The Parable of the Talents

On Wednesday, 19th October we met at Holly House to discuss various interpretations of the parable of the talents, with help from Amy-Jill Levine’s book: Short Stories by Jesus – the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi. She writes: “Parables are Jesus’s way of teaching…………they continue to provoke, challenge, and inspire.”  “Jesus’s God is a generous God……the parables help us with their lessons about generosity: sharing joy, providing for others…….”   “His God wants us to be better than we are….those who pray, ‘Your kingdom come,’ might want to take some responsibility in the process, and so work in partnership with God.”   “This book is an act of listening anew, of imagining what the parables would have sounded like to people who have no idea that he will be proclaimed Son of God by millions, no idea that he will be crucified by Rome. What would they hear a Jewish storyteller telling them? And why, 2000 years later, are these questions not only relevant, but perhaps more pressing than ever?”

The parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30.) [also Luke 19:11-27, the parable of the Ten Minas.]

This story has been troubling for me for many years now. It appears to promote a master who is hardhearted, ruthless, greedy, predatory, rapacious, avaricious, etc. while at the same time treating the third servant very unjustly.

“There is an old saying in Biblical studies that a text without a context is just a pretext for making it say anything one wants.” Amy-Jill Levine.

“If we get the context wrong, we’ll get Jesus wrong as well.” Amy-Jill Levine.

What would the crowd listening to Jesus have understood by the word Talent?

In a biblical context a “Talent” is silver coinage with one of the largest monetary values in the ancient world of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.  It is a colossal sum, equal to 6,000 denarii – a day labourer’s wages for about 20 years!  The lowest guesstimate for the current value of a Talent is about £500,000.   (A Minas has a current value of about £60,000).

Is the parable about gifts or economics?

Is it a parable about the Kingdom of God or the state of the world?

What is the master like? How does he represent Jesus?

The servants would probably have been slaves. In the ancient world (certainly in ancient Egypt and Rome) slaves could rise to running their master’s household, and were known as stewards. eg Joseph in the house of Potiphor.

What would have been the reaction of Jesus’ hearers to these huge sums handed out to slaves to invest?

The returns on the investments are huge.  Could they have been achieved by just and legal means?  Or would they have required usury, fraud, exploitation and extortion?  (See Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35-37, Isaiah 5:8, Micah 2:1-2). What would have been the reaction of Jesus’ audience to these returns?

“For those listening to Jesus as he gave the parable, such returns on investment (verse 20) would have been deplored because it could only have occurred through the most predatory of means: extortion, fraud, tax-collecting, and lending money at illegal rates of interest”.                                     C. Myers & E. Debode.

“Large landowners often made loans to peasant farmers based on speculations of future crops. With high interest rates and vulnerability to poor crops and lean years, peasant farmers were unable to make their payments, and faced foreclosure. After gaining control of the land, the new owner could continue to make a killing by hiring the landless peasants as day labourers to farm his cash crops.”   C. Myers & E. Debode.

In the Jewish Law the fiftieth year was the year of Jubilee which celebrated seven Sabbatical years. i.e. 7 x 7 years. The Jubilee year involved a fourth big shake-up added to the debt cancellation, slaves released and land rested commands of the Sabbatical year. The land itself was to be returned to its original occupants. Leviticus 25:10. “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own family.”

At the “accounting” does the third slave “speak truth to power”? Is he a “whistle-blower” who exposes the fact that the master’s wealth is entirely derived from the exploitation of others? By burying the money could he have been taking it out of circulation so that it could not be used to dispossess more peasant families?  (see Isaiah 5:8).

I love the slave’s comment at the end of verse 25. Some translations read: “Here, take back what is yours!”  It is interesting that the master does not refute the slave’s analysis of his world, nor does he refute the slave’s description of him as being hardhearted, greedy, and ruthless.

“The third slave is a whistle-blower on greed, corruption and exploitation. And like most, if not all whistle-blowers, having spoken the truth is totally vulnerable. Vilified. Shamed. Humiliated.”  Barbara Reid.

Is the slave about to meet the prophet’s fate? (see Luke 11:48-51)

Verse 30 is usually interpreted as the slave being banished to hell.  Is that the correct interpretation of the verse?  Or could it mean banished to hell on earth – dispossessed, and thrown out on the streets – homeless and destitute?

What is your reaction to the third slave? Could he be the hero of the parable by not taking part in the master’s world of usury and greed? Could it be that he doesn’t invest the money because that would involve him in usury?

How could verses 28 and 29 possibly be anything to do with the Kingdom of God?  Aren’t they a description of the way the real world works, both then and now?

Amy-Jill Levine says we have “domesticated” the parables of Jesus. Is that in order to make them palatable to the rich and powerful?

Do you think the master could be a ruthless rich and powerful landowner, collaborating with the Roman occupation?  Who might he represent today?

Isn’t it interesting that Matthew places the story of the Sheep & the Goats in the same chapter as the “Talents”, and Luke places the meeting of Jesus with Zacchaeus in the same chapter as the “Ten Minas”?

“Justice was at the centre of Jesus’ spirituality.  It is when we have the courage to name exploitation for what it is that we can begin to re-imagine the world.”   Barbara Reid.

Isn’t this a cautionary tale about the world and not a parable of the Kingdom?

Do you think an alternative understanding of the parable makes more sense in the light of the whole message and life of Jesus?  Doesn’t it also fit in better with the “call for justice” found throughout the Old Testament and in the synoptic gospels?

“Christians find a basis for justice-making in their understanding of God: To know God is to do justice.” (see Jeremiah 22:16) Dorothy Yoder Nyce.

If you had to rename the parable what would you call it?

I hope this post will help you to consider anew and to grapple with the enigmatic, challenging and provocative nature of Jesus’s parables.