Is God a ruthless exploiter of our talents in Matthew 25?

The lectionary gospel reading for the Second Sunday before Advent as we approach the end of Year A is the so-called Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25.14–30. The most popular interpretation of this is that God gives us abilities and gifts (‘talents’) and leaves us to get on with using them in fruitful and enterprising ways as responsible stewards until he returns and asks us to give an account of what we have done. So the moral is: do not bury your talents in the ground. There is an important and central corrective to this reading, which we will come to—but there is also a more radical reading which rejects the whole shape of this approach. This was expressed by a friend on Facebook last week:

The parable of the talents in today’s Gospel, and everywhere people will be exhorted to shine with God-given light lest in hiding it away they find themselves cast into outer darkness to gnash their teeth to the gums and such like. There’s a different angle; to me it’s all about the consequences of the ruthless exploitation of the powerless. I’ve always felt for the poor guy who buries his talent in the ground so it groweth not, and when his unattractive master returns he cops it for failing in enterprise—fired, like a hapless contestant on The Apprentice. But the ruthless master is surely not to be identified with Jesus, as preachers of v1 assume. It’s totally un-Matthean, and totally at odds with the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.

There are three main reasons behind this kind of radical re-reading. First, many modern readers dislike the implied image of the master in the story, and the suggestion by the third servant that he is a hard man who exploits others. This is not the gracious God we see depicted elsewhere—and the character’s harshness is more prominent in the similar parable of the minas in Luke 19:12–27. Secondly, this parable is followed in Matthew (and in the weekly lectionary) by the ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats, which appears to be about our responsibility to care for the poor. Surely this would lead us to sympathise with the poor third servant? Thirdly, these concerns are supported by reading the parable in its social and historical context, where the kind of speculative investment that Jesus appears to be commending would not have been viewed positively.

Whereas a modern, Western audience would applaud the first two slaves for trading and investing well, an ancient audience would have approved of the third slave’s behavior and condemned that of the first two slaves because they profited at the expense of others. Richard Rohrbaugh explains:

[G]iven the “limited good” outlook of ancient Mediterranean cultures, seeking “more” was considered morally wrong. Because the pie was “limited” and already all distributed, anyone getting “more” meant someone else got less. Thus honorable people did not try to get more, and those who did were automatically considered thieves: To have gained, to have accumulated more than one started with, is to have taken the share of someone else.

This interpretation of the Parable of the Talents’ meaning casts the actions of the first two slaves as shameful and that of the third slave as honorable.

This has lead to a ‘liberation theology’ reading of the parable, reading (we might say) against the grain of the text and from the perspective of the poor. William Herzog argued, in his 1994 Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressedthat we should see the parable as highlighting the exploitation of the servants by the master, and the third servant as being punished for his honest exposé rather than for his laziness.

With these objections in mind, let’s look at the parable itself.

The parable begins with an important word ‘Again…’. This links it to the two preceding parables, firstly about the wise and foolish virgins, and through that to the previous parable about the faithful servant (and so completing another of Matthew’s groups of three), the saying about the thief in the night, and the parallel drawn with the days of Noah. The parable about the virgins begins with ‘At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like…’; ‘that time’ has previously been specified not as the immediate troubles that will lead to the destruction of the temple, but the time after some (considerable?) delay of the parousia of the Son of Man. The phrase identifies this time as the coming of the kingdom of God (or of ‘the kingdom of the heavens’ mostly in Matthew); it is therefore no surprise that in the final teaching of this block (‘When he had finished saying all these things…’ 26.1), the Son of Man takes his throne and is transformed into the king in 25.31. The language of ‘like’ is typical of Jesus’ kingdom parables; it suggests that there is a central point of comparison, but it does not mean that the parable should be read like an allegory, with a one-to-one correspondence between the people and events of the story and the characters they are referring to.

There is a particular dynamic to the distribution of the ‘talents’—which in many modern translations are now thankfully rendered as ‘bags of gold’ or something similar—and there are some important things we should note. First is the risky generosity of the master. Perhaps, in the logic of the narrative, he had little choice since he was going away—but he entrusts ‘his wealth’ to the servants, and it is an enormous amount. A ‘talent’ would have been worth half a lifetime’s earnings for an average worker. This puts the lie to the most common reading which has actually brought the word ‘talent’ into the English language—that this treasure is our natural abilities. Such a reading absurdly presumes that our own abilities are so valuable, and represent the ‘wealth’ of God. Reading in the context of Matthew’s gospel as a whole, we can see a much better referent—the kingdom of God which is like a treasure discovered in a field, or a pearl of great price which is worth our reckless abandonment of all other ‘treasures’ in our life (Matt 13.44–46). The wealth entrusted to us by God is the good news of his grace in Jesus, and this is what makes it a parable of the kingdom. We need also to note that there is no embarrassment about the different allocations; this is no Marxist utopia, but a realistic acknowledgment that we have different opportunities afforded to us.

