(This post be long!)
This post arises out of question, posed on social media, about how we might mistakenly interpret this parable based on the privilege and capitalism of our North American context. I took that to heart and looked for alternative interpretations, based largely in liberation theology. I started writing out some of my thoughts on this and kept writing… and writing…. and writing. I have included subheadings so that you can take this post in chunks if you so desire. Peace!
Two ways not to read the parable
I have recently been sitting with the Parable of the Talents. This is a well-known passage, albeit a difficult text to navigate homiletically. Is the master a good person or a bad person? Did the third servant act in honour or in shame? What exactly is going on? The normative reading of this text lends itself to an interpretation where the first two servants are hailed due to their resourceful reproduction of talents. Each receive a double-return on their investments. They earn money for the master and are duly praised for it. The third servant does otherwise. His failure to produce talents leads him to condemnation. Not only is he verbally rebuked, but he is stripped of his resources and cast outside “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It seems cut and dry.
But does this reading make sense? I don’t think it does.
Liberation theology lends itself to a different reading. Liberations theology demands that we step away from the power-dynamics of a capitalist system to recover how the Gospel would have been received in the original context. This is a good and needed challenge, and one I support. We ought always to seek out how the gospel was, and is, received by those outside the dominant class of power and privilege. After all, until the time of Constantine, this would have defined the Christian community. Jesus spoke truth to power and combated, in word and deed, the exploitive practices of the empire. Furthermore, the radicalness of Christ’s message was spoken to the those who were on the bottom of society, as opposed to those gilded in the golden halls of power. The challenge must be heard. The parable cannot be about increasing our power at the expense of others.
Interpretations rooted in liberation theology turn this parable on its head. The third servant is not the bad guy, but the hero. In burying the talent, the third servant refuses to be complicit in the master’s quest for economic rule by exploitive means. The master, here, is rendered the evil capitalist. The third servant, therefore, acts as the prophetic witness against the exploitation of the poor. The servant’s suffering at the end of the parable is a call for the Christian community to bear with the suffering of the weak and powerless. Various interpreters will offer subtle nuances, but by-and-large, this is the interpretation.
But does this reading make sense? I don’t think it does either.
Looking at the context
We can never uproot a passage from its context. Sure, scholars may propose that Matthew inserts this parable into the narrative at this point for a certain literary purpose, yet this is always merely conjecture. In the end, we have to deal with the Gospel record as we have it. It is always a danger to excise a passage of scripture from what comes before and after it.
When we take the context into consideration, what we see is that this parable is about the kingdom of God. Jesus is teaching about what it means to live within the dynamic rule of the messiah, as they wait for his return. This becomes clear when we see how the parables of Matthew 25 are put together. Jesus begins the parable of the 10 Bridesmaids with the words “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” While this phrase does not begin the parable of the talents, it is clearly continuation of the theme. Consider verses 13 and 14, when read together; they read: “So, watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. For it will be like a man going on journey who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.” Jesus is clear that the parable of the bridesmaids is about preparation for, and reception, of the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom is inaugurated by the Bridegroom himself. The parable of the Bridesmaids makes the clear point that those who are inadequately prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom are clearly in the wrong. The following parable, flowing seamlessly from verse 13, continues with this theme.
Evidence for the kingdom focus of the parable is also seen at the end of the parable. The master does not imprison the third servant. This occurs in other parables and would have been the recourse of any earthly businessman (see the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18). Rather, the master casts the wicked servant “outside, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This is eschatological language, not economic nor punitive. From start to finish, the parable seeks to articulate what it means to live amid the kingdom of God.
Looking at the master
We must also take into consideration how the master is depicted in this passage. The third servant charges the master with being, essentially, a thief. The rhetoric of the third servant accuses the master of being a hard man, reaping where he has not sown and gathering where he did not gather seed. Make no mistake here, the third servant insults the integrity, the honesty, and the godliness of the master.
