Parable of the Talents: a distrubing story

Talents4The Third Servant. 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?

The third servant’s inaction is perhaps to be attributed to simple self-interest: he could not expect to get any significant personal benefit from whatever his trading might achieve, so why bother? He may also have been afraid of how such a master might react if his commercial venture failed, but if so he has chosen his words badly: his description of his master’s “hardness” explicitly recognizes the desire for profit which makes his own safety-first policy so unacceptable to his master. So his own words are rightly turned against him for his failure to engage in any degree of risk. But risk is at the heart of discipleship (10:39; 16:25–26); by playing safe the cautious servant has achieved nothing, and it is his timidity and lack of enterprise which is condemned. Some scholars describes his attitude as representing “a religion concerned only with not doing anything wrong.”

The servant’s portrayal of an unreasonable, grasping despot is not of course meant to be taken as a sober assessment of God’s expectations of his people. Parables often use surprising characters to illustrate aspects of God’s activity, (e.g. The burglar, 24:43; the eccentric employer, 20:1–16; the grudging neighbor, Luke 11:5–8; the lazy judge, Luke 18:1–8; the man who commends his steward’s dishonest practice, Luke 16:8) and the parable reader must learn to distinguish between the message conveyed and the vehicle. But even if God is not unreasonable and exploitative, the parable as a whole emphasizes that he makes exacting demands on his people.

The End Things. 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.’

The master was portrayed in v. 24 as someone determined to hang on to the proceeds of his servants’ trading as well as the talent just returned. But there is a surprising twist to the story in v. 28 as the story moves the spotlight away from the master to the successful servant who represents effective discipleship. But why is he now in possession of the ten talents which he had previously surrendered to his master (v. 20)? Should we suppose that the money has been returned to him for further trading (perhaps this is what the “many things” of. v. 21 referred to)? Otherwise eleven talents seems a ridiculously large sum for a servant to be given. But probably we should not expect the parable to mirror real life, and this is a way of underlining the theme of the disproportionate rewards which God gives to his faithful people, e.g. 19:27–29. So this slave’s success attracts further reward, on top of what has already been declared in v. 21, and the same proverbial saying which was used of the progressive enlightenment of the disciples in 13:12 now underlines the theme that success breeds further success, while failure is further compounded. It would, however, be pressing the imagery too far to infer that the blessing of the good disciple is at the expense of the forfeiture of the bad.

There is thus a fundamental division between good and bad disciples, between the saved and the lost, and the language of ultimate judgment is deployed again to warn the reader to take the parable’s message seriously. What ultimately condemned this disciple, and made him unready to meet his Lord at the parousia, was the fact that he had proved to be “useless” for the kingdom of heaven. Like the man ejected from the wedding feast in 22:13, his performance had not matched his profession, and it is only those who “do the will of my Father who is in heaven” (12:50) who ultimately belong to his kingdom.

A Final Thought

Even though “talent” in our text refers to a large sum of money, I also think that we can use it to refer to abilities that God has given us and how we use them while we are waiting for Jesus’ return. We need to consider them as gifts from the gracious God and we need to consider that what we do with them becomes our gift to God. The parable is not a gentle tale about what Christians do with their individual gifts and talents, as helpful as that may be, but a disturbing story about what Christians do or do not do with the gospel as they wait for the coming of the kingdom of heaven

Notes

Matthew 25:25 buried: There were alternatives to burying the money. One of the options mentioned in contemporary rabbinic writings was to leave it with a money-changer or a shopkeeper (which is the closest approach to the idea of banking). If money deposited with a money-changer is sealed up the depositor is not liable if it is lost, but loss of the capital is clearly understood to be a real possibility. According to Keener [601] temples, including the Jerusalem temple, also functioned as banks, but that possibility would not be open to a Palestinian who did not live in Jerusalem.

Matthew 25:26–28 wicked, lazy servant: this man’s inactivity is not negligible but seriously culpable. As punishment, he loses the gift he had received, that is now given to the first servant, whose possessions are already great. Lazy ὀκνηρός essentially means one who hesitates or holds back, from fear or uncertainty. Here it is usually translated “lazy,” but the sense is not that the servant couldn’t be bothered, but that he was too timid to take a risk with his master’s money.

Matthew 25:29 For to everyone who has, more will be given…: See also Mt 13:12 where there is a similar application of this maxim.

Matthew 25:30 wailing and grinding of teeth: a phrase used frequently in this gospel to describe final condemnation (Mt 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30).

Sources

  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 451-53
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 487-91
  • T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007). 950-57
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 351-55
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 897
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 900-1
  • David Turner and Darrell L. Bock, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 11: Matthew and Mark (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005). 326-8

Dictionaries

  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture – The New American Bible available on-line at http://www.usccb.org/bible/

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