(In a previous discussion about this parable, one person questioned whether the different amounts of gold really could represent the kingdom. ‘In what way does God give Christians different apportionments of Gospel?’ Actually, I think that this theme is found throughout the New Testament—for example, in Jesus’ saying ‘To whom much is given, much will be required’ (Luke 12.48 and pars), his language of those who are ‘great’ and ‘least’ in the kingdom (for example in Matt 5.19), and Paul’s language of building in different materials in 1 Cor 3.12. I can certainly think of people who are more spiritually mature and have greater understanding of the things of the kingdom than me…)

I find it interesting that the master gives no explicit instructions to the servants; those who have acted with entrepreneurial freedom to see what they could do with what they have been given have not merely been following orders. (Ironically, the picture at the top came from a website of an investment management company who claimed, with some justification, that the parable had a practical application in the investment world!) Instead, they have taken the example of the master’s trust and generosity and reflected that in their own action. The overall shape of the story, with the tripartite characters of the master, the good servants and the lazy servant is a natural way of telling stories which we find elsewhere in Jesus’ parables.

The idea that the master returns after a ‘long time’ repeats the phrase in 25.5 and 24.48, demonstrating that this parable fits with the others, continues the same ideas, and is typically Matthean in that regard. The reward for the two faithful servants contrasts with the similar (but not parallel) story in Luke 19.11–27; rather than being given further responsibility, they are invited into a relational place of contentment as they ‘share your master’s happiness’ (charan, ‘joy’). This functions to remove the economic dimension from the story, and make these two the genuine heroes of the tale; if we are going to read against the grain of the text and not take these as the role models that Jesus is offering us, then we will have to ignore this important, repeated, summary statement.

We need to read carefully the response of the third servant. He claims that the master is unreasonable and exploitative, ‘reaping where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed’ (verse 26). If the treasure does relate to the good news of the kingdom, then there is an interesting connection with the parable of the sower, where the seed stands for the preaching of the word. But we should note that the master does not actually accept the accusation; he simply plays back the words of the servant, and lets his actions be judged by them. In fact, the servant’s accusation is quite unjust; the master has indeed invested generously in his servants, but the failure of the last servant is a failure to recognise this manifest generosity.

The idea of putting the money ‘on deposit’ is not as secure as we might think in our context, since the bankers in the story are not the robust and reliable institutions that we know (the crash of 2008 aside!) but people who themselves will make speculative investments. Earning interest (usury) on money was prohibited in the OT (see Deut 23.19–20) so in context even this would have been rather shocking. But Jesus’ economic parables often drew on strange ideas to make a point about the kingdom. No manager would pay people the same regardless of how many hours they had worked (Matt 20.1–16), nor would we normally commend the shrewd manager of Luke 16.1–13 who writes off his master’s debt for his own interest. Very often, unlike the parables of nature, Jesus’ economic parables invert normal expectations to make a point about the kingdom of God. As one commentator noted in the Facebook discussion:

The mistake, I think, is to reduce the parables to moral tales – and make their meaning worthy but obvious. Instead, I reckon Jesus told them to shock hearers, especially religious hearers, out of feeling they’ve more or less got it. Bewilderment and discomfort are necessary steps to perceiving the kingdom.

The conclusion pictures a division between the worthy and the unworthy with a sharp sense of finality—something that is a consistent feature of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, all the way back to the language of the wide and the narrow paths in the Sermon on the Mount. The specific saying about ‘those who have will be given more’ has already been cited in Matt 13.12, in relation to Jesus’ own teaching about the kingdom and the people’s responses. And the description of the place of judgement as ‘darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ is again absolutely characteristic of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s gospel (Matt 8.12, 22.13).

What can we conclude from all this? Contrary to the opening observation, this parable is absolutely characteristic of Matthew’s Jesus. The themes of the delay of the parousia, the responsibility of those to whom the teaching about the kingdom has been entrusted, the certainty of the master’s return, and the nature of ‘watching’ all fit with teaching elsewhere, and in particular in this series of teachings from Matt 24.36 to the end of Matthew 25. The theme of accountability and reckoning fit with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere in the gospel and the rest of the New Testament.

The focus of this parable is not our natural abilities, nor a mandate to neo-liberal economics. Instead, it highlights the reckless generosity of God in giving himself to us in the gracious news of what he has done for us in Jesus. But it equally highlights the truth that, if we have really received this and understood what it is, then it will transform us into those who are equally reckless and generous with this good news. If we hide it away, then it shows we have never really understood it. To be ready for Jesus’ return does not involve endless speculation, but to live a life of faithful discipleship marked by a consistent willingness to share the good news of the kingdom with others.

Addendum. Part of the debate that followed on Facebook concerned the function of Jesus’ parables, how they offer challenging and unsettling perspectives, and their provocative openness. One of the readings cited was that of Symon Hill, who follows the liberation-reading rejection of God as the master holding his servants to account.

