Summary: When we forgive others, we are also setting ourselves free.
Whether we love it or hate it, we all will be familiar with Coronation Street, UK’s longest running soap opera. I am not much of a television watcher, but I do have a soft spot for the street.
One reason is that the characters are like real people. They have flaws and blemishes, they do not wake up with perfect hair and they do not conform to artificial and unhealthy stereotypes of beauty. They are everyday people, to whom we can comfortably relate. Another reason is that sometimes the storylines really prompt us to ask difficult questions of ourselves concerning what we would do if we found ourselves in some of the dilemmas that the characters face.
One storyline from recent years concerned the character Emily Bishop. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Emily is one of its oldest characters. Her very first appearance on the street in December 1960 was a mere 12 days after the very first episode was broadcast. Now in her late 70s, she is the show’s only regular churchgoer.
Although Emily can give the impression of being very timid, she can also be a tower of strength, and she certainly needed strength to deal with some of the tragedies she has faced in her life, especially when her beloved husband Ernest was murdered in a robbery that had gone badly wrong.
Twenty-eight years later, Emily was befriended by Ed, a new parishioner at her church. Ed had revealed that he had a past and had been to prison, and Emily initially accepted him. However, that changed when Ed confessed to her that it was he who had killed her husband all those years ago. He was genuinely repentant and sought her forgiveness. Ed had become a Christian while he was in prison and he was making a genuine effort to atone for what he had done.
Emily’s world was turned upside down by Ed’s revelation. All the rage and grief that she had so carefully suppressed for so many years now came to the surface. Her loathing of Ed for what he had done was overwhelming, yet she knew that as a Christian she was expected to forgive him. However, she could not bring herself to do so, and her crisis of faith even saw her temporarily turn her back on her church that meant so much to her.
Today’s gospel reading is often called the parable of the unforgiving servant. On the surface, it is one of the less difficult parables to understand. A servant in debt to his king pleads for mercy, and the king forgives his debt out of pity. However, the same servant shows no such pity to a second servant who is in debt to him. When the king hears how he has treated his fellow servant, he withdraws his mercy and judges him by his own standards. The key messages are that we must forgive others in order to be forgiven ourselves and that we will be judged by the standards by which we judge others.
However, if we delve a little deeper, we will note the difference in the debts owed by the two servants. The first servant owed the king 10,000 talents. Ten thousand was the highest Greek numeral and the talent was the highest unit of currency. Ten thousand talents was as large a sum of money as could be expressed in words, and the expression “10,000 talents” would have conveyed similar meaning to what “a trillion dollars” would today. Herod’s entire annual income has been estimated as being around 900 talents, so the debt owed by the first servant was greater than a province’s revenue, so it would be impossible for a servant to ever pay such an amount.
Conversely, the second servant owed 100 denarii. One denarius was a worker’s normal daily wage, so at first this does seem like a sizeable sum. However, 100 denarii pale into insignificance when compared with 10,000 talents. William Barclay has cited a very tangible way of putting the difference between the sums into perspective. If the respective sums were converted into sixpences, 100 denarii could be easily carried by one person in one pocket, but to carry 10,000 talents would require 8,600 people, each of whom would be weighed down by 60 pounds of sixpences. If they stood a yard apart, the line would be five miles long.
Just like 100 denarii was not an unreasonable sum to a servant, we may feel considerably aggrieved by one who has wronged us. Yet, no matter how outraged we may feel, we must remember that we have all transgressed ourselves, and that we have no right to consider ourselves superior to anyone who has offended against us. Like the servant’s debt of 10,000 talents, we have incurred a debt so great that we can never ever pay it back on our own. Even though we do not deserve it, Jesus has paid that debt for us on the cross.