But is this what we see of the master? The only indication that the master is a harsh man comes from the lips of the third servant who, as we have seen, is in opposition with the master. In response, the master uses these words against the third servant, implying that his actions were not consistent with his own viewpoint.
Typically, verse 26 has been hard to translate. Some translations render the verse as a question: “So, you knew that I harvest what I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?” Rendering this verse as a question implies that the master questions the very foundation of the third servant’s perception of himself. Other translations render this verse conditionally: “If you knew that I harvest what I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed, then you should have …” Even this reading, however, does not imply that the master agrees with the servant’s outlook. In fact, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that the master agrees with the servant’s depiction.
It hard to base our vision on the master simply on the rhetoric of the third servant. This becomes particularly more problematic when we consider how the master is depicted at the beginning of the parable. The way Jesus presents the master is extravagantly hyperbolic. The master gives away an extremely large amount of money. A silver talent was worth roughly 20 years of wage for a common laborer. This means that the master doles out roughly 160 years worth of wages to his three, trusted, servants. (Giving out golden talents would only increase this extravagance.) Again, Jesus presents a vision of the master as extravagantly generous. One must wonder if Jesus would use such hyperbole if he wished to articulate the real-world dynamics of an oppressive and tyrannical economic system.
Is money the main thing?
Jesus appears to present a situation, rooted in economic imagery, in which money is not of ultimate importance. In giving out the talents, the master takes the abilities and uniqueness of each of his servants into careful consideration; each receives their distribution of the talent “according to his ability.” The master seems to know each servant deeply. Similarly, when he returns from his trip in foreign country, and settles the accounts of the servants, the unit of talents gained seems to be of little importance. The master does not comment on the productivity, reliability, or resourcefulness of the first two servants, but on their faithfulness. “Well done good and faithful servant” he says to each person. He commends them for their faithfulness and trustworthiness. Furthermore, the reward for their faithfulness is to enter the joy of their Lord. Again, the amount of talents given, and received upon his return, appear inconsequential.
So, what of the third servant? Did he sin by failing to produce talents? An interesting question to pose is what would have happened if the third servant had invested, but lost, the original talent? What if he came to the master in the same way as the other two, yet did not have a sizeable increase to show for his efforts? Would he have still be cast into the darkness?
I would argue that he would not. Why? Because the force of the parable does not appear to be about how many talents a person produces. If the master’s true focus is faithfulness, not productiveness, then the failure of the third servant is his faithlessness before the master, not his lack of production.
The issue at hand is not the lack of talent-production, but the lack of interaction with the talent itself. The servant buries the talent in a field and thinks no more of it until he hears of the master’s return. To borrow a phrase from Chesterton, the servant found the work too difficult, and therefore left it untried. He shunned the business of the master and refused to take up the call to act on the master’s behalf. The master, therefore, is correct in his description of the third servant; he is “wicked” insofar as he is opposed to the will of the master, and “lazy” insofar as he refuses to act on behalf of the master. The third servant’s sin is inactivity.
Returning to the context
In fact, this is consistent with the overarching flow of Matthew’s narrative. In Matthew, the Parable of the Talents occurs after the Transfiguration. Jesus has marched into Jerusalem as the final leg of his journey to the cross. At this point, Matthew presents a large block of dialogue, beginning in the 24th chapter. Salient to this discussion are many of the images that Jesus uses within this block of teaching. Here Jesus speaks of a fig tree that does not produce figs, lamps that do not light, servants who do not act, and disciples who do not serve. In each case, the issue at hand is the failure of the tree, lamp, or servant, to fulfill the purpose for which it was created and called.
More to the point, Matthew’s cluster of parables actually begins in chapter 24, with the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servant. Here, Jesus presents a tale of a master who puts servants in charge of his household, while he is away in another country. The faithful servants are the ones who heed the master’s business – working diligently though they know not when the master shall return. The faithless servants are the ones the one who shuns the master’s work. Again, the punishment is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The message is plain. It would seem odd for Jesus to pose two parables, composed of the same situation, yet involving different meanings. I would also argue that it would be odd for Matthew to place two parables, composed of the same situation but involving different meanings, almost back-to-back to one another. This would be confusing.
