Posted by: jaimemwsanders | November 16, 2020

Not Money or Even Talent: The Parable of the Talents

The lectionary – that calendar of the Scripture passages appointed for Sundays – is a source of gifts. Every week I unwrap Sunday’s gospel. Sometimes with joyous anticipation. Sometimes with puzzlement. Sometimes with dread, like unwrapping a gift from a poor knitter with only a vague sense of size.

Sunday’s gospel was in the last category: the so-called “parable of the talents.” Matthew 25:14-30. This little story by Jesus is one of a series of stories in Matthew that Jesus tells about someone important being gone and then coming. It follows immediately after a story about bridesmaids having or running out of lamp oil before a bridegroom comes. (Mt. 25:1-13). It comes immediately before Jesus telling about “when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him.” (Mt. 25:31 et seq.) The theme is established in Chapter 24, in which Jesus answers the disciples’ question of when the consummation of the age and Jesus’ coming will be. (Mt. 24:3) Answers, but doesn’t answer, because what Jesus says is that they are to “keep watch, so that no one causes you to go astray.” (Mt. 24:4) “But about that day and hour no one knows – neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son – except the Father only.” (Mt. 24:36).

The subject of the parable of the talents, therefore, is how Jesus’ disciples are to behave in the maybe long time between when he goes away and when he comes in judgment.

In this parable, the master cares about money. That is what he distributes to his slaves before he goes away on a long journey. When he comes back, he rewards the two slaves who made his money grow, and punishes the one who didn’t. the two who multiplied the money, he says, “enter into the joy of your master.”

These two entered into the master’s work – investing money to make it grow – and therefore upon his return enter into his joy.

The third slave did not adopt his master’s interests as his own. He saw his interests as separate from those of his master’s: the master was interested in making money grow, but the slave was interested in avoiding punishment. Therefore, instead of being welcomed into the master’s joy, he was separated from it – cast into the darkness.

What are we to learn from this parable? I do not think that we are to conclude that Jesus is primarily concerned about money – that would be contrary to almost the entire rest of the gospel. (Cf. the story of the rich young man, Lk. 18:18-25). It would also be contrary to the teaching immediately after this in Matthew, in which Jesus tells his disciples what criteria he will use in judgment. (Mt. 25:34-36). The priorities of the master in the parable are not Jesus’ priorities. But the priorities of the master in the parable are clear, and understood by the slaves. The ones who are rewarded are those who adopt those priorities and work as their own even in the master’s absence.

One of the troubling things about this parable is what the faithless slave says about the character of the master: harsh, to be feared. Will the Jesus who told his disciples to forgive one another “not seven times but seventy-seven times,” (Mt. 18.16-26), who some authorities say forgave those who crucified him, (Lk. 23:34), who taught us to forgive others that we might be forgiven – this Jesus – be on his return the harsh and unforgiving master of the slave’s description?

Remember that the description of the master as harsh and demanding is from the slave who does NOT enter into the work and priorities of the master. While two of the slaves adopt the master’s priorities and work as their own, the third does not. He sees the master’s priorities as making money; his priority is to avoid punishment. He does not have a right relationship with the master, and therefore is not a good guide to the master’s character. Instead, we should look to the behavior of the two slaves invited into the master’s joy, who adopted the master’s concerns as their own and were fearless in pursuing them. 


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