Is God a ruthless exploiter of our talents?

Last Sunday’s gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary was the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25.14-30. The most popular interpretation of this is that God’s 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 (library pictures) 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 has highlighting the exploitation of the servants by the master, and the third servant as being punished for his honest expose 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, 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 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 render 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 ‘how 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). The wealth entrusted to use 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.

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. 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; 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 where 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 (!) 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 24.35 to the end of chapter 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, or 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 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 Simon 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 tells 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?

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32 thoughts on “Is God a ruthless exploiter of our talents?”

      • Perhaps I misunderstood you then. When you wrote:
        “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.”

        I thought you seemed to be suggesting that different allocations of talents is something to do with the different opportunities afforded to us. Which reminded me of the reading I posted a link to – specifically saying talents are not our gifts, but our opportunities – maybe using our gifts – to dangerously and generously invest in the good news.

        • Hi Paul,

          Although Ian mentions opportunities, they are not related to what Ray Steadman calls ‘opportunities for the exercise of natural gifts’, i.e. a God-given ability.

          In contrast, Ian more plausibly explains that the ‘talents’ represent ‘the good news of his [God’s] grace in Jesus’, which is ‘the wealth entrusted to us by God’.

          Will Jones asks a very pertinent question: ‘In what way does God give Christians different apportionments of Gospel’, but, concerning the outworking of God’s grace, Jesus himself spoke of those who love much because they are forgiven much (Luke 7:47). So, the different apportionments relate to differences in appreciation for God’s grace.

          Those who are more keenly aware of their shortcomings and need for forgiveness (represented by the first two servants) will appreciate God’s message of grace as the bestowal of immense wealth.

          Paul eloquently described the outworking, through his apostolic ministry, of his appreciation (a term which concurs with the theme of wealth) for the grace that God had poured out on him:
          ‘For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.’

          In the parable, this is what’s meant by ‘to each according to his ability’.

          In contrast, the religious who do not regard themselves as reduced to complete spiritual mendicancy (as represented by the last servant and typified by the Jews rejected Christ, cf. Matt. 21:28-32) will not appreciate the preciousness of Christ because they are oblivious to their desperate need for Him.

          As Christ explained to Simon the Leper: ‘But whoever has been forgiven little loves little. (Luke 7:47)

          Jesus concludes with the unnerving judgement: ‘For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

          The talents which God bestows on us relate to our appreciation of God’s grace. The talents really come down to whether, like the woman at Simon’s feast, we consider our many sins to truly need much forgiveness from God, or whether, like Simon the Leper, we consider ourselves to be virtuous and our sins to be comparatively few.

          • Hi David

            I think the different levels of return on investment correspond to the different levels of yield in the sower, and more generally to the idea of bearing the fruit of the kingdom and fruit worthy of repentance. So this would make them good works (and spreading the word), the outworking of faith that receiving the word gives us. The talents are the same as the responsibility entrusted to the slave and the oil to the bridesmaids in the preceding two parables. I don’t think the connection with good works can or should be avoided. This is made most clear in the sheep and goats, where the works of mercy are expressly enumerated.

          • Hi Will,

            I follow your logic, but I’m trying to establish the original investment bestowed by the Master and not just how that investment was used.

            In the parable of the Sower, it’s the same seed (the Word of God) which is sown into different ground conditions.

            In the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, the latter could have resourced the same oil, but were eventually deprived through their own carelessness and improvidence.

            In contrast, in the parable of the Talents, the different servants don’t have access to the same resources. The amounts were distributed ‘according to their abilities’ (Matt. 25:15)

            If the original investment of the Master is good works, then it would mean that the differing original apportionments represent God bestowing us with differing capacities for fruitfulness and good works based on our abilities (vs. 15)

            This would contradict the meaning of grace, which is not granted according to our abilities. It would also mean that those with greater ability in the church
            are bestowed with greater capacity for fruitfulness, while those with less ability are bestowed by God with less capacity for good works; that the latter tend to bury what little they have received.

            In fact, God freely bestows His grace and those who are less able are often more appreciative of God’s grace, as St. Paul did, using it more effectively than those who have more ability and squander it.

            On the basis that the Talents represent the varying amounts of appreciation aroused in us by the gospel, then upon those graciously granted a greater capacity to appreciate His message of forgiveness, God will bestowed even more.