I am not suggesting that there can be only one meaning of this (or any other) parable. If Jesus had wanted only to issue straightforward instructions, he would not have told parables. They are meant to make us think. My point here is about what attitudes and assumptions we bring to the reading of the Bible. Do we expect to see God identified with the powerful or the powerless?

The “traditional” interpretation of this parable is positively harmful. Christian investment banker Jeremy Marshall uses it to argue that “banking is a biblical principle”. We cannot know just how much financial exploitation has been defended on the basis of this misread parable, but it’s certainly played a part.

I think Symon is quite right to challenge the use of this parable to justify banking practices, not simply on the basis of Jesus’ teaching elsewhere, but because of the meaning of ‘treasure’ in Matthew and the explicit context of this as a kingdom parable about readiness. But there is some irony in rejecting the explicit signalling within the parable, that God holds us to account for how we respond to the good news, on the basis that we find the idea of accountability and judgement uncomfortable and challenging. Just as Jesus’ other teaching challenges the vested interest of those who seek justification for their privilege, Jesus’ teaching here challenges a ‘liberal’ rejection of judgement and the need to respond decisively to the gospel. Jesus’ consistent presentation, especially in Matthew, of a final division between those who are saved and those who are not makes for uncomfortable reading—practically for us all, and theologically for those who would be inclined to a more universalist position.

Some in the conversation suggested that Jesus’ parables are indeterminate, and that it is possible to read them in different ways. It is notable that Symon Hill here rejects that idea: a version of the ‘traditional’ reading is positively damaging in his view, and it should be displaced by his preferred reading. If nothing else, this demonstrates that these different approaches take us in quite opposite directions, and it makes little sense to think that Jesus’ teaching could be read in these two ways equally. If so, then Jesus’ teaching means nothing, and functions simply as a blank canvas on which we project our own pre-formed interest—which is hardly then either radical or challenging.

It might be argued that the very form of the parable is ambiguous, as testified by the puzzlement of some of Jesus’ hearers in response to the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:1-15). But in response to this puzzlement, Jesus tells his disciples three things. First, that the obscurity of the meaning to those ‘outside’ functions as provocation: do they want to know more, and will they seek to become insiders? Secondly, ‘to you [i.e. the insiders who have committed to following Jesus] have been given the secrets of the kingdom’, that is, as we follow Jesus and learn about discipleship, we should understand his teaching. Thirdly, failing to understand and follow actually leads to judgement. So if we are finding Jesus’ teaching ambiguous, this is not good news at all!

The details of the text that I have highlighted actually discount the alternative readings; this pericope is full of Jesus’ Matthean language, and read in context the meaning is relatively unambiguous. Jesus does not tell parables to avoid straightforward instructions, as Symon Hill suggests—not least because each parable is accompanied by a straightforward instruction and a pithy, memorable summary (in this case ‘To him who has much, more will be given’). The function of the parables is to dramatise this, and to create a sense of self-involvement by the reader. Of the three servants, which do you identity with—and what are the consequences of that? (Previously published in 2017.)

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36 thoughts on “Is God a ruthless exploiter of our talents in Matthew 25?”

  1. I think you’re unfair to Symon Hill, who, in the segment you quoted, did not say what you have later refuted at length. He particularly resists implying that there is only one reading. To believe that parables can speak different ‘truths’ to us in different contexts and at different times is surely not to suggest that this makes Jesus’ teaching meaningless. I have found the parable of the Prodigal Son has spoken powerfully and quite differently to me over the space of a fortnight because of a change in my personal situation. His critique was to suggest that the ‘traditional’ reading, which I grew up with, had unhelpfully put Christianity on the side of some questionable banking practices. Your reading is helpful and provocative. The test for me is how does any interpretation of a story told 2000 years ago help me seek God’s kingdom more attentively in 21st century life?

    • Thanks Sue. In light of you comment, I will go back and read again.

      But I disagree that ‘there is more than one reading of the passage’. I am increasingly of the view that Jesus was clear about what he was teaching in the parables, and that his first audience could be clear too. I think I have tried to explain why the two major alternatives to my reading (that the ‘talents’ are our natural gifts and abilities, or that we should think the master is wicked and oppressive) do not stand up to scrutiny when we read the text carefully.

      I do think that Jesus’ parables are provocative, not least because they are engaging narratives, and they have quite an emotional and rhetorical punch to them. And different aspects of them might challenge us in different ways at different times. But none of that suggests that they are ambiguous…

      • I am sure you are right that Jesus had one particular message that he wished to convey in his teaching. My concerns are numerous about what this then means for us two thousand years later. For one thing we cannot even be sure that the Gospel writers got it down accurately. In fact we know they didn’t because we have different versions of some things. Jesus also spoke in a language that was translated even as it was incorporated into a narrative within an interpretation. This opens up ambiguities. Finally there is context. Unless we assume that Jesus spoke without reference to his particular context, in some sort of vacuum, if you like, then later readers will always be hearing what he said and trying to make sense of it in another context, which also demands interpretation. Every written communication struggles with reflexivity. What I understand when you communicate with me is influenced by my experience, situation and temperament. In my view scripture is not exempt from this and to be a resource for us today has to be approached with this understanding. Does this weaken the Christian message? In my seriously Christian life, no it does not. It means I hear God’s word startlingly fresh, challenging and inspiring at every turn. It also means I am not permitted merely to respond to a segment of that teaching or to think that how I interpret it is the last word. We need rigour and engagement, we need scholarly knowledge and human insight, we need the Holy Spirit at all times and her living presence to lead us into humble discernment.

