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The parable of the two debtors in modern terms

  • October 27, 2010

Philip Massey

Matthew 18:23-35 records the parable of the two debtors: one owed the king 10,000 talents, and one owed his fellow servant 100 denarii. The NIV footnotes usually say that this is equivalent to “several million dollars” versus “a few dollars.”

A more accurate comparison is based on how much time it would take to earn these respective amounts of money. Let us begin with 100 denarii.

The denarius was one day’s wage for a typical day laborer, who worked six days a week with a Sabbath day of rest. Allowing approximately two weeks for various Jewish holidays, the typical laborer worked 50 weeks of the year and earned an annual wage of 300 denarii (50 weeks x 6 days). Therefore, 100 denarii was one-third of a year’s salary, or four months’ wages.

Now suppose you continued to work as a day laborer earning 300 denarii each year. After 20 years of such labor, you will have earned 6,000 denarii. At this point, the king would say to his debtor, “Congratulations. You have worked for 20 years and have now earned 6,000 denarii. That’s enough to pay back one talent. You only have 9,999 more talents to go.”

From this, we can easily see that if it takes 20 years to earn one talent, then repaying 10,000 talents would require working 200,000 YEARS! How absurd then for the servant to beg for mercy and tell the king that he would “pay back everything.” As a day laborer, he had no hope—almost literally “not in a million years”—of ever repaying his debt.

What would 100 denarii and 10,000 talents look like in today’s dollars? Currently, California’s minimum wage is $8.00 per hour. From Matthew 20:1-16, we know that laborers worked 12 hours per day, which is 72 hours per week. Under California law, they would be paid 40 hours a week at $8 an hour and 32 hours of overtime at $12 an hour for a weekly wage of $704. Thus, their annual wage, assuming they work 50 weeks as above, would be: $704 per week x 50 weeks = $35,200

Therefore, if 100 denarii equaled four months’ salary, at current minimum wage, it would be equivalent to $11,733.33, which is substantially more than the NIV footnote of “a few dollars.”

Earning $35,200 per year at minimum wage, how much would you earn in 200,000 years to equal 10,000 talents?

$35,200 x 200,000 = $7,040,000,000 $7.04 billion

For perspective, $7.04 billion is approximately one-eighth of the total wealth of Bill Gates. Bill Gates, the richest man in the U.S. and second richest in the world, has a net worth of $53 billion as of 2010:

If you had $7.04 billion available to repay a debt, you would be #102 in the 2010 Forbes list of billionaires.

Your Turn.  Post a Comment

  1. Chris

    Wow, thanks for doing the work to make it more understandable in today's terms. That's crazy! July 8, 2014

  2. Kerry

    Thank you Philip! November 29, 2014

  3. Sean

    Came across this in my recent study of the parable, I really appreciate the inclusion of the times worked in the comparison. It really speaks to our own indebtedness that Christ implied that each of us is in debt by such a dizzying amount. Very inspiring! April 23, 2015

  4. Steve

    Working on a talk for Sunday and stumbled onto this. Super helpful - thanks for putting the work in! August 12, 2015

  5. Thai Hoa Nguyễn

    Thanks for your calculation. Very helpful. August 28, 2015

  6. Aaron

    For anyone who is interested in the math, the price of silver on the date article was published was at $23.75 per troy ounce. A denarius during the time of Jesus was the weight of 3.9 grams of silver. A troy ounce is 31.1035 grams.

    Thus, a denarius during Jesus' day was worth $2.97 on October 27, 2010. 100 denarii would be worth $297.

    A talent in those days measured 75 pounds, so 10,000 talents was 750,000 pounds. 14.5833 troy ounces are in one pound, so 750,000 times 14.5833 times the price of silver on October 27, 2010, would equal $259,765,031.25. Definitely more than "several million".

    One servant owed nearly $260 million, the other owed $297. June 9, 2016

  7. Sy Marcus Herve Traore

    Man, this is so crazy! Unbelievable! This boggles my mind! No wonder Christ emphasized that God will never forgive us if we refuse to forgive others!I'm speechless! Thank you so much for the insight! God bless! November 23, 2016

  8. peter larson

    Thanks, Phillip. Very helpful background for my sermon on this parable next week. That really puts it in perspective - the unpayable debt that we owe to God which has been forgiven by grace. September 9, 2017

  9. Johnny Cone

    Another way of looking at it is this :
    Jesus paid the price for us and took the punishment upon himself - the punishment being separation from our father and his father. this is what we will have to suffer if we don’t repent, and the mental anguish and the spiritual suffering to our very souls is so great that the Bible compares it to burning in hell. The depth of that suffering that Jesus took on himself for me and you is like an inestimable or $10,000 debt. Any of us would pay any amount to escape that punishment. Some have felt that anguish when God let’s us even briefly to experience the effects of our sins. He asks us to repent and forgive others which with his help we can certainly do which is like the hundred denarius debt. I love him with all my heart because he was willing to suffer for me so that I can be washed clean and come back and live with him. No one has ever done anything like that for me and I worship him for it. November 13, 2017

  10. Willita Lewis

    I am using Matthew 18:23-33 for an illustration, and you are the only source that has helped to break down. Thank you! November 28, 2017

  11. Swigga55

    Loved you analysis and the fact that what we owe Jesus is a debt that can never be repaid.he did it all so we can go do likewise. April 21, 2018

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