            Conversely, those with a paltry appreciation for His grace will forfeit even that which they think they have.

        • Richard Q Ford in the introduction to his book (title ‘The parables of Jesus’ ?) about a new perspective on Jesus’ parables suggesting that we should read/ hear them as if for the first time and also adresses traditional thinking about reading G-D in the beneficent person of the story.

          I think this parable is Jesus using hyperbole and sending up the status quo – sure we have different opportunities but the one who did not exploit others actually did right by the rules of no usury……..

  1. I was teaching on this the other day. One thing to note is that with the large sums of money, they servants would now be playing in the rough and dangerous, uber-competitive world of business. Everyone of those wolves would have known it wasn’t their money. Old enmities against the master would find a new focus. Old alliances would need to be bought into play. These 3 guys were now playing in league that would require them to draw on the social capital of the name of the master.

    Chap 1 and 2 got invovled and did well, faithful to the way and name of the master. Chap 3 wasn’t convinced he wouldn’t be on the losing side. It wasn’t the money he hid, it was the relationship. He hid the fact that he was a trusted envoy of the master because he wasn’t sure it was the winning side. It was his unfaithfulness the master rebuked, not the loss of earnings.

    • Our vicar’s sermon picked up on a similar note, focusing on the fear of the third servant, which drives him to the wrong behaviour. This fear is rooted in the law and doesn’t recognise Jesus’ saving work, resulting in a stunted or imbalanced relationship with God.

      • I like that and think the wrong perception of the relationship is key. I was teaching in south asia and it was crystal clear to them the link between business and family relationship (most businesses are family run there) and could see that the 3rd chap just hadn’t grasped the relationship he was being called into. (Cf. the older son in the parable of the prodigal’s father). I said, (unscripted), “It wasn’t the money that he hid, it was the relationship.” and that really resonated with the group.

      • The question is why we need to speculate beyond the straightforward content of Mark 4.25 which the Talents parable gives in story-form without adding anything major to it. Oral Roberts had a term ‘seed-faith’ which for reasons we can guess at, he associated mostly with money (and with giving to one particular ministry).

        The actual principle of seed faith is both (a) sound, (b) biblical, (c) a principle which millions of Christians have not grasped, (d) probably close to what Jesus seems to have meant, (e) pervasive and utterly central throughout Mark 4. And Mark 4 may well be an insight into the content of some of Jesus’s most central teaching. It does not primarily concern money, pace Roberts, but it is like a grid which applies to most areas of life, money not least. Moreover, it is not that distant from capitalism (I speak as a non capitalist, a distributist who considers that capitalism has both strong and weak points). Nor is 2 Thess. 3.10 for that matter.

        The difficulty of having a non-straightforward reading of the Talents parable is that the Talents parable is not essentially a different thing from Mark 4.25. More, Mark 4.25 is explicitly said to be this parable’s moral. And Mark 4.25 is straightforward and not easily susceptible to non-straightforward readings. And it is a prior source. And one would have to have especially good arguments for a straightforward reading to be rejected and a less straightforward one simultaneously to be accepted.

        • Hi Christopher,

          The principle of seed-faith is indeed biblical, but it would be useful if you could expand on how it relates to the Master bestowing each servant with differing amounts from his wealth. What is signified by these varying amounts?

          As Ian explained, doesn’t the principle of seed-faith also: ‘presume that our own abilities are so valuable, and represent the ‘wealth’ of God.’?

          • On the second para, yes and yes.

            It is not necessarily the case that Matthew did much thinking about the parable. All the thinking had already been done by Jesus who formulated the principle (Mark 4.25) in the first place. Matthew faithfully reproduces this (that it is a reproduction is proved by the wording of the moral at the end, which equals Mark 4.25) in fleshed-out story-form, and this change of genre (as this discussion shows) makes it more memorable. But the parable’s content still equals the pithy saying of Mark 4.25 in story form.

            Mark 4.25 already *presupposes* that different amounts are given to different people, as experience also bears out. So, because Jesus said so (and we have every reason independently to agree with him) no further analysis is needed. Matthew is concerned only with making Mark 4.25 into a story. No details seem to me to be extraneous to this.

