In fact, according to number published by Forbes, it would take over 1,000 of the richest people in the world today to combine their net worth to pay off that amount.
Jesus wants his listeners to understand that by no stretch of the imagination could the slave ever hope to get out of this one. When Jesus tells of how the slave begs for time to repay, the listeners probably scoffed at the idiocy. But then something marvellous happens: the king forgives the debt, just because the servant asks. I don’t think America, with a similar national debt, would have much luck begging for that kind of relief with its creditors. But the king did it, and those same listeners who scoffed at the stupidity of the servant probably gasped at the reckless generosity of the king. How could he stand to lose that kind of money? Humanly, no one could. But the king is standing in for God, who has no limit to his wealth, for he has created the world and owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps 50.10). Thank you, God, that when we as broken people come before you with a debt of sin this big and bigger, your resources are great enough to cover the cost!
But then the audience is once again shocked when the slave goes and asks for repayment from someone who owes his money — and a mere 13,500 dollars at that! The only way I can make sense of this is to assume that the slave didn’t actually believe he had been forgiven for the debt, and wanted to repay at least what he could of the debt. So he bullies those who owe him, completely forgetting about the grace he has received. Needless to say, it backfires on the unmerciful debtor, the one who had owed and been forgiven a LOT of money.