(After a month long hiatus, we pick up this series again.)
In the previous post I noted the problem of reading New Testament stories out of context and unwittingly inserting our economic context into the stories. The Parable of the Talents is one that is frequently used in support of stewardship and investing our resources wisely. There is one version in Matt 25:14-30 and another in Luke 19:12-28. Today we begin by looking at the Matthew version.
First Century Palestine was not a capitalist market economy. It was an agricultural society where the idyllic vision of peasant life was having enough land to be self-sufficient. Trade, via barter, was to supplement certain aspects of life but trade played a subsidiary role.
This way of life was slowly disappearing in Jesus’ day. Urbanization had been building and this meant someone had to grow the food for those who lived in the cities. Transporting crops and basic commodities from outlying areas into cities, as well as shipments of commodities between regions, became an increasingly important business. Agricultural demand was transforming subsistence farming into cash-crop farming, undermining the peasant view of the ideal life.
The Romans levied taxes and fees on agricultural production. As much as 50% of produce could be collected in taxes. Justo Gonzalez writes in Faith and Wealth:
During the republic and the early years of the empire, most of these taxes were collected by tax farmers known as “publicans.” Since substantial capital was required, most publican entrepreneurs were rich members of equestrian class, who often joined in veritable holding companies. They contracted with the government to raise the taxes of a particular area and to collect a fee for this service. The fee, however, was only part of the profit. Since many agricultural taxes were collected in kind, publicans made large profits by reselling the goods collected or by hoarding them until the price rose. They also served the central government as its financial agents in the provinces, employing the goods and funds that they held in order to cover such expenses as salaries and supplies for the legions. Since all this was done by means of paper transactions, it saved much of the costly and dangerous transport of goods and money.
Little government bureaucracy was in place, and therefore publicans also served as government agents in managing public works and providing some postal service. Naturally, for this also they charged a fee. When a farmer could not pay his taxes, publicans would offer to lend him money and 12 to 48 percent. Such loans grew rapidly as interest and new tax liabilities accumulated, and eventually the land was confiscated by the publicans. Beyond these various legal means of profit, some publicans would also take advantage of the ignorance and powerlessness of taxpayers, assessing them more than they should or undervaluing their contributions. Thus the negative image of publicans in the Gospels was probably shared by much of the populace of the Roman provinces. (38)
Most peasants were in precarious situations. Paying all the taxes and fees might leave many without enough to survive. There was an endless came of hide and seek with peasants trying to conceal their actual production to minimize taxes. A couple of years of bad crops or other hardships and a peasant might have to sell his land to the large landholders and become a sharecropper or an indentured servant. The courts were thoroughly controlled by the elite and usually were uncompromising in their enforcement of debt contracts.
Some peasants left their land and turned to banditry. K. C. Hanson and Douglas Oakman (Palestine in the Time of Jesus) suggest that most of these bands came and went within a couple of years. A few organized into long running organizations, usually with a notable leader. They tended to operate near their place of origin and were frequently aided and supported by local peasants.
Kenneth Bailey notes that their tended to be two types of “the big man” in these communities. One was the nobleman of the plains who ran large agricultural operations. He was noted for his dignified status and great power. Concerning the estates of the wealthy landowners Albert Harrill writes in Slaves in the New Testament:
“Especially in rural areas, apprehended runaway slaves and freeborn victims of kidnapping often found themselves thrown into the private slave prisons (ergastula) on the estates of wealthy landowners, never to be heard from again.” (12)
Harrill notes that the private prisons were dark and desperate places where the torture of slaves produced weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.
The other big man was the bandit leader who would swoop in out of the hills and raid the agricultural estates. In folklore, the bandits were revered for their ruthless tactics and considerable bravado, taking what they what they wanted impunity.
This parable in Matthew comes in Jesus’ final discourse on eschatology at the Mount of Olives. In Chapter 24, Jesus warns that the end is coming. He exhorts his hearers to be watchful and faithful until the end. At the end of the chapter he tells of a slave left in charge of his master’s household, who after his master leaves, begins to behave in a disreputable manner. When the master returns by surprise the slave is discovered and suffers the consequences.
Chapter 25 contains three teachings. First there is the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. Five correctly anticipate and prepare for their Groom’s arrival and five do not. Second comes the Parable of the Talents. Third comes the climactic “Sheep and Goats” judgment of the nations where some errantly believe they are in God’s good graces while others who were not aware they are in God’s good graces find out they are because they have lived out what God desires.
So here are a few questions as we reflect on how Jesus’ peasant audience might have heard this story.
The master in the story is a “big man.” Note that he has large sums of money to invest. What is his character and status?
How are the slaves investing the money? In addition to funding short term cash flow problems in commerce, the primary purposes for lending were to finance the trade in commodities … in support of the cash-crop economy … and to lend to the poor, often in hopes of trapping them in debt and taking their land. How did the peasants likely view this source of income?
Note how the third slave describes his master’s character. Does this characterization match a nobleman or a bandit? How does the slaves characterization square with the rest of the evidence we have about who the master is?
"For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' 21 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' 23 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 26 But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' (NRSV)
So what do you think? I’ll offer my thoughts in the next post.