            Therefore, though we are here discussing the message of it, it is not necessary to do so, since:

            (1) the moral is already stated! (and it is a simple one);

            (2) the story’s content maps perfectly onto the moral;

            (3) the moral pre-existed the story (and to deny that the surface meaning is the intended meaning leads to the question of whether the surface meaning of Mark 4.25 – which is an earlier-dating and very plain passage that’s hard to interpret in a non-obvious way – is also to be denied);

            (4) this procedure of Matthew fits in with his identical procedure in the stories that lead up to the Markan morals in 20.16, 25.13.

          • Hi Christopher?

            Thanks for your explanation. You state that; ‘Mark 4:25 already ore-supposes that different amounts are given to different people’, but that doesn’t answer the question: ‘different amounts of what?’ Seed-faith?

            Again, for Christ to say: ‘to him that has more shall be given’ means that we should be able to answer the question: ‘more of what?’

            Clearly, the faithful are rewarded with more of what was originally bestowed by the Master.

            So, at the risk of appearing pedantic, but with all due respect, on Christ’s return, do you think that the faithful are rewarded with:
            a) an increase in the seed-faith originally bestowed?
            b) an increase in their God-given abilities?
            c) an increase in the fruitfulness originally bestowed?
            d) an increased appreciation of the grace originally bestowed? (as Ian proposes and I’m inclined to believe)?
            e) or other?

          • I’m tempted to say that again the answer is in the epigram, where there nothing in particular is specified. I think it is crucial to understand that Jesus is presenting us with structures or grids for rightly understanding reality holistically or as-a-whole.

            We can be given all sorts of things, but clearly the saying is limited to things where there can be a return on the investment.

            So in my view Jesus is speaking about anything and everything that is God-given where there can be a return on the investment.

          • I’m largely in agreement with Christopher. Look at how in the version in Luke the reward is cities rather than more money. The parables and other teaching of the kingdom are all of a piece and need to be used to interpret one another. Trying to find too much meaning in the details of one in isolation from the rest can lead us astray.

            My understanding is that what the kingdom of God is like is that the word goes out like seed (or oil or money) and is received by some and produces the fruit of the kingdom (good works and growth) and ultimately forms the basis of judgement. Those who receive the word and let it produce its fruit receive their reward, while those who don’t are deprived even of what they had – the life they used to reject the word.

          • As a different view on the question of what the talents represent, addressing the parable to church leaders give a different perspective. Here the talents can be taken as the resources available to a church community, including and perhaps in particular what the laity bring. Keeping the laity away from the risky and difficult stuff, and not expecting them to make any return or contribution will lead to stunted, if any, growth. The “Father knows best” model results in the masters displeasure, whilst those who seek to liberate and put the laity to work will receive a great reward.

          • Hi Will,

            The parable was probably re-told for emphasis in different ways and, in Luke’s version, the servants receive the same amount, each producing differing returns.

            ‘Trying to find too much meaning in the details of one in isolation from the rest’ is something which I highlighted (and with which you disagreed) in our previous exchange regarding the annihilationist reading of Revelation.

            If, on that basis, we explore the details, the differing apportionment of talents is better represented by appreciation of God’s grace than by the outworking of the same. Even so, the lesson from the gospel is for us all to get on with both! 🙂

            And while the overall lesson of these successive parables should be read holistically, there’s been no explanation of why Ian’s explanation of the Talents in Matthew’s version of the parable (which I support) detracts from this.

            Also, when compared to the Talents being understood as differences in appreciation for the good news of God’s kingdom, maintaining the traditional interpretation that the Talents are our God-given abilities still doesn’t answer Ian’s criticism that it ‘presumes that our own abilities are so valuable, and represent the ‘wealth’ of God’.

            It’s being bestowed with heartfelt appreciation for God’s gracious gift for sinners like me to share in His Kingdom is the motivation to sacrifice all for the pearl of great price.

            In joyful (and perhaps unexpected) conclusion, this exchange and resulting study has left this chorus repeating over and over in my head:
            ‘How marvellous, how wonderful, and my song shall ever be!
            ‘How marvellous, how wonderful is my Saviour’s love for me!’


            For that, I’m truly grateful!

