The Parable of the Talents

Talents1Matthew 25:14–30 14 “It will be as when a man who was going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. 15 To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately 16 the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. 17 Likewise, the one who received two made another two. 18 But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’ 22 (Then) the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; 25 so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.’ 26 His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return? 28 Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. 29 For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’

Context – For the final three Sundays of this church year, the gospel readings come from Matthew 25:

  • 32nd Sunday: The Wise and Foolish Maidens (vv. 1-13)
  • 33rd Sunday: The Parable of the Talents (also “of the Three Servants; vv. 14-30)
  • Christ the King: The Great Judgment (vv. 31-46)

These are the conclusion of Jesus’ fifth discourse (Mt 24:3-25:46) which R.T. France (2007) calls, “The End of the Old Order and the Reign of the Son of Man: The Discourse on the Future”

It should also be noted that Mt 24:45-51, The Faithful and Unfaithful Servants, which comes immediately before the parable the Wise and Foolish Maidens, carries many of the same themes as do the two subsequent parables. However, it is not used as a Sunday gospel.

What is the Focus. One question which can be asked of the gospels for the 32nd and 33rd Sundays is about the focus. Some scholars hold that it concentrates on the judgment scenes which conclude the parables. Others hold that it focus is rightly a theme of ‘being ready’, which dominated the preceding parable and is still at the center of our gospel parable for this week. One scholar (Lambrecht) offers that this whole section should be labeled as an “Exhortation to Vigilance” for its portrayal of a ‘coming’ and its consequences for those who should have been preparing for it – or not preparing.

The parable of the talents takes up the question which that of the bridesmaids left unanswered: what is ‘readiness’? It is not a matter of passively ‘waiting’, but of responsible activity, producing results which the coming ‘master’ can see and approve. For the period of waiting was not intended to be an empty, meaningless ‘delay’, but a period of opportunity to put to good use the ‘talents’ entrusted to his ‘slaves’. It a theme that is clearly present in the account of the Faithful and Unfaithful Servant.

Talents. The Greek word used in the parable, talanton, has no metaphorical meaning. It is simply a weight measure of a precious metal such as gold or silver. Our English use of the word to mean an aptitude or ability really only dates to the late 13th century when it appeared in a metaphorical musing on the parable. Prior to that time, even the middle French and Latin equivalent to the Greek talanton meant “weight.” We point this out to remind us all that before one moves to a metaphorical sense of Scripture, one should consider the literal sense.

Parallels. This parable has a rudimentary “parallel” (to the basic story situation, but with none of the detail) in Mark 13:34, and a much fuller one in Luke 19:11–27. Luke’s parable has a different setting, an explicit explanatory introduction (Luke 19:11), the added motif of the journey “to receive kingship,” rebellious subjects, and their punishment (Luke 19:14, 27). Moreover, the details of the story in Luke differ significantly: ten slaves, each given the same amount; much smaller sums of money (one mina = 100 denarii); authority over cities as the reward for good trading. But the essential pattern of the story of trading in the master’s absence is the same, with three servants singled out, similar commendation of the successful slaves, the same excuses by the third servant and the same response from the master, the one talent/mina given to the servant with ten, and even the same apparently editorial comment in Luke 19:26 as in Matt 25:29. Yet the wording, while similar, is seldom quite the same. All this suggests a memorable story line re-used for different occasions and purposes; but whether the re-use was by Jesus himself, or by one or other evangelist adapting the material for his own purposes, is not easily determined.

The apocryphal “Gospel of the Nazarenes” (likely written late 2nd century in Alexandria) presents the another form of the parable, in which one servant multiplies the capital, one hides it, and one squanders it with harlots and flute girls. The first is rewarded, the second rebuked, the third cast into prison. This form would lend itself to a focus on the end judgment – and more easily fits our sense of reward and punishment.

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