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? Continue reading

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Talents: sharing joy

Talents4A Curious Start. 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.” If Matthew had used a copy editor, I am sure they would be discussing the use of “it.” What will be as…? Curiously, most Matthean parables are explicit when it comes to the kingdom of heaven. The previous parable (Wise and Foolish Maidens) begins, “the kingdom of heaven will be like.” (25:1). Here Matthew begins hōsper gar, literally “for just as”, indicates that the same subject is under discussion. Continue reading

Talents: doing what?

Talents2In what does readiness consist? Keep in mind that in our parable, the servants are not surprised at their master’s coming, so “readiness” is more attuned to whether the servants will be dependable in the use of the resources. We should note that the master entrusted his resources to the servants according to their individual abilities (25:15). The third one received only one talent, likely indicating that the master understands that he has less ability than the others. The master does not overburden the third servant who nonetheless fails – not in any loss of money, but in returning it without increase. It was not that he did something wrong—he simply did nothing. This is, then, apparently, a parable about maximizing opportunities, not wasting them. To be “ready” for the master’s return means to use the intervening time to “maximum gain”; it is again about continuing life and work rather than about calculating the date and being alert for his actual arrival. Continue reading

Talents: readiness

Talents5Commentary – The preceding parables have been about readiness, and this one is particularly about faithful stewardship which readiness produces. The third in the series of parables about being ready returns to a setting similar to that of the first, a master dealing with his servants. But this time there is a more specific focus on their commercial responsibility in their master’s absence. Each is left with a very large sum of money, with no instructions on what to do with it, and the story turns on their different ways of exercising this responsibility. There is again a division between good and bad, between success and failure. Yet the “failure” of the last servant consists not in any loss of money, but in returning it without increase. It was not that he did something wrong—he simply did nothing. This is, then, apparently, a parable about maximizing opportunities, not wasting them. To be “ready” for the master’s return means to use the intervening time to maximum gain; it is again about continuing life and work rather than about calculating the date and being alert for his actual arrival. This third parable is thus essentially making the same point about readiness as the two preceding ones (Mt 24:45-51 and Mt 25:1-13). Continue reading

Talents: context

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.’ Continue reading

Ever ready: allegory

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.” Be it parable or allegory, we are limited in dissecting this passage from the gospel. Many commentaries offer insight from wedding customs, but of another culture or age. One commentary I reviewed was assuming 10th century Jewish wedding customs from Spain reflected an unaltered liturgical custom. Possibly.

We know that weddings provided one of the high points in village life, and the question of who was and was not included affected one’s social standing. Our knowledge of Jewish wedding customs at the time is limited, leaving scholars to suggest analogies from other cultures; but it is probably wiser to admit our ignorance. This story mentions only two parties, the bridegroom and the ten girls. The precise role of the latter in the ceremonies is not clear but most scholars assume that Hellenistic-Roman marriage customs also apply in Jewish circles at the time, and thus the young women are servants from the bridegroom’s house, awaiting the return of the bridegroom with his bride after the wedding feast at her house. Possibly. Continue reading

Ever ready: prepared

The young women are described with the Greek term for “virgins” which is meant to indicate unmarried friends or relatives of either the bride or the bridegroom. The story tells us that their role included escorting the bridegroom in a torchlight procession to his house, but that they were not present at whatever part of the ceremonies immediately preceded this procession. The unexpected delay at that point in the proceedings may have been caused by extended bargaining over the financial settlement, or by any number of other causes, deliberate or accidental. It does not matter; all that matters is the delay, and the effect it had on the readiness of the girls when the time for their part in the ceremonies eventually arrived. Continue reading

Ever ready: context

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, 4 but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 At midnight, there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ 7 Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise ones replied, ‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. 11 Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ 12 But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour. Continue reading

Say and Do: seeking honor

8 As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. 10 Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be your servant.
12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

By the second century the title “Rabbi” (etymologically “my great one”) was properly used of those who had been trained and formally recognized as scribes (like our “Reverend”), but this technical use probably came in after the time of Jesus: as applied to Jesus (26:25, 49; Mark 9:5; 10:51; 11:21; John 1:49; 3:2 etc.) it was apparently an honorary title, based on his reputation rather than his official status.

In contrast with the scribes’ love of human approbation, Jesus calls on those who follow him to avoid honorific titles.  Verses 8–10, while taking up the theme of the scribes’ craving for public respect, are clearly aimed primarily at Jesus’ own disciples (the “scribes” of the kingdom of heaven, 13:52), those for whom he (“the Messiah,” v. 10) is the one true teacher and leader. They highlight a concern for status which, while taken for granted in secular society (20:25) ought not to characterize those who follow Jesus (20:26). Matthew’s inclusion of this warning in his gospel testifies to the fact that the problem had not gone away, as indeed it still has not among Christians today. The three titles singled out were probably all being used in Matthew’s church. It is not difficult for a modern reader to think of similar honorifics in use today, and to discern behind the titles an excessive deference to academic or ecclesiastical qualifications.

