What do you do if you get a sudden, unexpected opportunity to teach or preach God’s Word? I often turn to what is for me one of the most precious of Jesus’ parables, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant—a passage one of my favorite writers on the parables (Klyne Snodgrass) groups with parables of “Grace and Responsibility.”
The “grace” is truly an amazing one: the master in the parable forgives a massive, unpayable debt—ten-thousand talents. The “responsibility” is a serious one: Jesus ends the parable with the promise that the dire consequences visited on the unforgiving servant will be visited on us all by God “if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35).
I think we North American readers may not feel the weight of the grace (or the responsibility) because we subconsciously substitute “dollars” for “talents” while reading Matthew 18. Ten-thousand US dollars is not really that big a debt for most of my readers. It’s certainly not an unpayable one for middle-class people in today’s economy. Your home loan is 10 to 30 times that amount.
So I like how the NIV invests Jesus’ words with more obvious weight, translating this as “ten thousand bags of gold.” The NLT completely erases the historical distance between Jesus and the reader by translating it “millions of dollars”—which is sort of like having Jesus say in Luke 9, “Any man, having started up the John Deere tractor, and looking back, is not fit for the Kingdom of God.” But this purposeful anachronism fits the NLT’s choice to “clarify difficult metaphors,” and I think that is valuable for certain readers, so I won’t complain.
Digging Up Gold for Yourself
By all means, take the translators’ word for it when you don’t have time to do anything else. These men and women are great gifts to the church. But I have a feeling that if you dig up these talents for yourself, you’ll find an extra bag of gold or two.
And to do that we first need to figure out what a “talent” is. Every Bible reader needs a handy table of weights and measures, and Logos, of course, offers a deluxe version of this standard tool. Take a look at the Logos Pro Team’s video demonstration, and then we’ll apply the tool to Matthew 18:
When you type “1 talent” into the reference box in the Weights & Measures Converter, you get an estimate of $10,800,000 for one talent of gold (the price of gold changes daily; that’s why this is an estimate). 10,000 talents would, then, be about $108 billion.
By comparison, the debt owed by the unforgiving man’s fellow servant was eight-hundred bucks:
Eight-hundred bucks vs. $108 billion . . . . No wonder the master’s other servants complained.
But there is something more to say about this astronomical figure. It’s so large—the ESV footnote says “A talent was a monetary unit worth about 20 years’ wages for a laborer”—that you have to wonder if we’re in the realm of hyperbole.
One theologian recounts that he and his wife were reading Matthew 7 to their children. Accordingly, they read Jesus’ comment, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:4). They were interrupted by a burst of laughter from their four-year-old son. He got the joke that a lot of us miss because we’ve heard it so many times. I feel the same way about the “10,000 talents” of this parable. It’s wry; it’s funny!
In one sense, then, doing careful math about the worth of 10,000 talents is an exercise in missing the point. But it’s understandable that readers with no feel for the value of money in Jesus’ day (which is all of us) would have to do some research before they could realize what that point is.
If you look up the word translated 10,000—μυρίων (murion)— in the standard Greek lexicon, BDAG, you’ll see something that made me burst out laughing. BDAG gets it almost exactly right, I think, when they suggest the gloss “zillion”! Years of careful Greek study at the doctoral level have led me to amend their scholarly judgment just a bit, however: I prefer the more precise term “gazillion.”
Now don’t miss the theological point: Christ just compared your sin against God to a gazillion-dollar debt. By comparison, your workmate’s choice to play Justin Bieber tunes in the office all afternoon and hum along off key is eight-hundred bucks. Or eight-hundred cents, perhaps—eight-hundred bucks is the big sins, the betrayals and the life-altering lies. Still, Jesus paid your gazillions; can you forgive eight from your heart? If you’re finding it hard to do that—and it is hard; forgiveness always costs something—then here’s Jesus’ advice: think hard about your gazillion.