        • Thanks Susan. Briefly on your points:

          1. Actually I think we can be confident that the gospels are reliable, for all sorts of reason. I have addressed this in a post about the death of Judas, which is often held up as an example of clear contradiction—which it isn’t.

          2. Yes indeed, we probably have Jesus’ teaching in translation…though in fact I and others think that he might well have taught in Greek, not least in multilingual Galilee. As a tradesman, he would have had to speak Greek to do business.

          3. yes indeed how we receive things is shaped by our own situation. But this is not necessarily fatal to communication, else we would never communicate anything with each other. What is needed is the ‘hermeneutical spiral’, where we bring our assumptions to the text and allow the text to challenge them and us, and then we come to the text again having revised our assumptions.

          That is what I try to do in the commentaries. We do need the Spirit, but more to shape our attitudes than to provide us with additional information.

          • Wouldn’t disagree about the spiral, nor the hermeneutical engagement. But I hear you saying that all the movement happens within our assumptions (about what – our orientation to life, the meaning of the text?) I work on the principle that in that encounter it is possible to find new meaning in the text which helps us in our lives today. I cannot follow you on the proposal that Jesus taught in Greek. While I believe it is possible that he had a working knowledge of the language for the reasons you give, I don’t see how that would have worked in communication with the disciples or the crowds of ordinary folk who followed him.

    • I think that ‘there is more than one reading’ can become a dogma. Evidence is (as ever) the key. Is anything more being said than that ‘I prefer plurality’? If a reader prefers plurality, that (a) is a subjective preference, and (b) has nothing to do with the speakers and writers of the parables, which is after all the point.

      Of course parables make infinitely many connections with different people at different times in different life circumstances. But none of these is the parable’s meaning, which is to be found internally and in immediate context. Meaning is one thing, connections/resonances are another.

      A further point is that ‘there is more than one reading’ can sound superficially intelligent, but is actually a conclusion that one can draw only after making extremely detailed contextual analysis of the speaker’s/writer’s intentions.

      The more so if one generalises that all 50 parables have more than one reading. This would be one of the world’s larger generalisations, and generalisations of any size always mean alarm bells. (It reminds me of when I was at university and one NT lecturer said he disagreed – period – with a colleague. Apparently on every issue under the sun?? Is that possible? Why? Because the colleague believed – quite sensibly – that there are *some* things one can be sure about.)

      It sounds more like one of those sweeping ideological generalisations like ‘All religions lead to God’ (usually made by people who have studied less than 1% of said religions). They sound superficially intelligent but (because of their extreme level of generality) cannot be.

      Or the modern fashion for exalting plurality and/or diversity, which are after all 2 very vague concepts.

  2. Thank you for a really helpful expansion of this passage not least reminding us that it fits with other parables where a master / bridgegroom returns after a delay; it reinforces the decision we make or don’t make and the consequence. It reminds us to look to the structure of the gospel to make better sense of the episode or parable or section.
    While I warm to the radical reading of the heroic resistant third slave – and it goes back I think to the Gospel of the Nazoreans, so it is an early alternative reading – I agree that Matthew clearly stamps the first two slaves as those who are commended, and the third is condemned, not just within the story by the master, but to the audience, being cast out into theological darkness.
    The trickier element is how this parable, and the somewhat similar one in Luke, relate, and how therefore they relate to Jesus’ own teaching. Matthew has grouped parables here in a teaching section. We are not meant to think Jesus told these parables in one sitting. Luke places the parable of the would-be-king after Zacchaeus repents, and on the approach to Jerusalem. Luke seems to want us to hear the parable in relation to how Zacchaeus has responded, but it is not clear what the link is.
    In Luke the would-be-king is even more ruthless / harsh, and there are not the textual indicators to help us evaluate his behaviour (enter into my joy/ thrown into outer darkness). The story in Luke could be read either way – either a harsh king who teaches a lesson in recognition, or a harsh king to be resisted because the true king is yet to come and it is the true king to whom we should offer allegiance.

    And there is also the enigmatic teaching of Jesus which is found in several places – those who have will be given more / those who don’t have, even what they have will be taken away. This would appear to be a piece of rather fatalistic peasant wisdom- akin to The rich get richer! In what way did Jesus appropriate this saying? Ched Myers in his commentary on Mark argues it was a saying to resist – beware being taken in by this sort of fatalism. Although we may feel the rich get richer etc, look at the mustard seed – the Kingdom will prevail.

