There is an old saying which has become a cliché but is true nonetheless. The saying is: “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” When my father was teaching at Pasadena High School, he had a sign on his desk that had his own version of this saying: “To err is human; to forgive is NOT MY POLICY.” I firmly believe that my dad meant this is a joke, for he was a very forgiving man, at least to me. The sad thing is that my dad’s sign really does express the attitude that many people have about forgiving others. What is still sadder is that even for many Christians, forgiving is not their policy--at least not all the time.
Today we will look at a key biblical passage on the subject of forgiveness. It is a parable that Jesus told about two men. One of the two practiced forgiveness. But for the other, to forgive was definitely not his policy. In particular, we will see what happens to him, and, by extension, to us, when we fail to forgive.
In Jesus’ parable, we read “The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.” It is important that we understand just how much the servant owed the king. A talent was a unit of measure used in the ancient world that weighed approximately 75 pounds. Today, one ounce of gold is worth approximately $830. A talent weighs 16 times 75, or 1200 ounces. Therefore ONE talent in today’s economy is worth about a million dollars. This in itself is a great deal of money; but keep in mind that the servant owed TEN THOUSAND talents, or approximately TEN BILLION dollars – a princely sum by anyone’s standards!
The story continues: “But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.” As St. John Chrysostom points out, all the man asked for was some additional time to pay his debt. But what he received was even greater: he received full forgiveness of this enormous sum of money.
Now you would think that the servant would be thankful and rejoice for being forgiven of his debt. You would think that he would treat others in the way that he was treated. But this was not to be. As Jesus continued, “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt.”
To put things into perspective here, we need again to understand how much a denarius was worth. In Jesus’ day, a denarius was the amount of money that the average worker would earn in one day. It was a silver coin that weighed about 4.5 grams, or a little less than a sixth of an ounce. Today silver is worth just over $13 an ounce, so a denarius would be worth a little more than $2. Some scholars, however, hold that the buying power of a denarius was about $20 in today’s money. If we take that higher figure, then, the servant was owed about $2000 by his fellow servant. In other words, the amount that he had been forgiven was 5 million times as much as what he was owed. And yet he was unwilling to forgive. In spite of the great forgiveness he had received, to forgive was not his policy.
Jesus concluded the parable by giving the result of the man’s unwillingness to forgive: “So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So my heavenly father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” As a result of his failure to forgive, the man ended up being tortured.