          • Hi Peter,

            That’s an interesting perspective. Certainly, St. Paul viewed those converted to Christ through his ministry as the fruit of God’s grace (cf. Rom. 1:13)

            Clearly, there are Church leaders who primarily invest in their ordained ministries and, as you explain, to the neglect of investing in mission through the wealth bestowed on the Church in the form of its laity.

          • Thanks David.

            I just feel that the moral is not just about appreciation but fruitfulness, using what you have been given by God, particularly the word, to be productive for God’s kingdom (good works and spreading the word). It just seems to sit better with the wider teaching on the kingdom in this section and elsewhere. I don’t deny that this can also apply to appreciation of God’s grace.

  2. I agree with this – except the identification of the talent/gold with the Gospel. In what way does God give Christians different apportionments of Gospel? I understand it to be about fruitfulness with what we have been entrusted with, the ‘fruit of the kingdom’ (Matthew 21:43), bearing ‘fruit worthy of repentance’ (Matthew 3:8), understood as good works and success in spreading the word – a common theme in Jesus’ teaching (e.g. Matthew 3:8-10, 7:15-20, 12:33, 13:23, 21:19, 21:43).

    • Is it the gospel? Or to broad it in order to help us think about this challenging parable … grace, both saving grace and general grace. Someone who has just become a Christian knows the gospel and knows grace. But may only be able to confess Jesus Christ as Lord in a simple way and not know or say much more. They might have little of God’s general grace in terms of wealth or whatever. But they use their few talents! But the believer who has been a Christian for many years, knows (in theory) all the spiritual blessings and riches they have in Christ, been to many conferences, has many Christian books, earns comparatively a vast amount of money, lives in the affluent west (with no suffering) they are a five talent Christian. What are they doing with all the grace, both saving and general, grace that they have received? Are they living wholeheartedly and speaking without fear and shame for Christ? This should cause to think what we have received from the God of all grace … and what we are doing with that grace in Christ. Whoever we are … don’t bury the grace that you have received. God expects a return!!!!

  3. There is a mega-scale piece of data often missed: that four of Matthew’s parables are very appropriate illustrations for, and natural expansions/unpackings of, four of Mark’s (or logia-source’s) Jesus’s stand-alone (or: *comparatively* stand-alone) neat one-line aphorisms.

    Not that Mark has all that many stand-alone aphorisms; any stand-alone aphorism at all invites expansion into a parable.

    Were anyone to doubt this, the aphorisms in question appear at the end of the new 4 parables as their morals.

    This mega-scale data is far too neat for coincidence.

    Matthew and Luke have their own styles and vocab of course; but they have their own preferred social worlds too. Feldman, Parables and Similes of the Rabbis shows how often rabbinic parables compare God to a king or wealthy landowner. Matt is very rabbinic, and we find kings and merchants in his parables. Luke’s parable characters are more down to earth, working class.

    Talents is one of those things that is oft-preached on (like the woman with the blood-flow, the Samaritan woman etc.), and I am in awe of the depth of the interpretations. The more analysis, the closer to the truth we get (though the wood or jungle can also get denser in the process). My two-pennorth is that the original Markan aphorism as it stands is simple and the parable is a natural outgrowth of it. If there is a simple explanation available, it has the advantage in neatness.

    If really good parables were written on the basis of aphorisms they would become part of the tradition rather than being discarded.

  4. …on the principle that the whole Matthean parable (which never deviates from the original aphorism) was always contained within the kernel of the aphorism. The verses in question are Matt 20.16, 25.13, 25.29 (the fourth is 22.14 whose source, if any, looks like Rev 17.14 not Mark). These have several things in common: non-Markan; full-length; longer than the Markan length; similar context in Matt.

  5. To me this has the feel of a parable directed towards a community which has, or feels it has, special privilege in stewardship over the gospel, and is tempted to preserve that gospel to itself, for the sake of its original value, rather than invest in communities that were not originally a part of the picture.

    I aspire to be one who contributes to the project of the gospel, liberally using whatever “treasures” God has given me to use, until the day of my judgment… I do not want to be the sincere but misguided servant who conserves his treasure by locking it up, keeping it guarded and hidden away out of of fear for getting it wrong, or concern for going beyond the original boundaries of his master, who now expects to “reap where [he] did not sow,” or extract positive value from a field to which he didn’t explicitly contribute.

