The parable of the two debtors in modern terms

Philip Massey, an adjunct faculty member for Crowell School of Business, retells the parable of the two debtors in modern terms.

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.

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