In Search of Talent

“Talent” appears twice in the Gospels. First in the “Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30), about the wealthy man who goes away and entrusts huge sums of money to servants with, uhm, mixed results. Then in the “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” (Matthew 18:23-35 — today’s Gospel reading), the first servant owes the king 10,000 talents, while the second servant owes his fellow servant 100 denarii.

How much is that?

The New American Bible translation sidesteps the question by simply saying “a huge amount” and “a much smaller amount.” I think this kind of dumbing down is unfortunate and insults the intelligence of even the most average reader. But the words refer to an ancient system of measuring value, and need to be explained.

In Jesus’ day, a denarius was a day’s wage for a common soldier or common laborer. In terms of today’s (federal) minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, roughly about $60.

Getting a handle on the value of a talent is not so easy. A talent was basically a unit of weight used for silver or gold, and had various meanings in different times and cultures. A rough estimate, though, has the talent worth about 6,000 denarii, or about $360,000. That means the “huge amount” of 10,000 talents the first servant owed the master was truly unimaginably huge: $3,600,000,000. Three billion, six-hundred thousand dollars! The debt of the other servant of 100 days’ wages was not insignificant — about $6,000.

Jesus’ hearers would probably have smiled at the exaggeration, but that would make the underlying comparison of God’s infinite mercy and generosity to our stinginess and greed even more striking.

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