We have all read the parable of the Talents
Matthew 25:14-30 (New American Standard Bible)
Parable of the Talents
14 For it is just like a man about to go on a journey, who called his own slaves and entrusted his possessions to them.
15″To one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey.
16″Immediately the one who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and gained five more talents.
17″In the same manner the one who had received the two talents gained two more.
18″But he who received the one talent went away, and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19″Now after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.
20″The one who had received the five talents came up and brought five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted five talents to me. See, I have gained five more talents.’
21″His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave You were faithful with a few things, I will (I)put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
22″Also the one who had received the two talents came up and said, ‘Master, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more talents.’
23″His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
24″And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed.
25’And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’
26″But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed.
27’Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest.
28’Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’
29″For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.
30″Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Here’s the thing: what if we have not understood the environment and the context that Jesus was speaking to enough to understand what is going on in this parable?
Several weeks ago I put forward two theories about our understanding of the Bible:
- we would benefit to know more about the first century context
- we would benefit to know more about the genres that the Scriptures were written in
This parable is a perfect example of those two ideas.
A talent was the largest denomination of currency available in Jesus’s day. It weighed 72 pounds and required several servants to carry. It was used once a year to pay estate taxes.
When Jesus says that some servant received several talents his first century audience would have known that this was absurdum. They would have known immediately that this was a political or economic lampoon.
It is also interesting to note that the Jewish rate of interest was capped at 12%. Anything more than that was considered unethical.
So when we listen to Jesus tell this fictitious story, there are two things that may not be obvious to us as 21st-century listeners:
- The first is that those servants that are applauded/esteemed in this parable would have been perceived as villains and potentially booed or jeered by the original audience.
- The second is that the servant that buries his treasure was the hero in this story!
It is possible that the servant who buries his treasure is the good guy both as Jesus tells the story and as it was heard by the first century audience! Keep in mind that this is in an agrarian society and that by sticking his money in the ground he has demonstrated to his master that money does not grow and will not feed his family.
In this sense, he is sticking it to the man by saying that participating in an predatory economic system of profit does not feed me and those I care about. Money does not grow and you cannot eat it. This guy might be the hero of Jesus’ story.
Now- Somebody might object at this point and say “he is called a wicked and lazy servant”, but I would point out that Jesus does not call him that… Jesus is telling a story where the evil landlord is calling him that. This is a huge distinction.
Just because of the phrase “evil and lazy servant” appears in the text does not mean that Jesus is assigning it to the man. And this is where our lack of knowledge about the genre of parable betrays us. If we do not know how to read a parable then we are in danger of mis-reading the parable.
It might be interesting at this point to note that the word “talent” did not come to mean what it does in our modern definition until somewhere around the 13th century. This is one of the first instances we have of a word’s definition actually coming from an interpretation of Scripture. Talent came to mean skill or ability in the 13th century because of this very passage. Before that it had never meant what it means in our contemporary understanding. Talent was a Roman denomination of money. When Jesus told this story he was clearly meaning it as an economic teaching.
At this point, we have to be willing to come to terms with the fact that we may have been reading this parable exactly the opposite as Jesus meant it.
The man who buried his treasure may actually be the hero of this story! And the servants who derived income from a double percentage gain may have been a wicked participant in an oppressive system.
A capitalist reading of this passage may actually result in an exultation in the exact opposite purpose for which Jesus meant it. This is a grave realization.
If the man who buried his treasure is indeed the hero of this story and he is – by means of a prophetic act – demonstrating the fatal flaw of an opportunistic (predatory) economic enterprise… then we may have been sold a faulty view of both the kingdom and the financial enterprise of this world. This is a sobering possibility.
Most people that I talk to do not know that the talent was a denomination of money. They do not know that it weighed 72 pounds. They do not know that it required several servants to carry. They do not know that it was used as an estate tax once a year. This is information that radically changes the way we read the parable.
I am not a fan of either/or, this or that, in or out, us or them, dualism and binary thinking. That is well-established. In this one instance, however, it is clear to me that these are two very different readings and that one reading supports the status quo of Imperial economics and the other is a subversive reading that undermines the way things are and the ‘powers that be’ !
Jesus does not call the servant who buries the money a “wicked and lazy servant” he puts that phrase in the mouth of the wicked landowner. When people say to me that “the Bible says… that man was a wicked lazy servant” they are misunderstanding the very purpose for which the parable was spoken. We must acknowledge that it is the wicked landowner who calls the servant by that title.
On a side note – think about what we are saying about God if we think of the wicked landowner as God. We are saying that God is absent. We are saying that God us harsh. We are saying that God is ruthless. Is this really what we want to say about God?
Is this what we think God is like?
I am not blaming those who have been taught to read the Bible this way – but the simple fact is that it is not how Jesus meant it in the first century nor is it how his original audience would’ve heard it.
If we are going to read the Bible better we have got to know more about the first century and we have got to know more about the genres that Scripture is written in.
This is simply a snapshot of how our ignorance of those two areas … and how 2000 years of dust have blurred the original picture.