    Thank you for putting this parable clearly within the wider teaching, and showing how Matthew “uses” it. I think there are however questions to ask about the story and its understanding and transmission in the period from Jesus to the gospel writers.

    The Lukan – Matthew split on this same basic story, or is it the Lukan Matthew split over telling two rather similar stories also illuminates the challenge of the relation of Matthew to Luke and vice versa. Did Luke know Matthew and choose to tell it differently (or vice versa) or did they each have a slightly different story from their different sources? Even with good exposition, there are awkward unanswered questions around the edge or underneath which prevent us making too tidy a package of any text!

    • On this occasion it seems clearer than ever that Luke used Matthew because of the inconcinnities in Luke’s version which are explained by his assuming unstated details that are to be found in Matthew. Goodacre ‘Fatigue in the Synoptics’ etc.. Luke’s further splicing-in of the Archelaus story makes his version a complicated read. People choose to rewrite with the best of intentions but massively underestimate how difficult it is to produce a coherent whole when rewriting.

      • But is it not true, that if the parable of the Ten Minas was of Jesus origin being told particularly to explain His coming to Jerusalem that we should expect the listeners – particularly the disciples – to be familiar with the parable of the talents? That going from three servants to ten isn’t Luke making a change* but Jesus emphasising to His listeners that they should not think that the unprofitable servants are in the minority, but in fact entering into Jerusalem that it is the two who are the faithful remnant (and there simply is no reason to give all seven rebels a speaking role).

        Also, although I am not suggesting that people are wrong to feel ‘he has ten cities, what’s an extra minas’, I do think that they are demonstrating a failure of empathy when suggesting that the second acknowledgment is so obviously worthless that it is good evidence of an error. Many people when saying about new creation will not focus on the eternity, or the superiority, or the without sin, or the perfect knowledge, or anything like that but the ‘Well done good and faithful servant’.

        I do think that the similarity of the ‘take from the one to give to the one with ten’ has to be suggestive of something. Particularly, the the first servant really does have eleven minas. (I don’t know Greek, is it clear that ‘προσηργάσατο’ means that he still has the first minas?) But I think the essential plot seems perfectly coherent.

        * Also, why? The other fatigue point seems to generally be Luke making un important omission that later causes a confusion. For example in the Paralytic man, Luke doesn’t say they’re inside – reasonable enough – but that causes problems with your mental picture when the roof comes off. Here we are expected to believe that Luke – who did so wonderfully with the parable son – just utterly blew this to pieces.

        • (a) Luke has neither 10 servants nor 3, but rather begins by making a change from 3 to 10 and later lets slip that he is by now forgetfully envisaging 3 and is working with a model that has 3. Otherwise he would not write of ‘the other’ in 19.20.

          (b) Gifting one mina to someone who has already 10 cities would be a 0.0000000001% tip. An inconcinnity (failure to match up) par excellence.

          (c) However, Luke also forgot his change in the nature of the prize from talents/minai to cities. So the person does not already have 10 cities by the time we get to 19.24-5, but merely 10 minai. And see (d).

          (d) Actually 19.24-5 speaks inaccurately of 10 minai when by rights it should be speaking by now of 11 minai, including the increment at the poor investor’s expense.

          The points that don’t match up even *internally* come at precisely the points of detail where the editorial changes from Matthew’s version have been initially made but not sustained. Not in the other parts of the parable.

          So when people dogmatically claim (with minimal detail) that the Synoptic Problem is insoluble, it is as well to point out that even one single individual verse can have multiple relevant data that help us determine the order of writing.

          This is to say nothing of Luke’s other similar passages that tell a similar source-critical story. However, I have not found him to be much worse than Matt in this respect, which did surprise me.

          Luke by ch19 has just come to the end of his central section, which is an epic piece of ordering, and is no doubt exhausted/’fatigued’, having been (by my dating) rather an elderly man at the time, say over 60.

          • a) I don’t know the original language but it is generally translated as ‘another’ and surely they must have a good reason for this.

            b) And a ‘well done’ is worth nothing at all. And yet that occurs even in the Matthew parable. In addition, the Mathew servant is able to enter into the joy of his master. Now, a talent is worth more than a minas but that joy in Christ is even more valuable over that of a city. So in a sense, one ought to see the inconcinnity as greater in Matthew than Luke.

            Now, one might say that the response of the choir ‘But he has ten minas’ is inconcinnint, however that doesn’t appear in Matthew so can’t be put down to a failure at editing Luke.

            c) But the prize isn’t the talents in Matthew eight it is (to quote the ESV) ‘I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master’; the difference in Luke and Matthew here is merely that in Luke it is proportionate to the gain and in Matthew it is equal (although actually in Matthew both good servants do the same proportionate increase just starting with different capital).

