14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then 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.” 21His 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.” 22And 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.” 23His 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.” 24Then 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; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But 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? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For 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. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew 25:14-30 – NRSV
Generally, I’ve not been following the Bible Lectionary when I’ve done these blog posts. That’s partly because there seem to have been more important readings and subjects to explore, but I’ve decided to do so this week, if only because the New Testament reading for last Sunday, Matthew 25:14-30, the ‘Parable of the Talents’ is, I firmly believe, almost always misunderstood.
The story is one of a Master going away on a long journey. When he comes back and judges those he’s left behind, he throws the third slave into the outer darkness, where, we hear ‘there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ So the message is that if we’re not good Christians, we’ll all be burned in eternal hellfire, having been judged by a returning Jesus as unworthy?
This is close to the interpretation that you can read in a number of Bible commentaries. But this surely should make us very suspicious. Does this sound like God the Father to you, and if it does, why would Jesus want to depict him like this and why would anyone want to worship such a God?
The parable is also known colloquially as ‘The Parable of the Talents’. This has resulted in an entire generation of preachers (including, embarrassingly, me when I first preached on this passage in 2008) preaching that what’s being said here is that if we have a talent and fail to use it, we’ll lose it. ‘The only way to keep a talent is to use it in God’s service’, as one biblical scholar puts it.
Unfortunately, this is hopelessly wrong. The clue lies in the word ‘talent’. The Greek word doesn’t have the double meaning of the word in our language; talent in first century Palestine simply means a measurement of weight. And if you look this measurement up, you’ll see that one talent is 60 minas, or in modern parlance, 34.3 kilograms. So the first slave is given five times this, namely 171.5 kilograms, but of what? Some scholars think it would have been silver, others say gold. Either way, it’s a colossal sum of money. If it was 171 kilograms of gold, it would be over £7 million at this week’s price per kg. Just imagine therefore, the impact that this would have had on Jesus’ first hearers! Jesus was talking about ‘Lottery Money’, not about talents as in gifts and aptitude. The Revised English Bible confirms this by translating the word not as ‘talents’ but as ‘bags of gold’. And it’s this breath-taking sum of money, more than the sum that Jesus’s listeners would have made even in several lifetimes, that shows us that maybe something’s wrong about our traditional interpretations.
If we think the figure of the Master is an analogy for God, we’re presented with a horrible dilemma. After all, the Master doesn’t refute the third slave, when that slave describes him as a ‘harsh man’. In addition, the Master seems to be encouraging that slave to invest his money with interest by placing it with bankers, a practice which is consistently and loudly denounced many times in the Hebrew Bible.
Finally, of course, if we interpret the Master to be God, we have God taking money from those who have least and giving it to those who have most, and throwing the third slave into the outer darkness for the sin of following one of the first principles of Jewish laws about finance. Does this sound right to you? It describes God the Father as a money-grubbing tyrant.
But what if Christ wants us to see the Master in the parable as one of the worst examples of a first century Palestine wealthy overlord, as the epitome of all that was unjust in his world?
Imagine the group gathered around Jesus. Most of Jesus’s listeners are poor by any standards; some of them are absolutely destitute. And Jesus starts talking about slaves being given ‘Monopoly Money’ by a Master. A likely story, they’d have said to themselves. And then they hear Jesus explain that the first slave’s given five times more than the third. You can hear them muttering ‘Yes, that’s how unfair life is in Judea now; this story of the inequality of wealth is one that we recognise’. They then hear that the first servant takes his £7 million and the story says that he ‘trades it’ and makes £7 million more. Not by hard manual labour like us, they mutter, but by trading, by gambling. ‘No wonder he makes another £7 million – anyone given £7 million can make money’, they might say.
And then, at the end of the story, the third slave has his one talent, say £1.5 million, taken from him; it’s given to the first one, who then has £8.5 million and the poor third slave is cast into the outer darkness of debt, oppression, starvation and misery.
By this stage, Jesus’ audience is seriously wound up. ‘Yes!’, they shout; ‘yes, that’s exactly what life’s like for us in our rotten, unjust world; what little we have is taken from us by unjust landlords; by the Romans; by Herod and his henchmen, even shamefully by our own people!’
If you think of this parable not as a depiction of God as an unjust Master, but as Jesus challenging his hearers to see a parallel to the injustices of his world, and the Master as an example of the worst economic injustice of his age, then you’ll maybe come away with a different view of this parable.
If we have the ears to hear it, Jesus’s message, and his calling to us to bring in God’s kingdom values, is a disturbingly revolutionary one. It seems to me that this essential part of his teaching was watered down so early on in the history of Christianity, that maybe we’ve almost lost the ability to see how challenging it is?
Help us, Lord, to see your teachings not as comfortable and easy to follow, but as revolutionary, and difficult. Amen.