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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of the Talents—Matthew 25:14-30 (Mark Davis)

Although a superficial reading might suggest a straightforward interpretation of the Parable of the Talents, closer examination reveals troubling contradictions between this interpretation and the broader teaching of the gospel. Reading it as a descriptive parable of economic injustice provides us with a more satisfying, albeit grim, alternative interpretation.

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.’

This parable is a preacher’s dream. There is the delightful ambiguity of the word “talent”—simply a word for money in Greek, but a word whose English translation also refers to innate abilities. The preacher can point out the original meaning of the term and still know that people inevitably hear it as part of the all inclusive trilogy of “time, talents, and treasure.” There is the edgy last verse, echoed in many of Matthew’s parables, which the nice preacher need never mention again, since the image of hell has already been applied in the reading of the Scripture and the proclamation that it is “the Word of the Lord.” There is the incredible increase of ten talents and three talents doubling in their value due to the commitment and industry of the faithful servants. And there is the impulse that many readers of Scripture have absorbed over the years to assume that any parable with a king, a landowner, or a man on a journey leaving slaves behind is automatically a parable about Jesus/God that addresses what to do until the second coming. Even before the preacher utters a single word, everyone in the room knows that Jesus has come before us and is berated us for not doing enough with what we’ve been given.

At the expense of ruining an excellent Stewardship Sunday sermon, this parable deserves a hard reassessment. The unchallenged premise of the parable is that the divine figure of the story is “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” That is the very opposite of the God of Israel who brought God’s people into a land flowing with milk and honey, drinking from cisterns they did not dig and reaping harvests that they did not plant. It is unlike the God who tells harvesters to harvest badly, leaving the edges of the wheat, leaving dropped sheaves behind, not stripping the vines or shaking the olive trees, so that those who have nothing to sow can reap anyway. It is equally unlike Jesus’ sower who goes out and throws seed wastefully all over the place, knowing that whatever lands on the good soil will produce beyond one’s wildest dream. The “lazy” servant’s depiction of the assumed divine figure—which goes unchallenged—is not the God made known in Christ.

Likewise, the assumed moral of the story is also problematic: “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.” This moral directly contradicts Amos’ warning against those who add field to field and—instead of leaving behind the edges and dropped sheaves for the landless—sell the sweepings of the field. It is contrary to the warnings Jesus issued against greed and his “good news to the poor.” And it is contradicted in the living witness of the early church, who sold what they had and pooled their resources so that everyone would have enough. My guess is that all but the most crass of preachers who are employing this text on Stewardship Sunday are embarrassed by the assumption that in God’s economy the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Again, this kind of principle is not the operative mode of the God made known in Christ.

Even the absence of the supposed divine figure is problematic. The absence of the divine figure is customarily assumed to be the early church’s struggle with the delay of the parousia, with questions about how to live faithfully until the Son of Man comes again. Indeed, the corpus of stories and teachings in Matthew 24 and 25 begins with questions about the temple’s fate and apocalyptic visions of the future. Matthew adds the 25th chapter to the earlier version of this apocalyptic text in Mark, drawing from Q material. For Matthew, the material in chapter 25 culminates in the story of the sheep and goats—where the Son of Man is not absent, but present, even if he is not detected by either sheep or goat. Simply put, Matthew does not believe in the absentee Son of Man. The ending of Matthew’s story—usually called “The Great Commission” and often badly reduced to just one-and-a-half verses—is a complete rebuttal to an absentee God who gives talents to the church and says, “I’ll be back later for reckoning.” In Matthew’s story, Jesus begins the commission with the words, “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me,” and ends with “I will be with you always, even to the ends of the earth.” The Christ of Matthew’s gospel is present with the church, not absent.

For scriptural and theological reasons—not because the parable is too harsh or because one wants to water down the gospel—this parable needs reassessing. It is not a prescriptive parable of how we all need to use our time, talent, and treasure well—as utilitarian as that interpretation may be. This story is a descriptive parable of how the system works when absentee landlords “give” money to servants, only to demand back a healthy return. It is a descriptive parable of someone who refused to participate in that process, in a situation where absentee landowners and their lackeys were the primary interface between Jewish peasantry and the Roman Empire. That servant—deemed “lazy” and unfaithful by the Empire—pays an awful price for refusing to play along. A grim interpretation, perhaps, but no more grim than the words at the beginning of this corpus in Matthew 24: “Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.”

