14 “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.’”Matthew 25:14–30 (NRSV)
Many readers of the famous “parable of the talents”’ assume that the industrious first two slaves are to be emulated. But what if it is the third, the one who buries his master’s talent, who best embodies a political theology worth following?
The parable begins with the “man” (25:14), who we quickly see is not a stand-in for Jesus or God. Clearly, in his slave’s estimation and by his own admission, he is a “a harsh man” (25:24–26). This is not with regard to his demeanor but his ethics. He notes (perhaps with pride) that he is one who “reaps where he does not sow, and gathers where he does not scatter” (25:26). He is, indeed, an absentee landlord, one of the many who prey upon the poor, driving them to destitution and forcing them into servitude to amass wealth for him. His wealth, then, is not from engagement with labor or the land but from exploitation and speculation.
This man goes on a journey and, to keep things running while away, he “entrusts his property” to three slaves. A shrewd and discerning businessman, “to one he gives five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his ability” (25:15). Note that his expectations are varied. Nonetheless, these are huge sums of money for those who have none; each talent is worth more than fifteen years’ wages for a laborer. So, this presents an opportunity for self-advancement for these slaves.
Immediately, the two entrusted with larger sums (five and two talents, respectively) go and double these sums. This is due to no mere investment at the regular going rate. Receiving a 100% return would have required some shady dealings; likely, predatory lending. If after this, more investments of the capital were made, it was not to benefit their master, but themselves. When the master returns, “after a long time” (25:19), these initial earnings are turned over to him. The first two slaves are, of course, lauded and rewarded.
The third slave makes a different choice. He does not choose to benefit himself or his master through speculative investment. In any case, none of the three are instructed to do so. They are entrusted with the wealth, and each is left to make up his own mind about what he would do. The first two choose to emulate their master. The third does not. Indeed, he levels his own judgment against his master, not only deeming him “harsh” but asserting that his master’s harshness disempowers him. He is honest with his master; he fears him (25:24–25).
Why should he take such a man as a mentor? Although “entrusted” with some of his master’s wealth, this slave does not trust him. The master, true to his character, is not sympathetic but deems the slave “wicked and lazy” (2:26). He then doubles down and implies that this slave is actually stupid. Logic would dictate that the slave “ought to have invested the money with the bankers” (25:27), so that it could have at least earned the standard rate of interest—that would have been as safe as burying it!
Often, commentators side with the master, contending that this slave is risk-averse, immobilized by his fear, and naïve. They suggest that the whole point of the parable is to invest the given funds on the master’s behalf. But why should readers side with the master? He is not generous but greedy. He acknowledges that the slave’s characterization of him is correct and owns that he is wholly committed to a system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. He says to the other slaves, in effect, “Ah, you understand. You see the wisdom of my ways, and because ‘you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things’” (25:21, 23). And later, even more clearly he says, “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” (25:29). So, the first two slaves are rewarded and welcomed by the master into his “joy,” buying into his acquisitive agenda (25:21, 23).
The third is not interested in this. Although he is a slave, he asserts himself and refuses to participate in his master’s plan. This is a bold move. He speaks up. He is not stupid, timid, or afraid. He tells the truth: the master is not generous; he is greedy, intimidating, and unethical. The slave will not be like him, and will not do as he does. The slave is noncompliant. Remember, the master had offered this slave the least, perhaps understanding that he was not wholly onboard with his business agenda; but the master clearly does not expect this level of noncompliance!
The third slave makes a decision and sticks with it. But what motivates him? Is it that he feels slighted by having been given less than the others? Is it on principle, not wanting to collude with a corrupt system? Is his burial of the money (while not wholly unusual or impractical), a statement of sorts, a symbolic action? In merely returning the talent he was given, is this slave condemning the use of this ill-gotten wealth to create more wealth?
Political scientist James C. Scott, in his book Weapons of the Weak, suggests that peasant and slave societies respond to domination with “everyday forms of resistance” through “foot-dragging, evasion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander and sabotage” (29). All three of these slaves might have done this. The first two could have continued to use the capital they were given to make money for themselves. The third, in his integrity, just refuses to participate. He also has the temerity to act as if he is an equal to his master. If you offer a loan to a friend, you don’t expect it back with interest! The third slave can thus be seen as protesting social convention.
