In the previous post we looked at the cultural and Scriptural context for the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30. What are we to make of this parable?
The first thing I would draw attention to is the relationship of the wealthy man to his servants/slaves. One talent was equivalent to about twenty years of wages for a day laborer. These were large sums the master was entrusting to his servants (also meaning the master was a very wealthy man.) This was not a guy saying “Here is $100. Go invest it.” These were servants in whom the master was placing considerable trust.
Second, when the first two servants report to back to the master it is important to note what the master commends. He does not commend their profit or success. He commends their trustworthiness/faithfulness … they followed through on their mission.
Albert Harrill adds an important nuance to the role of slaves that may be lost on us today. Roman slaveholders didn’t just expect their slaves to follow instructions … especially those entrusted with this kind of responsibility. Slaves were expected to take on the very mind of their master, acting as his proxy with regard to transactions made in his absence. Faithfulness wasn’t just following commands but rather in becoming a clone of the master. The first two slaves demonstrated that they had “cloned” their master’s mindset and mission.
Third, there is the interaction between the third slave and the master. Note that we have here a master … likely presiding over a vast estate … who likely considers himself to have acquired his wealth justly and to be proud of his estate management. Now note how the third servant justifies his actions:
24 …'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.'
In other words, he already knows he is in trouble but justifies his behavior saying, “Boss, I know you are disreputable crook, so I hid the goods.” How does this servant think insulting the master is going to appease the master? Is it possible that the servant mistakenly thinks he is actually glorifying the master?
I mentioned in the previous post that two types of characters tended to fit the “big man” model of the culture. One was the wealthy estate owner and the other was the bandits who were known for raiding and taking what they wanted. Kenneth Bailey (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes) quotes Cicero in The Republic, “The Gauls think it disgraceful to grow grain by manual labor; and consequently they go forth armed and reap other men’s fields.” (404) Similar views were held of Bedowin chieftains and their raiding bands who swooped and reaped what they did not sow. The characterization of master by the third slave would have been flattery to such a bandit or Bedowin chieftain.
Bailey’s point would be that the third servant his thoroughly misapprehended the status and character of his master. Thus, the master response back, “'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? …” is a statement of incredulity. But even if the slave had correctly perceived the status of his master, he didn’t act appropriately according to what he did know.
This third servant’s lack of discernment and faithfulness seems to parallel the message found in the stories immediately surrounding it in the narrative. Matthew 24 ends with a similar story of a man who leaves a slave in charge and returns unexpectedly to find the slave acting contrary to his master’s will. The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids features women who correctly discern the nature of events and act faithfully and those who don’t. It precedes the Parable of the Talents. The succeeding story is of the sheep and the goats, where the sheep demonstrate they have the mind of the King guiding their actions. Meanwhile the goats, who think they correctly discerned their mission, demonstrate by their actions they have not understood. Embedded in the middle of these stories is the Parable of the Talents where two servants demonstrate they have correctly discerned the master’s will and have been faithful while the third mistakenly thinks he has discerned his master’s character and is led astray accordingly.
Fourth, these stories are the climax of Jesus’ Mount of Olives discourse, which he began with a prophecy about the destruction of the Temple and then warns them not to be deceived by what is about to unfold. These stories seem to me to be illustrating this exhortation to vigilant faithfulness. (On an additional note, I’ll also add that the time Jesus has in mind here is the time from his departure until his return in conjunction with the destruction of the Temple, which he perceives as the climactic end of the story. This was as far as the Father had permitted him to see in his prophecy. The Temple was indeed destroyed within a generation as Jesus foretold but his return was not to be in conjunction with his vindication by this event.)
So that brings us to the implications of this parable. Is the Parable of the Talents an affirmation of wealthy landholders expanding their wealth through hardnosed business? Is this a parable in praise of business? I seriously doubt it. I don’t think Jesus or his hearers would have been particularly warm to these practices. The intent was not for his audience to esteem wealthy landowners or to lift up the virtues of business. The intent was to teach what vigilant faithfulness looks like from examples common to peasant culture.
I know I haven’t touch on every nuance that is involved in this story. I’ll I have more to say in couple of posts. But first I want to turn to the Parable of the Minas in Luke 19, which has some parallels with this parable but also significant differences. Then we will do some review.