11 thoughts on “The Politics of the Talents—Matthew 25:14-30 (Mark Davis)

  1. Here is how I used this passage (Matthew 25: 14-30) to oppose my pastor’s request to establish Tithing in our parish:

    Tithing is Small Potatoes

    Tithing, recommended many times in the Old Testament, is nowhere favorably mentioned in the New Testament. Remember the rich young man who tithed and kept all the Commandments but walked away sad from the Lord. Remember the pharisee and the tax collector; the former tithed and thanked God for not being like the latter. Remember the rich man who gave large sums to the temple treasury; and the poor widow who gave two small coins.

    Tithing is passe because it contradicts the Spirit of the Trinity. Now that we have both the Son and the Holy Spirit at our disposal, we can no longer justify ourselves to the Father by giving 10%. The Father clearly will not be satisfied with anything less than 100% plus interest.

    Take the word “God” backwards; then, throw that “dog” a bone. That’s about what we do when we Tithe.

    The Lord giveth and The Lord taketh away, blessed be the Name of the Lord. Blessed also are the Son and the Holy Spirit who are now here to help us give back 100% plus interest.

  2. William, I like you insight. But, some my shriek, “100 %???!!!” But the way it speaks to me is we awaken and walk out the door as THE sacrifice for the day; for each moment.

  3. The commentator has been observant, but I think that the lesson to be drawn is that allegory isn’t the best way to read Jesus’ parables. Yes, the man who owned these slaves (or perhaps simply servants) is harsh and hardly an ideal person. But that simply makes the parable work better: the point of the parable is, I am sure, that one should take risks. The one servant wasn’t actually lazy, but fearful. It would be interest to add a character who invests the money lent him and loses it. How would the owner judge him?

  4. ISTM that – at least for Matthew – the placing of the text is an allegory in relationship to a religious leadership that took its ‘hyparchona’ – literally, beginning from below – translated as ‘goods’ and buried the Law and the Prophets in a death-dealing rejection of trust in favor of defensiveness and scapegoating. The other two servants were good (agathos) and trusting (pistos). Luke is a bit different, but Matthew is clearly struggling with the failure of the religious leadership (in his time) to embrace the reality he sees as central.

  5. But does this even work with the context?

    Matt 24:1-35: the end of the age?
    Matt 24:36-41: surprise judgement, explicit reference to Son of Man
    Matt 24:42-44: surprise judgement, explicit reference to Lord & Son of Man
    Matt 24:45-51: boss away, surprise judgement – remain faithful, contrast wailing and gnashing of teeth
    Matt 25:1-13: waiting for bridegroom, surprise judgement – be faithful and prepared
    Matt 25:14-30: boss away, surprise judgement, contrast wailing and gnashing of teeth
    Matt 25:31-46: your actions will be noticed, even while you are unwitting, punishment vs life
    Matt 26:1ff: “the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” …

    Now, I suspect these warnings are primarily to encourage the disciples in faithfulness rather than warn of God’s judgement (contrast Matt 21:33-46), but to suggest that the judgement isn’t from God seems to read this block of parables way out of their immediate context.

  6. “Mind blowing”, Traveling today I heard a well known station reading Matthew 25 14-30 and I was struggling intensely with it’s meaning and prayed about it. Although I always struggle with this verse, today I was moved to search for meaning and found this site; thank you.

  7. I agree with the need to reassess this parable. I agree that that the third slave represents the element of resistance to harsh authority, including political and especially imperialist authority and exploitation of invaded and conquered first nations. Enslaved Africans and Asians have a history of resistance to British and American slavery after conquest of the non-European nations. The third slave represents this risky attempt to resist the exploitation, brutality and oppression of powerful overlords.

  8. I am blessed by your dealing with this text. It makes sense to identify the 3rd servant to be the right response of resistance to oppressive and exploitative systems of capitalism and empire ideology

  9. Thank you for these fresh insights. I think the parable has for too long been interpreted from our capitalist worldview. From research, I discovered the limited good worldview of the ancient peasants at play in this story. In that worldview, trying to gain more was dishonorable. The greedy landowner would have his slaves do it for him because they were considered dishonorable already. The third slave was doing what was considered honorable when entrusted with someone else’s property by burying it to keep it safe. He was speaking truth to power in a peaceful and honorable way, and it got him in trouble. Just like Jesus. So much rich wisdom for us today. The challenge to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. The way that shows love to God and to our neighbor. All of our neighbors. The Jesus way. What a breath of fresh air this parable turns out to be! And, I can see this at work with some of the speaking truth to power going on today. It causes trouble! Oh, that I would be so brave.

  10. Found this in 2017. This parable sat heavy with me as I attempted to prepare a sermon- I could not reconcile it. It felt like I was shoving a square peg in a round hole. Until I heard the idea of Christ as the 3rd slave and began searching to understand more. My heart leapt as I found blogs and resources like this. Thank you. I thought I was just going to be a heretical preacher…. now, I know I am not alone in this flipping of the parable.

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