Although this is clearly not a scenario of neighbors borrowing a cup of sugar and paying it back, it must have delighted those hearing the parable to see the slave acting as if it is. After all, those listening to Jesus were also from the underclass, displaced and dispossessed by wealthy men like the master in this story. So, they would have cheered on this slave’s rebellion—treating the talent like dirt—and his subsequent, bold, confrontation of the master: “Here’s your money. Take it!”
In his book, Parables as Subversive Speech, William Herzog casts this slave as the hero of the parable. Burying the talent would have been seen as a reasonable option to keep the entrustment safe, but the meaning of his action is drawn into question by his speech. His pointed remarks are delivered “under the unobstructed light of clear analysis and prophetic judgment.” The slave becomes a “whistle-blower.” Herzog titles his chapter about this parable, “The Vulnerability of the Whistle-blower,” highlighting that “having spoken the truth, the servant must be vilified, shamed, and humiliated so that his words will carry no weight” (165–67).
The third slave, as truth-teller and whistle-blower, validates what Jesus’ listeners know about their reality. They know that the deck is stacked against them, if they choose to buck the system. So, as expected both then and now in such circumstances, the slave who does the right thing in this parable—who calls out the master’s unjust collusion and corruption—is punished. Echoing the parable in Matthew 24:45–51, he receives the same punishment as that unfaithful slave who is selfish, violent, and rebellious. This slave, while speaking the truth, calmly hands back the entire entrustment. He embodies dignity and integrity. Still, in a parable about what “the kingdom of heaven will be like” (25:1), punishment is the final word.
So, what does this tell us about the reign of God? This set of parables of judgment (Matthew 24:45–51; 25:1–13; 25:14–30; 25:31–46) function apocalyptically, directing our sight toward the eschaton, when all will be revealed and redeemed. Richard Rohr reminds us that “The Greek word apocalypsis literally means to unveil something and thus to reveal its true form and colors, [which] is a gift for those who are ready to see more fully, [and] a disaster for those who do not want you to see.” These parables tell us that participation in the reign of God is about unveiling, most clearly exemplified in the parable of the talents.
Looking at this in the context of all four parables presented in this section (24:45—25:46), we see that punitive judgment falls equally on the violent unfaithful slave (24:45–51), the unprepared bridesmaids (25:1–13), the whistle-blower (25:14–30), and those who do not serve those in need (25:31–46). The whistle-blower gets lumped in with those who are judged for being uncharitable and inhospitable. This is not prescriptive but descriptive. Whistle-blowers pay a price for their actions, as prophets do, as Jesus does.
This is odd good news to persecuted people. One of the signs that you are on the right track is persecution for revealing the truth of inequity, wrongdoing, oppression, evil. For those in the Historic Peace Churches (Church of the Brethren, Mennonites, Quakers), noncompliance is well understood as a means of witnessing to one’s faith. Alexander Mack, one of the founders of the Church of the Brethren, writes to those considering joining the congregation:
“’Count well the cost,’ Christ Jesus says,
‘when you lay the foundation.’
Are you resolved, though all seem lost,
to risk your reputation,
yourself, your wealth, for Christ the Lord,
as you now give your solemn word?”
Inspired thusly, the third slave in Matthew’s parable marches into that “outer darkness” (25:30), singing, “Die Gedanken sind frei” (Thoughts are Free).
To round out this reverie of the whistle-blower, Jerone H. Neyrey suggests that the parables in Matthew 25 are “gathered…and put together” thus “locating them in the climactic end of Jesus’ last discourse. Clearly, [Matthew] intended them to be heard as a unit, sharing repetitive rhetorical structure and recurring motifs.” So, the slave persecuted for noncompliance can relish the final scene of the series, wherein those who unwittingly do good are praised by the king: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34). This is so much better than entering into “the joy” of the master in the previous parable, one who would surely end up on the “goat” side of this judgment scene.
So, as those in Matthew’s community await the coming of Christ, his final teaching in these parables of judgment directs attention to unveiling, making clear that it is up to each person to make choices: don’t be awful (24:45–51); be ready (25:1–13); don’t collude (25:14–30); do good (25:31–46). Don’t expect the power brokers of the world to come to your assistance, to laud you, or even to understand. “Follow me,” Jesus says, “even into the darkness. The End is Near. Still follow me.”
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you…for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11–12).