Fr. Pidel’s Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time speaks of “the ‘huge amount’ that we all owe the Father for our very existence and for our redemption.” I want to add something about how huge that amount really is.
Last Sunday’s Gospel, the parable of the two servants, contains one of my biggest translation peeves in the US Lectionary. We are told that the first servant owed “a huge amount” (Mt 18:24), which he could not repay, and so his master had compassion on him and forgave his debt.
The Revised Standard Version more accurately renders this “ten thousand talents,” reflecting the Greek, which says “muriōn talantōn.”
The first word there might be recognizable even if you don’t know much Greek, as it comes to us in English as “myriad.” While it is true that it can mean the number 10,000 (actually, it’s the largest number that can be expressed in Greek with a single word), more generally it means “numberless, countless, infinite” (according to the Liddell-Scott Greek-English Lexicon).
Even more vividly, the Bauer-Danker Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature translates it as “zillion” (“in our lit[erature] used hyperbolically, as in Engl[lish] informal usage ‘zillion,’ of an extremely large or incalculable number”). So here, “zillions of talents.”
That’s considerably more vivid, and a lot larger, than “a huge amount.”
Just to give some perspective: Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, lists the assets and income of Athens at the height of her strength and as their epic war with Sparta was beginning: “on an average six hundred talents of tribute were coming in yearly from the allies to the city… and there were at this time still on hand in the Acropolis six thousand talents of coined silver (the maximum amount had been nine thousand seven hundred talents)” (II 13.3, translated by C.F. Smith, Loeb Classical Library Edition).
So this poor man owes zillions of talents, and even taking it literally as 10,000 talents, that is more than the maximum contained in the Acropolis of Athens!
The point of course is that this is a ridiculous amount, utterly impossible to repay. His only hope is for his master to have mercy on him and forgive his debt. (And what does it say about the wealth and power of the master that he can forgive such a debt!) By contrast, the second servant owes a hundred denarii (US Lectionary: “a much smaller amount”), which is a hundred days’ wages: a paltry amount by comparison, quite possible to repay with a little time and forbearance. The disproportion between what he has been forgiven and what he is owed is beyond all measuring.
Understanding these proportions makes clear the limitless extent of God’s Divine Mercy. We are such debtors, who owe God more than we can possibly repay. Our only hope is in his mercy, which we receive in abundance, greater even than the uncountable myriad–the zillions–that we owe.