Jesus Chrsit teaches a marvelous parable in Matthew Chapter 18, the parable of the unmerciful servant. A servant owed his Lord 10,000 talents, but when the sum was demanded, he could not pay. He begged for forebearance, and promised that with some time, he would pay all. While there’s no way to convert this directly to modern American dollars, it was probably on the order of $1 billion, give or take.The important point is that it was a debt that servant could not ever have paid under any circumstances. So the merciful Lord forgave the debt.
[UPDATE 9/20/2011—I have recently read an excellent history of Egypt by Jason Thompson. Around 60 BC, Ptolemy XII promised Julius Caesar 6,000 silver talents in exchange for being appointed emperor of Egypt. This was equal to a year’s revenue for the entire kingdom for one year. (Thompson, Joseph. A History of Egypt From Earliest Times to the Present. New York: Anchor Books, 2009). So the debt this servant owed his master was equal to about 167% of the entire annual revenue of Egypt. It was enough money to outright purchase the throne of Egypt, and maybe Syria and Palestine to boot.]
Later, that same servant finds a fellow servant who owes him 100 pence. He demands that his fellow pay the debt. As with the first servant, the second servant pleads for forebearance and promises to pay all. The difference is that in this case, there was a reasonable chance that the second servant could repay the first. But the unmerciful servant is not satisfied with the promise to pay in time. He demands that his fellow servant be imprisoned until the debt is paid.
The point of the story that is easy to appreciate immediately is that the debt that the Lord forgave the first servant was substantially more than the debt owed by the second servant. In fact, it was more than a million times greater. So we learn that we cannot expect the Lord to forgive us of our sins and offenses against HIm if we insist on exacting the utmost penance from every petty offender against us.
But there’s another facet to this parable, and it’s the one that’s a little more challenging. The effect kind of gets lost in translation, so it’s easy to overlook. One hundred pence sounds like chump change to us. A dollar? Sure, I can forgive somebody who owes me a dollar. But think about another parable, the parable of the laborers, in Matt. 20. A wealthy man hires laborers for the day. Their wage? A penny. This was a reasonable wage for a working-class man at the time. So assuming that laborers took the sabbath off, they made 6 pence a week. One hundred pence is therefore about 16 and a half weeks’ salary, or between 3 and 4 months’. It’s closer to 4, so we’ll round up. Is it so easy to forgive somebody who owes you four months of salary?
The reason I like looking at this parable in terms of weeks of salary is it’s self-adjusting. Whoever you are, 4 months’ worth of your salary is going to feel like a lot of money. In a literal sense, if somebody actually owed you 4 months’ salary, and could not or would not pay you (perhaps because he had squandered his money on an alcohol or gambling habit), would you be able to forgive the debt?
My experience as an attorney is societally, we tend to demand the utmost recompense for wrongs. We demand judgment with interest. Sometimes this serves a crucial public policy function, like deterring future bad acts (punitive damages are really good at this, which is why you see insurance companies lobbying for legislatures to clamp down on them). But too often, it is really just a thirst for vengeance. And that hurts everybody, including the vengeful victim.
In any case, viewing the hundred pence as a substantial sum that is nevertheless minuscule relative to the ten thousand talents helps us remember that it is not merely the “little things” we need to forgive and forget. We need to forgive not just those who have annoyed or inconvenienced us. We need to forgive those who have really hurt us—even those who have done terrible, unspeakable things to us; those who have maliciously misused us and mistreated us and those we love (and really, it’s much harder for me to forgive people who have hurt someone I love).
I won’t go way into what it means to forgive, but it does not mean to not learn or to go back for more. I may forgive the debt of the guy who cheated me out of four months’ salary, but I’m probably not going to lend him money again.
The reason this principle is so important to me is that I have some little understanding of the things the Lord has forgiven in me. I have borne the weight of those ten thousand talents, and have rejoiced when the merciful Savior has lifted them off my back. I know a little of how wretched I would be without His grace. Truly Mormons believe in salvation by grace! For I know that the small pittance I have offered pales in comparison to His divine Offering. I have of necessity cast in my two poor mites, but they are hardly a token towards the price of my soul. True, they were necessary, but really as a sign of faith and acceptance. The true price of my soul far exceeds, for I have been purchased with the priceless blood of the very God of Israel, and that freely spilt by Him for the love He has for me. Shall I not then love my neighbor enough to forgive his infraction, though it amount to an hundred pence? If I do, I purchase for myself Grace that is multiplied a thousand times a thousand fold. And when He shall come and heal all wounds, I shall be made whole nevertheless, for He also paid the price for my fellowservants.