The Gospel reading for the Thursday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time, Matthew 18: 21-19:1, comes at the end of what is generally considered to be the fourth discourse in Matthew, the Church or Ecclesial discourse. The parable that is told is found only in Matthew’s Gospel and is told by Jesus in response to a question from Peter about forgiveness. The whole of chapter 18 focuses on behavior within the Church, particularly from those who are in positions of authority. After Peter has been told by Jesus that a member of the Church is to forgive, and radically forgive, those who sin, not only seven times, but seventy-seven times, Jesus tells a parable.
In this parable, the King has a servant, or slave (the Greek doulos is better translated slave) who owes him 10,000 talents. The NAB reads "a huge amount," which is true, but it does not take us to the outrageousness of the amount. It is said that 1 talent, just one, could be likened to 15 years wages for a laborer. If we transpose that into modern terms and take the reasonable and perhaps even low number of $20,000.00 as the wages of a laborer today and multiply that number by 15 and then 10,000, we come up with the sum of ....let me get my calculator (there's a reason I am a theologian)... $3,000,000,000, that is 3 billion dollars! This is meant to be a parable of absurdity. The slave owes 3 billion dollars. Even though ancient slaves could hold positions in which making money was a possibility, what are the chances that he could repay the 3 billion?
Nevertheless, the slave pleads for mercy. "So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt" (Matthew 18:26-27). It is pity, mercy, not the hope of a payday to come that leads the King to forgive his debt. After receiving this gift of mercy, the slave runs into a fellow slave who owes him some money -100 denarii, which amounts to about 100 days wages. Following our calculations above, this would amount to around $8,000.00, a not insignificant sum, but a few bucks less than $3,000,000,000.00. When the fellow slave pleads for mercy - "Have patience with me, and I will pay you" (Matthew 18:29) - the debt-forgiven slave cruelly ignores the plea and has his fellow slave tossed into prison. This riles up the other slaves who report him to the King. The King is rightfully angry.
"You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?" And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart" (Matthew 18:32-35). The intent of the parable is given to us quite directly by Jesus at the end of the parable: you will be punished if you do not forgive your brothers and sisters. The parable as a whole enacts the call of "The Lord’s Prayer" to "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). This prayer is intended not to be a sweet sentiment, but performative: if you say it, you had better mean it. Indeed, the structure of the parable is explicated even more fully a couple of verses later in Matthew 6:14-15: "for if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
'The Lord's Prayer" is hard stuff, no less hard because we say it every Sunday at Mass (at least). It might even be harder stuff to keep in mind since so often we say it by rote without contemplating what we are saying. Remember, the slave who has been shown mercy by God really is owed a debt by the other slave; he genuinely has been harmed and it is hard to let debts go and forgive them. Jesus’ parable, however, makes it abundantly clear how great the debt we have had forgiven by God, simply out of God’s mercy for us. It is God’s bailout and no taxpayers, or fellow debtors, are harmed in the bailout. We are all eligible and the amount is infinite. We couldnot pay our debts no matter how hard we work at it. We need forgiveness.
One last aspect of this parable is intriguing in this light. The image of torture is brought up, an everyday potentiality for slaves in the ancient world, which gives this parable a grounding in real life. "His lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt." Is this an image of hell? Is it expected that the debt would ever be repayed or would the punishment be eternal? The Gospel of Matthew uses the phrase "weeping and gnashing of teeth" six times to describe hell or eternal punishment (Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30). The only other occurrence of this phrase in all of the Gospels is in Luke 13:28. Does the fact that Matthew, who uses a preferred phrase for "hell" on numerous occasions, not use it here indicate that he is thinking of something other than hell? I think so. I think Jesus is pointing to a process of purgation or purification, for he does not say the wicked slave will be cast "into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 25:30). Perhaps this is a sign of hopefulness for the future, that purgatory will prepare us for a debt free life in the presence of God, but all in all, forgiveness, a spiritual bailout for those who have harmed us, here and now, in light of their genuine repentance, seems the preferred choice.