METAPHOR, you might say, is the last refuge of the exegetical scoundrel. When Christians encounter a hard biblical teaching, they need to have it explained. But too often the guidance they receive, from whatever source, seems more interested in explaining it away.
The point is beautifully made (among many other important observations on how religious people behave) by the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian. As Jesus delivers his sermon on the mount, many listeners are too far away to hear clearly. One mishears Matthew 5.9 as “Blessed are the cheesemakers,” and another responds, “Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” It is a great joke — so good, in fact, that it is easy to overlook the fact that “peace” and “cheese” do not actually rhyme.
Another example: I own a cartoon by Merrily Harpur, from her “Unheard-of Ambridge” series. It shows Nigel Pargetter’s mother asking the Bishop of Felpersham if he can exorcise the dry rot in her stately home. “No,” the Bishop replies, “but you may find it helpful to think of it as a metaphor.” Decades later, that still makes me laugh.
Alan Bennett’s “Life is like a tin of sardines” sermon from Beyond the Fringe is another exegetical joke, this time about clergy using ridiculous similes to illustrate platitudinous preaching. In all cases, the explanation that language is figurative is a way of diluting the seriousness of a message.
If it does nothing else, my short list of examples confronts us with how outsiders see our attitude to our own holy writings: we Christians are unable to face up to some starkly literal teachings, and so we diminish or redirect them. For today’s Gospel, this is a timely warning; for the parable that it contains is precious. It touches on forgiveness and something more — forgiven forgiveness. As such, it amounts to an exegesis of the Lord’s Prayer.
This rather long-winded bit of self-justification on my part is necessary; for we absolutely must not take this parable literally. To grasp this, we can simply “follow the money”. Giving an exact equivalent value in today’s money is always difficult for Bible translators, but in this case one of the sums involved is simply fantastical.
The “denarius” (the d. in l.s.d.) was a silver coin weighing about 6g. Its name (but not its value) is exactly like the English “tenner”. It is roughly the equivalent of a day’s pay at living wage level.
The denarius is not the problem. The problem is the talent. It, too, is a measure of precious metal (which is what all coins originally were: conveniently small units for fine-tuned payments). The talent is the largest currency unit in the ancient Near East, my commentary says. Likewise, 10,000 is the highest numeral used in reckoning. So, saying “ten thousand talents” is like our saying (not billions or trillions but) “squillions” of pounds.
Such an amount is imaginary, fantastical, such that no human individual, even working every day of their life, could ever come close to earning (never mind owing) so much. We should also remember that the man who owed the huge debt was a slave. He could not own property because he was property. Taking this parable metaphorically is unavoidable.
When the man’s fellow-slaves see that he has failed to learn from his master’s generosity and, instead, extorts a modest sum from another slave, they do the unthinkable: they grass him up (in the parlance of my Essex upbringing), or (in the cant of Australian soap operas) dob him in. He has broken the camaraderie of the oppressed by behaving like a master instead of like a slave — and, what is worse, like an unjust master. Being a slave himself has not taught him to have compassion for the vulnerable: it simply encourages him to get his exploitation in first.
If we need further confirmation that the message is not literal, the reference to torture would provide it. As the amount of the debt is beyond imagining, the extent of the torture until it was repaid would necessarily also be unending. That cannot be the message.
But one of the parable’s messages is perfectly clear: God’s mercy towards us is meant to be a lesson as well as a gift. It teaches us, first, that forgiveness is possible; and then that a forgiving nature begins with forgiving behaviour.