~ Matthew 25:14-30 ~
This is an outrageous parable. As I was reading did it make you wince? Of course, this means that I need to do a bit of deconstructing to make it palatable. OK, it will take a lot of deconstructing. So, let’s dig in.
These judgment parables are really getting out of hand. I mean, on its face, judgment is a difficult thing to deal with, but this one makes Jesus look really hard and calloused here. It was one thing to have the door shut in the face of those young, albeit foolish, bridesmaids in last week’s parable just because they forgot to bring enough oil. Now we have this week’s parable, the parable of the talents. It is an outrageous parable.
This one presents all kinds of problems and is even harsher then last week’s parable. For one thing we have what appears to be a wholesale endorsement of aggressive capitalist economics. Go out there and sell, sell, sell. Not only will you make a lot of money but, in return, you’ll get a heavenly reward as a bonus. I found a web site called Parables for Entrepreneurs that actually gives venture capitalists investment advice based on these parables. He says the worst thing you can do with your capital is to not invest it. In other words, use it or lose it. Outrageous!
Next we have this whole ‘talent’ thing. For centuries the most common interpretation of this parable is that God has given each of us talents, gifts of ability, that we should use and in using them we will increase and God’s kingdom will increase. It has meant that we are to take the talents we have, be they natural or spiritual, and work them for God’s glory. We are to engage in the good works that are expected of us so that we can be rewarded. This parable seems to say that it is perfectly acceptable, yes even desirable to be motivated by the promise of rewards to do good works. It we don’t use our talents for good works we will be a loser. We will be punished, yes even thrown into hell. In other words, use it or lose it. Outrageous!
This is a big problem. This idea of reward for works seems to fly in the face of those great Reformed tenets of “faith alone” and “grace alone.” It would seem hard to reconcile the notion of achievement and reward with a righteousness by faith that frees us from the bondage of the law. Helmut Thielicke, the German reformed scholar, puts it this way: “To live and act with the idea of standing in judgment, of winning heaven and escaping hell, reduces the thesis of justification by grace to absurdity.” Where is grace in this parable? It certainly looks like works and merit to me. And so, of course, this parable has been used to justify a religion of works for centuries.
There’s more. Jesus never had in mind our notion of talents when he gave this parable. Back then, the word ‘talent’ only meant money, albeit a lot of money. Talents were the biggest denomination of money in the empire. A few weeks ago, when Jesus was asked about taxes, he used, as an example, a coin called a denarius, which was valued at about one day’s subsistence wage. Well, a talent was worth up to 6000 denarii or about 19 years of labor. In today’s economics a talent might be equivalent to about $600,000. So the slave who received five talents was working with about $3,000,000. Pretty outrageous.
There was nothing inherent in Jesus’ use of the word ‘talent’ that implied ability or giftedness as we think of the word today. So how did our notion of talent get imputed into this parable? Come to find out our definition of the word ‘talent’ to mean “mental or physical aptitude; a natural or acquired ability” as the American Heritage Dictionary renders it actually comes from this parable. In other words, our use of the word ‘talent’ is an evolved form of the original word, which only referred to a denomination of money. Of course, the reason for this comes from the parable itself. It says the man gave various amounts of talents to his slaves “each according to his ability.” Hence, the notion of ability was wed to this word ‘talent’ which originally only referred to money. This, of course, raises the question: What do the talents of money represent? Do they represent gifts of abilities as we have learned them to mean or do they represent something else?
Well, there is still another problem with this parable Jesus told those people so long ago. Whereas to us, deeply embedded in a capitalist system, the idea of doubling your money seems like a very desirable goal, for the people who first heard this parable that would have been a repugnant idea. And I mean repugnant, disgusting, and abhorrent. Let me explain.
A careful study of the eastern Mediterranean culture of the 1st century reveals attitudes and mindsets radically different from our own. Their perception of how the world works was nothing like our perception. Bruce Malina, a Biblical cultural anthropologist, has discovered some incredible insights into how the 1st century mind worked. As it relates to this parable the best place to start might be with the notion of limited goods. The overriding perspective of life was that all things are in limited supply. All the desired things of life such as land, wealth, food, prestige, health, friendship, love, honor, respect, power, security—literally all goods in life—existed in finite, limited quantities and were always in short supply. So the basic assumption of life was that good things—like land—were to be divided and redivided, but never to be increased. The only way that increase could take place—be it land, or prestige, or money—was at the expense of someone else. So in this society, a good and honorable person would seek to maintain the status quo in order to keep harmony and stability in the community. Honorable people would be interested in maintaining things just the way they are. With the perception of all goods as limited, the 1stcentury honorable person found that hard work, thriftiness and personal skills and abilities were human qualities quite necessary for maintaining one’s status, but useless for getting ahead.
