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 Oppressed, that 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.)