This parable is a favorite with American capitalists (interested in profit) and fundamentalist guidance counselors (focusing on the unintended and textually unsupported meaning of the word talent). — John Pilch
What are we to make of this parable? John Pilch, whom I quote above, makes note that Eusebius of first century fame knew a different version of this parable. There, the first slave was thrown in prison, the second one beaten and reprimanded, and the third one was welcomed into his master’s joy. Why? Because for a first century peasant, the parable as written is somewhat troublesome. Anyone who makes large sums of money is suspect. It is assumed that it is gained dishonestly. One did not make money with money in any manner that was not tainted. Charging interest of an Israelite was forbidden after all. (Deut 23:19) What was the best solution for having been given a sum of money to tend? Burry it in the ground! That was rabbinic advice in the 1st and 2nd centuries but only to freedmen. Slaves got to do as their master does, but the master were subject to the same advice.
Slaves are another problem as well. They could not be trusted. Being somewhat in a desperate position anyhow, they might well do unscrupulous things when doing business. (Lk 16) But, at home, they were judged by a simple rule: Did you do as the master would have? When the master in Jesus’ parable commends the first two slaves, he commends them because they did as he would have done, even though many around would have thought that he was dishonorable for making money with money. The third did the honorable thing for a peasant society of the 1st century. He is scolded and punished while the one who did as the master would have the best is rewarded. To make the insult complete, the master even states that the third slave ought to have gone to bankers who pay interest by charging it of others. Not only that, the master even confirms that the slave has him pegged right: I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter. Is that saying: Yes I am dishonest and you knew it, so don’t be surprised if I give my son a stone when he asks for bread or a snake when he asks for a fish. (Matt 7:9-11)
I wonder if this is really and anti-hero parable. This parable might well have shaken Jesus’ hearers. But buried inside is a bit of Matthew’s spiritual foundations. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48) The context of that saying is concerning the treatment of others: do not love just your own but also the stranger and even your enemies. I would add Matthew 10:24-25 here as well: “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”
To be children of the heavenly Father, one must be willing to live in the Father’s house and that very naturally leads to being one that imitates the ways of the house and of the Father who presides over it. To put it another way, a servant cannot tell the master what to do. A servant will and must imitate the master until, like a good British butler, the ways of the master are so well know to the servant that the master does not ever have to actually ask for things. The butler will simply know what to have ready. Butlers to the younger generation of a house, however, have more latitude. They can and will enforce the master’s will unto a sometimes unwilling offspring of the house. They do so firm, gently, and very carefully, knowing that there is peril in overstepping the master’s wishes. To the outside world the servant is to be clearly a mirror of the master.
Maybe this is the point? We have been given a place and time to be the servants of the Lord most high. Are we acting like we aspire to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect? Are we imitators of the Lord? Is it recognized that we are the possession of God almighty? A gracious possession no doubt, but God’s possession and in all ways reflecting the ways and manners of the God of Abraham and the of the Lord Jesus Christ?
To make it more difficult, Origin observes that the servant’s words to the master are absolutely true: God will reap where the righteous disciples have sown. As a servant, the 3rd slave should never have spoken the sentence. Of course the master gets to reap the reward of the servant’s work. Duh! It is the master’s talent the man had been given after all. So, he was to sow and, yes, the master will benefit. Servants, slaves, only have what the master deems they should have.
Whatever we do, we do for the glory of God. We shall have none of it. Whatever profit of praise be ours here on earth, it is to be laid at the feet of the Master immediately. If you do not work here on earth, you will not bring Glory to God. If you refuse to bring Glory to your Lord, can you really claim that you belong to the Lord and that the God of Abraham is your God?
A parable will follow this one. It is about the sheep and the goats. Those who are owned by the vision of the household of God will go out and, like a good butler, serve in the manner of the house by seeking out the lowly and forgotten and ministering to them. Those who do not belong will omit it. It will come natural to both of them to do as they do. These parables belong together and to the one before, the one about the foolish and wise teenagers with the lamps and the oil. Being prepared by having faith sufficient is a first step.
Being rich in hope might be the point of this parable. I am. I have faculties and abilities. I am the Lord’s. etc.But, I am not Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, one of the many aliens of Douglas Adam’s “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.” Unlike Wowbagger I have not had an unfortunate encounter with a rubber band, a martini, and a particle accelerator that left me somehow immortal. That did not work out well for Wowbagger either. He got bored being immortal, especially on Sunday afternoon when he realized once again that no matter how long he stared at the pages he would again not read the Sunday Paper in its entirety for yet another week. He hatched the hopeless plan to use his immortality as the seed of the project to insult everyone in the universe in alphabetical order, a project financed by cashing in on long term investments. Those of us who lack rubber bands and martinis really are in the position that we must hope that what we do means something in the economy of God. If my life and all its actions and labors does not matter to the King of heaven then it is a waste. If so, I might just as well try to read the entire Sunday paper and hatch angry plans to shake my fist at the universe.
If the King of Heaven, Earth and eternity does however harvest what I in Faith have sown, then maybe it all somehow matters and it is not just a tale of utter lunacy as Hamlet would fret. But it is one of these: A profit and Glory to the Holy Trinity or a lunatic’s endeavor. Only Hope says it might just be the former and not the latter.
Faith is needed to traverse unknown, confusing, unclear, and painful circumstances. (last weeks Gospel text) Hope is needed to sort of “see” beyond horizons that we right now think we will never reach. (this week’s Gospel text) Love (Charity) is needed to see and reach out to our fellow travelers for the true blessed work of life always involves others. (The sheep and Goats text for next Sunday) I paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr in that summary of the cardinal virtues. When the King comes in his Glory, will we have had hope?