So in such a closed type society the honorable person would certainly strive to avoid and prevent the accumulation of capital, since they would see it a threat to the stability of the community. Since all goods were limited, one who sought to accumulate capital was necessarily dishonorable; he would be seen as “greedy.” Only the dishonorable rich and dishonorable tradesmen could accumulate wealth with impunity. They were dishonorable because they had to do it at the expense of others, such as by trading, tax collecting and money lending. Most of these methods were called usury and were considered dishonorable. Thus, in this society, profit and gain normally referred to something that was ill-gotten by fraud or extortion.
So as the listeners heard Jesus tell this story they would have been disgusted. They would have been disgusted with the depiction of the rich man with all of his money and property. They would have assumed he was harsh and fraudulent even before Jesus depicted him as one who reaps where he does not sow and gather where he did not scatter. They would have found the obscene amount money, more than they could ever imagine, abhorrent. They would never, ever consider praising the slaves who came back with double their money, because they, themselves, most likely would have been the victims of the extortion it took to gain those exorbitant amounts. They would have found the whole thing quite repugnant.
Knowing this, why would Jesus tell this story? And what did he mean by it? There are some scholars, those who are particularly concerned about Biblical economic justice, who suggest, in the light of the cultural repugnancy of the story, that Jesus meant just the opposite of what we think. They suggest this parable is not about the kingdom of heaven but about the reality of earth. That, in fact, the third slave, the one who buried the talent, is the hero, the one who refused to participate in the economic exploitation as did the others. Jesus, in this view, would intend his listeners to understand that to follow him and his radical way of life might very well result in slander and rejection by the rich and powerful.
While I have considerable respect and regard for an economic and justice-oriented view of Jesus’ ministry, I don’t think Jesus intended this interpretation. Whereas I believe all of Jesus’ parables had significant economic implications, I do believe he actually had a spiritual application in mind for this parable. But it was not one of good works and rewards. I believe the intent of this parable is once again to speak to that constant theme of grace and faith. In this one, I believe Jesus was deliberately challenging the deeply ingrained notion of limited goods, particularly in regard to God’s grace. The outrageous amount of money the master throws around depicts the abundance of God’s grace. The issue at stake is our response in faith to the offer of grace. Not only does the master of the slaves who doubled their talents praise them precisely as faithful (the word ‘trustworthy’ in this version actually is ‘faithful’); the doubling seems to be due more to the talents themselves than to the efforts the slaves put into doing business with them—five makes five more, two makes two more. To me that says that the grace of acceptance does its own work; all we have to do is trust it. Again, the matter of our relationship with God is about grace, not about bookkeeping. The only bookkeeper in the parable is the slave who decided he had to fear a nonexistent audit and who then hid his one talent in the ground. So in essence the first two slaves responded in faith to the fabulous gift of grace given to them and they prospered. The third slave responded in the bookkeeping of unfaith and is therefore condemned. He is condemned for non-use of a most generous offer of grace. Again it is important to remember that the underlying premise of all of these parables of judgment is the grand party of grace to which we are all invited. The only reason that judgment comes into it at all is the sad fact that there will always be those who refuse to trust a good thing when it’s handed to them on a platter. This parable is about the Advent theme once again: Without shame or fear we rejoice to behold Christ’s appearing because we have decided to believe him when he says he wills us nothing but the best.
Thielicke, that German scholar I mentioned before, strikes this note: He says that the kingdom of God does not consist of what we acquire (talents, gifts, rewards) but of what we come to be. “We shall have as our reward, not some thing, but God’s own self. If we want a separate reward, something that is given by God and is thus distinct from God, we shall be disappointed…”
Yes, this is an outrageous parable. But then that is the nature of God’s grace to us—outrageous. Jesus calls us to respond to this outrageous offer of grace in faith. Even though this parable has the element of judgment, God isn’t trying to hurt anyone; God is not even mad at anyone. No, this story is outrageous because it is a story of God’s incredible, abundant grace. May we find it in ourselves to give what already belongs to God, our gifts, our lives, a trust from God alone. May we believe it; may we live it. Amen.