Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ten Thousand Talents

Today in a parable, our Lord Jesus Christ gives us a God’s eye view of sin and forgiveness (Matt 18:23-35).

An official owed his king ten thousand talents. The king is the Lord. You and I are the servant. His debt represents our sinfulness. So when Jesus describes this debt, he is actually describing our sinfulness, which concerns us personally and is worth considering carefully.

There are different estimates as to the actual value of ten thousand talents. We know that a talent was the largest unit of money at the time. It was worth about six thousand denarii, which was a day’s pay. So a talent was more than 15 years of pay. Even if a day’s pay was equivalent to less than half of the current minimum wage in Indiana, ten thousand talents would be worth more than a one and a half billion dollars. So we are talking about a huge amount. Imagine the burden of a debt like that. It is an impossibly large sum – more than a laborer could make in two thousand lifetimes. 

It will help us to understand Jesus’ rhetoric a bit further if we also consider the word here for ten thousand – it’s μυρίος, which is the largest Greek numeral – and as such, it is sometimes used rhetorically and less technically to mean “countless” or “innumerable” – it’s where we get the word myriad. So the servant’s debt to his master is the largest numeral of the largest unit of money. In other words, it’s as big as it can be – that’s the point, I think.

And it’s also possible that Jesus is making an allusion – because this isn’t the first time that the sum of ten thousand talents is mentioned in scripture. In the book of Esther, Haman, the enemy of the Jews, feeling himself insulted by Mordecai, offers to the Persian King Ahasuerus – also known as Xerxes – ten thousand talents of silver if he will agree to destroy all Jews (Esther 3:9).

Haman was indebted to his king ten thousand talents, just like the official in today’s parable. And for what? – for seeking “to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate all Jews”(Esther 3:13) – the people of God. So this sum of ten thousand talents here is blood money. The debt of the servant in today’s parable represents our sin. And the consequence of our sin is death – and that death is born by the true messiah of the Jews – Jesus the Christ.

By our sins, we participate in the failed attempt to destroy Jesus, just as Haman, by his debt of ten thousand talents, participates in a failed attempt to destroy all Jews. In both cases, the Lord triumphs over sin and death. Through Esther, he delivers the Jews from oppression in Persia. And he raises Jesus from the dead. So there are meaningful parallels here. This enormous debt is an image of sin and death. 

It is fitting that Jesus describes all our sinfulness with a parable about money – because the love of money is the root of all evil. But we mustn’t think that if our sins don’t involve money that this isn’t about us – we must not leave this comfortably in the abstract.

We should feel invited to place ourselves in this parable as the servant, to examine our own consciences, and to discover our own sins against God and against our fellow servants. Sins perish in the light and thrive in the darkness – so we must name them and confess them.
I cannot judge you. You and God alone know which sins trouble your hearts – and I can only know my own sins. We must all bring our sins to God in holy confession, as the servant did at first – falling on his knees and begging for the patience and kindness of the Lord. When we do, we will receive the Lord’s forgiveness.

When the extent of his debt is revealed, the servant stupidly asks for more time to pay back his king – it should be clear to us that this is a sum no servant could ever repay. This, I think, is how it must sound to the Lord if we ever say that we’ll make it up to him by being good people for the rest of our lives. That won’t make it up to him! That is good and necessary, but that doesn’t mean that it’s enough. Nothing we do can ever earn our reunion with God. We are utterly and absolutely dependent upon his grace. Apart from the energies of God, there is no theosis. We do not partake of the divine nature by our own power, but by the power of God, with which we cooperate. We must make every effort to supplement our faith with virtue, but we must never think that our efforts can succeed unaided (cf. 1 Pet 1:4-5). They spring from, are supported by, and succeed in and only in the life of God, freely and gratuitously given by God.

So the king does not give his servant more time to pay him back, which would be impossible – no, he forgives the debt completely! He gives more than the servant asks for. The Lord is gracious and we depend upon his grace.

We must realize that our sin is like a debt too large for us to ever repay, and, having received the forgiveness of that debt, let us turn from our sin, repent, and sin no more. We should allow this seemingly inexcusable, impossible forgiveness and lovingkindness to prick our hearts so that we do not remain inert and insensible to our “natural wickedness.”[i] With all our hearts, let us turn away from the evils to which we have become habituated and enslaved.

This turning, this repentance, this conversion, this μετάνοια begins, as our Lord demonstrates in this parable, with forgiveness. Not only with being forgiven, but also with forgiving others.

Our Lord taught us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Or, a more literal translation of the Lord’s Prayer is “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” which closely ties the prayer to today’s parable of debts. So as we forgive, we will be forgiven. And if we are to have any hope for ourselves we must have the hope for others that forgiveness expresses.

After receiving the forgiveness of such an enormous amount, the servant should quickly and easily have followed his king’s example when a fellow servant begged for patience regarding a comparably small debt – a hundred denarii – a tiny fraction of what he had been forgiven.

The wrongs we suffer from our fellow servants – which really are wrongs – sometimes terrible wrongs – are nonetheless small when you compare them to the weight of our sins against the Lord. So forgive others, as the Lord forgives you. Do not nurse hurt feelings or brood on wrongs. Do not let resentments grow in your hearts like weeds growing ever deeper roots. For, according to the measure with which you measure, it will be measured to you (Matt 7:2). If you would be forgiven, you must forgive. Even those who don’t deserve it. Even those who don’t ask for it. But especially those who do.

In light of the great blessing and forgiveness shown him, the unmerciful servant’s unwillingness to forgive his fellow servant who begs for patience is inexcusable. It is so offensive to his king that he rescinds his earlier forgiveness, and turns the servant over to the jailers till he should pay all his debt, which, according our holy fathers Apollinaris and John Chrysostom, is another way of saying “forever,” because the debt is immeasurable and is more than he could ever repay.

The king’s action here reveals something about forgiveness I believe we should notice. You often hear the expression, “forgive and forget” – and this maxim is often held up as a Christian ideal. You should know first of all that this phrase is nowhere in scripture. And when the Lord says to Isaiah that he will not remember sins (43:25; cf. Heb 8:12), I don’t think we should understand this to be a blank space in God’s omniscience. I think it means rather poetically that he puts aside the sins he has forgiven and does not cause us to suffer their full consequence. He still knows what we have done, for he knows everything. And the king in today’s parable demonstrates this. Remember that the king is Jesus’ own image of God. Yet, after he has forgiven the servant’s debt, he clearly still knows its amount – because after the servant is unmerciful the king turns him over to the jailers after all – till he should pay it back. When justice demands it, the king is able to remember the debt.

We should actually find comfort in this because, even if we are unable to forget a wrong completely, this does not mean we cannot forgive. Forgiveness is possible, even when forgetting is impossible.

And thank God, because if we do not forgive, the king will turn us over to the jailers forever. Apollinaris writes that these jailers represent “the angels entrusted with our punishment.” Still worse than this punishment is another: Jesus says, “So also my heavenly father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” As Chrysostom points out, Jesus does not say “’your father’ [or ‘our father’] but ‘my father.’ For it is not proper for God to be called the Father of one so who is so wicked and malicious.”[ii]  The greater punishment is to lose our familial relationship with God, gained by our baptism and our faith. It is a rejection of both to condemn our brothers and sisters – to damn instead of to bless – to have an unforgiving heart – to rejoice in the suffering of our enemies.

So we must remember our own sins and forgive others their sins against us. Then, as we forgive, our heavenly Father will forgive our sins against him, which are far greater. So let us imitate “the indescribable love of God” and forgive everything.  

[i] cf. Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 61.1
[ii] Ibid 61.4

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