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus himself is addressed as “Teacher” only by outsiders, never by his disciples, and the actual Hebrew term “Rabbi” is heard only from the lips of Judas after his apostasy (26:25, 49). But the title is not in itself objectionable, since it is here forbidden not for Jesus himself but for his disciples, and the reason for the ban is to avoid confusion with the only true “teacher” they have, Jesus himself. To recognize him as such is not false adulation but sober fact, but not even the most prominent of his followers is to be placed alongside him in this position of authority. Cf. the comment in 7:28–29 on the unique authority of Jesus the teacher in contrast with “their scribes” who are here under the spotlight. If anyone is entitled to “sit on Moses’ chair,” it is Jesus.

The statement that “you are all brothers” might seem more appropriate after the next verse; here we might have expected “fellow-disciples” as the correlative to “teacher.” But “brothers” is apparently for Jesus a way of expressing equality; it is not for one brother to be set above the others. This usage deserves to be noticed by those who value the biblical view of disciples as brothers and sisters: the term rules out differences of status, for the discourse of Mt 18 (which also made prominent use of the term “brother”) has cast us all together in the role of “little ones.”

The introduction of familial terminology in “you are all brothers” now leads into another family title, which is also open to abuse: “father.” It is found in the OT as a term of respect, usually applied to someone older and/or socially superior to the speaker (e.g. 1 Sam 24:11; 2 Kgs 2:12; 5:13; 6:21). Its use in Judaism for an authoritative teacher is illustrated by the title of the mishnaic tractate ʾAbot, “The Fathers,” a collection of sayings of revered teachers past and present. But Jesus’ special emphasis on the disciple’s relationship with God as the one “heavenly Father” (especially prominent in the Sermon on the Mount) means that it should no longer be thoughtlessly used of other people—except of course in its literal sense. Paul will speak of his evangelistic role as that of a “father” to those whom he has brought to faith (1 Cor 4:15; cf. Phm 10), but there is no NT record of him or any other Christian leader being addressed as “father.”

The third title, “instructor,” occurs only here in the NT, nor is it found in the LXX. Its original sense was “leader” or “guide,” one who shows the way, but it came to be more commonly used for teachers, those who show the way intellectually or spiritually. It may therefore be a virtual synonym of “teacher” in v. 8; perhaps our term “mentor” might convey the same sense. As in v. 8, Jesus is the only person who truly fulfills that role for his followers.

It is surprising that Matthew here portrays Jesus as using “the Messiah” as a third-person title (Mark 9:41 is the only other synoptic example), especially as he has forbidden his disciples to use that term to describe him (16:20) and has previously carefully avoided doing so himself. His disciples were, of course, well aware by now that Jesus did see his mission in messianic terms, and would have understood him here to be speaking of himself, as in v. 8. But the audience is still, according to v. 1, the general public as well as his disciples. We noted above, however, that from v. 8 the primary audience is clearly Jesus’ disciples, and in such a context Matthew has not found the title inappropriate, perhaps because the wording does not actually say that “the Messiah” is Jesus, however obvious this must have been to his disciples at the time, as it would be also to Matthew’s Christian readers.

Further sayings about status, already familiar from Jesus’ teaching in 18:1–5 and 20:26–27, complete the paragraph. Prov 29:23 for an aphorism similar to v. 12. Such sayings occur at several places in the synoptic tradition, v. 12 being closely paralleled twice in Luke in different contexts (Luke 14:11; 18:14). Like “The first will be last and the last first” (19:30; 20:16) these sayings encapsulate Jesus’ repeated assault on pomp and self-importance, and reinforce the portrait of Jesus’ disciples as a community of “little ones” which is important to Matthew.


Notes

Matthew 23:2 the chair of Moses: The earliest known use of “chair of Moses” apparently to describe a literal seat is in the later rabbinic work Pesiq. Rab Kah. 7b, but the context does not make it clear that a synagogue seat is being referred to. For the archeological evidence see L. Y. Rahmani, IEJ 40 (1990) 192–214; Other scholars and archeologist argue that in some synagogues a “chair of Moses” was used to support the Torah scroll, but finds no evidence that the term was used for a teacher’s chair.

Matthew 23:3 they tell you: Mark Allen Powell argues that what the scribes “tell” (Matthew does not say “teach”) is not their teaching but simply the law of Moses which they are authorized to read to what is a largely illiterate populace. In that case, there is no endorsement of scribal teaching here at all. As tempting as that position is, one must note that a dichotomy between words and deeds is foreign to ancient Jewish culture.  It is more plausible that scribal teaching is displayed within their ἔργα, “deeds” (better than “example”)

Sources

  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 430-33
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 449-56
  • T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007). 859-64.
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 319-24
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 894
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 535-46
  • David Turner and Darrell L. Bock, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 11: Matthew and Mark (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005). 290-91.

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/index.cfm

Say and Do: yoke

4 They tie up heavy burdens (hard to carry) and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.

By saying and not doing (v. 3) they imposed rules on other people but gave them no help in coping with them. So in contrast with the “kind yoke” and “light burden” of following Jesus (11:30), those who follow the scribes and Pharisees find themselves toiling and heavily loaded (11:28) struggling under the weight of a hugely expanded legal code which enslaves rather than liberates those who follow it. Continue reading