One final question
One final question must be posed if one seeks to view this parable from the standpoint of popular liberation theology. The question is this: Where is the liberation? Jesus frequently speaks good news to the poor and downtrodden. The ill are cured, the forgotten are noticed, the untouchable are embraced. Christ’s kingdom is a radical reorientation of human life. In the Kingdom of God, self-serving economic systems, and tyrannical power-structures, so implicit in the way human society works, are frequently turned on their head. This is precisely what lead to the critique that early disciples were “turning the world upside down.”
If the third servant is praised and lauded for his radical and prophetic critique of the dehumanizing ethics of a capitalist system, then where is the encouragement to those poor and helpless of the world? After all this occurs in other places, most notably the Parable of the Unjust judge. Here, Jesus’ depiction of a judge who refuses to hear the case of a poor widow is abundantly clear. The judge is seen as unjust, and the widow, though powerless, is clearly in the right. This parable uses the literary structure of “lesser to greater” –ensuring that God is not to be understood to be the unjust judge. The point of the parable is that the powerless are heard. Therefore, disciples should pray and “not give up”. The woman is victorious in her case, and the unjust judge gives appropriate judgement. There is also the call to the poor and powerless to continue their pleading for justice. Even an unjust judge will eventually hear the cry of the poor and powerless due to their persistence. Liberation is clear.
In the Parable of the Talents, however, there is no liberation offered. The servant is punished by the master, removed into the outer darkness, and spends an (arguably) eternity in weeping and teeth gnashing. If this is the case, the message is that this is the future for those who stand up to the coercive economics and evil ways. No reward is received, no eternal vindication, just weeping.
Would this be an encouragement to Matthew’s readers? Would this encourage the faithful allegiance to kingdom ethics to any of the poor and distraught of the 1st century world? I hardly doubt it. It speaks of nothing but destruction. Furthermore, vague applications referring to the church’s call to “stand in solidarity with the poor and helpless” does not help this matter. In the context of the parable, if one reads it this way, the rich get richer, the poor continue to be victimized, and no liberation can be found.
Jesus never shies away from the hard truths of discipleship. He speaks plainly about how allegiance to the Lord may bring about division, persecution, and even death. In fact, Jesus begins this grand narrative by speaking about the end of the age, and the persecutions that will occur. Jesus is open and forthright: “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” (24:9). Amid this sobering reality, however, Jesus offers good news. He states that the “one who endures to the end will be saved.” The same dynamic occurs in the Parable of the faithful versus the unfaithful slave, the Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids, and the Parable of the sheep and the goats. Despite words of judgement, and the implicit challenges to lax discipleship, liberation and salvation is always extended. The call of the gospel is clear.
But not in the parable of the talents? If taken to be some exhortation against non-jubilee economics, this parable stands out dramatically from the rest, If the master is evil and the third servant righteous, then this parable makes absolutely no sense given the arc of Matthew’s narrative.
Given all this, I simply cannot see how we can understand this parable in the way suggested by some liberation theologians. I see no warrant to see the master as an evil despot, simply because he is presented as rich beyond imagination. Nor do I think we can force the third servant into the framework of stalwart hero – a suffering servant as it were. There is simply no indication within the parable itself that this is what is going on. Reading into the text in this way does not make it true.
We must remember, however, that this parable is not about the maximization of economic wealth. This parable is concerned with faithfulness, not growth or production. The true liberation of the Gospel comes not from what we produce, or the various talents we can attach to own efforts. True liberation is a gift of God, bestowed upon us in grace. What our master looks for is not the ever-increasing production of bricks, but the heart of faithfulness that is willing to take up the Lord’s generous invitation to join his kingdom. It is this, that I believe, the parable rightfully articulates.