            The man with ten minas’ is simply an easier way to refer to him since he has had ten minases (well eleven) for longer than he has had ten cities which presumably came as something of a shock.

            d) I think this is definitely the best point. I’ve tried trying to look up how confident we ought to be that it should be ‘one plus ten’ rather than ‘one to ten’ but everywhere I’ve looked just takes it for granted. (Which I suppose means they’re very confident) since its important in a multiplitive case but have drawn a blank.

            e) But why if he is an elderly man having come nearly to the end of his central section would he decide to make these transformations to Matthew’s parable? For what reason does Luke change talents to pounds? For what reason does he give a reward of cities?

  3. Thank you for this, for opening up your behind – the – scenes discussions.
    What is revealing to me are the concepts of context, trajectories and theological presuppositions.
    You have drawn out the scriptural context and trajectory: in contrast others have projected their presuppositional theological trajectory.
    The whole context is the gospel of Matthew the coming of the long expected Messiah in Jesus after a 400 year absence as it were of God, inter-testament period. What were the religious people doing? Keeping good news of the Goodness of God to themselves in their complacency or making Him known? What were they doing when they thought God wasn’t there, wasn’t watching, wasn’t present, no longer making himself, known nor heard, the voice of the servant prophets and Davidic kings having fallen silent who were killed, ignored, ridiculed, despised.
    And now, God, in his Goodness in the long expected Messiah and Davidic King, in prophetic word made person, was among them, “the seed” who would die, buried and raised as first fruit.
    To change tack, this is the gold of the gospel, to be invested by freely giving it away.
    It extends far beyond, good advice, or good information. And it is true liberation.

  4. In Luke’s version people who have done nothing other than protest about a ruler they disapprove of are sentenced to death. It’s hard not to find this ruler fairly unlikeable and unpleasant as a picture of God or Jesus. (I understand there’s a historical parallel to the case.)
    But I agree that it’s also hard to read either parable as approving of the third servant.

    • In today’s world protesters are shot all too often ..
      Yes, I agree that Luke’s King is ruthless, but I also think that if we read Luke without our pre-conceptions, the King is not necessarily the hero of the story. It could be read as a story of ongoing oppression: After the conversion of Zacchaeus, people ask if the Kingdom of God will appear imminently, and Jesus tells a story that says No, the ruthless greedy powers will continue and those who resist will be thrown out (but hang in there because the Kingdom WILL come in God’s time, just not immediately).
      In such a reading Luke’s parable is very different from Matthew’s of course, almost a polar opposite.
      Another difficult question is whether Luke has somewhat misunderstood the original or inherited story and obscured its original challenge.
      And the more difficult question then is whether we accept that our gospel records are somewhat clouded, in places, by the overlay of the writer. Some will say that is the slippery slope away from the authority of Scripture, and / or the arrogance of modern interpreters who think they know better! Others will say the task is always to see how the gospel message is both shaped by the culture as well as shapes it.

      • Peter,
        Please explain what the Gospel message is.
        It doesn’t change. It is always, Jesus, prophet, priest and King of Kings, word flesh, God with us. It is not based on shape. shifting sands of time.

    • Of course, although the parable only speaks of their sending a strongly worded message as the representative of their rebellion, that isn’t an accurate picture of human behaviour, and nobody listening would have thought it was the full extent of their rebellion (It really isn’t the equivalent of sending a letter to The Times.

      In really life we know that the rebellion takes the forms of crucifying the King, throwing loyal servants to the lions, blasphemy, child abuse, and massacring fifty men on a football pitch taking women to be raped and used as sex slaves. Is justice to the rebels really so unlikable to you?

  5. Thank you so much for this article. It is also a healthy corrective for those who see the church simply in business terms and suggest that we are not getting “the right return” because we are not investing, time , effort, resources etc properly. This may on occasions be true, however it sometimes seems that this text has been used to import business practise in to what is very often an organic community and has caused much pain as a result.

  6. Thank you for this article. It was interesting to read.

    Although, ‘The wealth entrusted to us by God is the good news of his grace in Jesus, and this is what makes it a parable of the kingdom.’ sounds very nice especially with ‘ Such a reading absurdly presumes that our own abilities are so valuable, and represent the ‘wealth’ of God.’. However, It seems to me that in your justification of different amounts you walk back on yourself. The talent again represents ones abilities, but just the particular ones of maturity and understanding. (And it would be somewhat passive aggressive not to acknowledge that those are gifts with which you happen to be unusually gifted in).

    I think the stuff about the honour of the third servant really demonstrates the problems of taking a little bit of knowledge and trying to read it through that one factoid (which is of course not the method the ancients or the biblical writers used). For example, if it is better for a freeman not to profit does that imply that it is better for a slave to act as a freeman? The way to know how the ancients would read the parable is to read more of the ancients reading the parable.

    • Not sure what you mean by the factoid. I don’t think I walk back on my claim that the treasure is not our natural abilities; I was just responding to one particular critique of my connection of the treasure with the kingdom.