  6. Nobody has yet mentioned that Luke’s version (Luke 19) is a nobleman seeking a kingdom, whose citizens appealed against him. This I believe has resonances with an actual historical event (Herod Archelaus going to Rome). The parable ends (apparently unnecessarily) with the new king ordering the deaths of the people who complained against him, although there is no indication as to whether their complaints were or were not justified. Does this tyrannical action rather support those who say we’re not meant to uncritically admire the master here?

    • Hi Penelope,

      Will Jones mentioned this briefly above.

      Luke explains that this variation of the parable in his gospel was told to clear up any misunderstanding that his entry into Jerusalem would immediately and visibly inaugurate God’s kingdom on earth (Luke 19:11)

      As you suggest, this parable would have evoked memories of the relentless exaction of vengeance by Herod Archelaus, whose rule which was imposed from afar by Augustus.

      Clearly, Jesus wanted His hearers to recognise His capacity for retributive justice and that He would eventually exact this legitimately (in contrast with Archelaus’ senseless cruelty) against those determined to reject His rule.

      As with his references to consigning the wicked to the garbage dump of Gehenna, Jesus’ parable here would reassure His disciples, while evoking moral apprehensiveness among those who complacently accepted the status quo of compromised religiosity in Jerusalem.

  7. Mark’s, Matthew’s and Luke’s versions are 3 separate entities, and it is not a given that we should take the same view of each. That said, Mark’s and Matthew’s are much the same in this particular instance.

    Luke’s also shows clear signs of inconmcinnity caused by his having read Matthew’s and having then recast it only to give away at various points, through internal inconsistencies, that he knows Matthew’s version.

  8. The inconcinnities in Luke that reveal his knowledge of Matthew (to whom he is inadvertently reverting) are:

    (1) First there are 10 servants, then without explanation they become three. Explanation: the Matthean number was 3.

    (2) The man who has the ten minai (19.24) actually has not 10 but 11 including the one he started with. Diagnosis: Again Luke is reverting to Matthew, where the number 10 would have been correct here.

    (3) To give one mina to a man who has 10 cities is neither here nor there – a bit like (for example) getting a free pen together with a reward of £50million. Whereas in Matthew we don’t find such disproportion. In Luke there is a danger of it, because he wanted to change his quantities and ratio to a more congenial and typical 10:1, without thinking that a single change can have multiple large ramifications (a point we have noted repeatedly with regard to the sexual revolution).

    For all 3 we are indebted to Mark Goodacre.

    The Archelaus material just makes Luke’s version harder to digest immediately continuity-wise.

    I was reminded of the time 30 years ago when East Enders and Neighbours retained the same theme-tunes but put them into different styles. This might seem a single simple change. In fact, music when composed is conceived as a whole, content fitting style etc.. If you change the style, the content which you retain is not the content that you would have chosen to go with that particular style. Inconcinnity.

  9. Re Symon Hill’s view:

    The fact that he finds a view positively damaging has no connection to whether it is the view that is likeliest exegetically.

    The Bible is not under any obligation to say things that we like! – that is obvious.

    If we go down that road, we allow the Bible to say only things that are congenial to us. That is eisegesis, which is a form of power politics. And also a form of dishonesty, surely?

  10. What fun to find this website and its comments (as I struggle with understanding this parable)! I think the Hill/Rohrbaugh thesis ends up in the wrong place (for all the reasons listed), but I also think that it makes reference to something important: namely, that the first-century listeners would have possibly (likely?) been amenable to their kind of reasoning — i.e., “Because the pie was ‘limited’ and already all distributed, anyone getting ‘more’ meant someone else got less.” This would mean that Jesus is messing with his hearers expectations (as, certainly, he does in the parable of the Shrewd Manager, and the Laborers, and — many? — others). Perhaps what Jesus is saying is something along the lines of, “the Kingdom of Heaven does not operate the way you might expect it to — it *must be* encroaching on the ‘kingdoms of this world’, and its true subjects will be engaged in pushing back the darkness.” This would begin to explain the enigmatic “reap where you have not sown/gather where you have not scattered” — an accusation that the King *repeats back* to the lazy servant (i.e., it isn’t just a random insult, rejoined with a sarcastic repetition, as so many commentators appear to imagine).


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