      • Spiritual maturity and understanding are abilities. If the different distributions represent not the kingdom and the good news itself, but instead represents our maturity and understanding then it represents a sub-set of our abilities.

        (By the factoid what I mean is that taking a true fact about the past – in this case that increasing profit was dishonourable – but adding it to a false or hugely incomplete vision of the past – in this case whether or not it is pleasant to act in a way which is honourable for a free man – gets you nowhere, or at least as likely to lead you astray as lead you right.)

  7. I once read Brian Houston’s ‘You Need More Money’, expecting (on the basis of the title) to disagree strongly. But I read it only because he is one of the finest preachers I know. In fact I agreed with almost everything in the book. It is the same message as Matthew’s ‘Talents’.

  8. Some further thoughts based on the principles of “reading backwards” to seek to understand the import of the text to the first hearers, readers and “reading forwards” to set in the context of the full canon of scripture.
    There will likely be a necessary overlap, as it centres on Christology in the Gospels being “deeply embedded in a symbolic world shaped by the Old Testament” (1) It is a little of what is termed “the intra-biblical intertextuality of the Gospels. (1) and further described as “how deeply rooted early “divine identity Christology” was in Israel’s scripture.” (1)

    1. Gospel of Matthew
    1.1 There is a “front-loaded” repeated theme of the fulfilment of scripture in the person of Jesus, together with a repeated “figural reading of scripture. (1)
    1.2 Christ as the “temple” presence of God, something greater than the temple.
    1.3The temple as a figurative heaven on earth, speaking of heavenly things as opposed to earthly.

    2. Gold “talents”used in building of temple (2)
    There are a number of OT references of temple building in gold;
    2.1″100,00 talents of gold and 1,000,000 talents of silver prepared for construction of the whole temple
    2.2 inner sanctuary… overlaid with pure gold 1 Kings 6:20-21
    2.3 repeated reference to gold, silver, precious stones in 1 Chronicles 29:2-7

    3 Fast forward to 1 Corinthians 3:12 to compare and contrast the building of Solomon’s temple (2):
    3.1 “if any man builds on the foundation, with gold, silver, precious stones, wood…
    Here Paul compares the people to a temple. (1 Cor 1 : 3:10-15)
    3.2 the foundation is Jesus Christ
    3.3 the work of building the temple/people on the foundation of Jesus will be tested by fire in the Day. This has echoes of,
    3.4 “God’s Messenger… and the Lord whom you seek, will come suddenly to his Temple. The last Judgement of the refiner’s fire of gold and silver (of purifying sons of Levi) in Malachi 3-4
    3.5 Building up (of faith of God’s people/holy temple) not to be through the use of “wisdom of the world”, which is folly.
    3.5 God’s wisdom, in God’s word is surpasses and comparison to “gold and silver, (Ps. 119:72; Prov. 3:14; 8:10; 16:16)
    Only the temple, (precious) living stones built on the foundation of Jesus will survive:
    “1 Cor 3:
    16 Do you not know that you[a] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

    (1) Based on, with quotations from, “Reading Backwards” Richard B, Hays
    (2) Point numbered 2 and 3 are based on, with quotations from, “The Temple and the Church’s Mission” G.K.Beale

  9. I wonder if the real difference between the “good and faithful” servants and the “wicked and lazy” servant is in their perception of their master? By his own admission, the third servant sees the master as a harsh, scary figure. The other two do not say very much, but the first does acknowledge that the master is a giver, not a taker – “you entrusted me with five talents.” Also the way he goes to work “immediately” perhaps suggests there is a spring in his step; an eagerness which is absent from the third servant.

    So, as in the Beatitudes, outward action is shaped by inward attitude. When we view God as a harsh, grasping figure, it doesn’t lead to a productive life of good works but only to a fearful effort to minimize losses, to ‘do no harm.’ When we view God as a good and faithful master, we are more likely to be good and faithful servants.

    I think this helps to answer the question of whether the master is to be identified with God. The master is. But the third servant’s perception of him isn’t.

  10. Thanks for this, Ian. Our church in Sydney happens to be preaching this this week (we don’t follow a lectionary).

    One question. You said,
    The parable begins with an important word ‘Again…’.
    How do you think NIV gets, ‘Again,’ out of ωσπερ γαρ?

    • Hi Alan, good to hear this. ESV (and I suspect others) stick with ‘for’, but the usual sense of this in English is that there is a *logical* connective between what preceded and what now follows. This reads oddly, since there isn’t any real sense in which the parable of the talents is *explaining* the parable of the ten girls.

      The logical force of gar is indeed the most common, and the first major entry in BDAG. But the second major entry is ‘marker of clarification’. What we therefore have in this group of parables is a series of clarifications of the opening call to ‘be alert’ and live in expectation. The parable of the talents doesn’t explain the parable of the girls, but offers *another* comment on eschatological expectation—and the natural way of expressing this is the NIV’s ‘again’.

      Hope that helps.

  11. Hi Ian,
    I have been thinking about how Jesus taught the disciples after he taught the crowd with parables. Until now I had assumed he taught differently when he had the disciples on their own, in a different place, later on. But it occurs to me that perhaps he always started his discourses in a parabolic way and slowly went on to disclose the truth in a more personal way later. It was just that the crowds slowly thinned out over time. Those who remained drew in closer as he began to be more specific and open up the earlier parabolic sayings. Today it would be like a teacher giving a broad, easy to understand outline and then, when most had gone to lunch, proceed to enjoin the enthusiasts. Sometimes the ‘disciples’ were in the scores and at other times only twelve. Around the BBQ- only seven.

    This is probably obvious to everyone ..but its a new idea to me!

  12. Dear Ian,

    Thank you for your work on this passage. Both interpretations you refute have stuck in my craw over time as being not valid, both the common one of “our talents” a blatant mistranslation of what should be more like gold bricks (or bags of gold, like you said), and the one flipping the heroes. I recently read this second one on, and while I like a lot of the interpretative points of other passages, this one just didn’t seem to fit. As some in the comments section have talked about the gold, I do believe grace or God’s steadfast love, or God’s unconditional forgiveness fit the bill. As we reflect on this “instruction”, this Torah to us, we realize the overwhelming goodness of God’s nature for us and all creation, even forgiving a near infinite number of transgressions, like the king in Matt 18 forgives the one who lost 10,000 bags of gold (billions?). Receive God’s love has to be Jesus’s message! Loved people feel happy, are healed, and freely love others. This is the understanding and maturity, the new view which the rich man freely gives, and the heroes freely receive and eagerly share. —Brian, Hospice Chaplain in California

    • Thanks–glad it was helpful. I am not sure, though, that the NT talks of us merely ‘feeling’ healed or forgiven, but declared so. And I think I agree with John Barclay when he highlights that grace is unconditioned (in that we do not merit it) but not ‘unconditional’. The conditions attached are that we give it away to others in sharing the call to repentance…which in fact this parable indeed teaches.

      • I guess what I’m trying to say is: Realizing we are loved, living in God’s love, accepting God’s love, receiving that unmerited mercy, accepting that we are forgiven completely, like the lame man lowered through the roof by his friends: then we can walk out into the world and share God’s love with others. Isn’t this the essence of faith?

        I agree that if we have true faith, we will share it with others, but first we have to enter the kingdom of the heavens ourselves, receive it like a child (Mt 18:3), and rejoice like the children in the temple over Jesus as the son of David (the new king) (Mt 21:15).

  13. I appreciated this article and the focus on the second coming and being faithful.

    However, I’m not confident this parable is about stewardship. In context in Luke, it is right before the triumphal entry of Christ and the His Kingship. This parable opens with the idea that the master’s son has been made King. Some took invested their faith in Him and did great things, others greater… and then there was the one who did nothing. He buried it.

    Essentially, this is what the religious leaders did with all their knowledge of Jesus, His works and the prophetic word. They did not want Him to be their king. Hence the difficult outcome noted by Jesus at the parable’s ending. They will perish.

    Positioned against this is the triumphal entry. The disciples honor Jesus as King, with praises and song, while the religious leaders rebuke Him. The result for the latter follows the parable… destruction.

    The parable is a parable about Israel and the rejection of Jesus. It fits well with the stewardship of gifts and faith, but as a secondary, but important topic – what will we do with our faith to serve our King?

  14. A friend just sent me a link to this discussion so I am late to the discussion, but there are several points that don’t make sense. You say the “master gives no explicit instructions” to the servants, but they are functioning as retainers and so would not need specifics since they would just continuing doing what they do daily, hence generosity is not a useful characterization of motive not is the “relational place of contentment,” nor an accurate understanding of the servants’ self-assessment. Nor is it helpful to separate economics from religion/politics in the 1st century Med. world. But we do need to read against the grain of traditional understandings. So I wonder why you bring in the concept of “treasure” which is foreign to the parable? Perhaps as a way to et to a typical perspective that leads to preaching the word. Further, not to see that the master agrees with the 3rd servants assessment seems to go against the basic use of language there. Why not take the servant’s assessment at face value? You continue, because the master “has invested generously in his servants.” This is an opportunity missed to read this parable contextually, in a culturally sensitive manner, as well as against the grain. 1st cent Med culture was a limited goods culture were gain for one person meant loss for another. You quoted Neiyrey so this should not be a new idea or shocking. So who would the hearers/readers consider worthy? The servants who continue the exploitative practices of their master? Or the servant who challenges those practices and pays the price for that resistance? For those looking for inspiration, it’s more helpful to look the 3rd servant than the Master or 1st or 2nd servant. Do we really want a God who casts out those who bury their resources or are even “lazy” into the outer darkness? That view of God fits well in a traditional setting and institutions that support such settings.


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