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BIBLE STUDY ON THE PARABLE OF THE TALENTS (MATTHEW 25:14-30)

International Lutheran Council (ILC) Word Conferences (Niagara Falls) Friday, 21 September 2012

Dieter Reinstorf (FELSISA) _____________________________________________________________________________

Text: Matthew 25:14-30 14

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to 15

them.

To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each

according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

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once and put his money to work and gained five more. more.

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money.

The man who had received the five talents went at 17

So also, the one with the two talents gained two

But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master‟s

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“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.

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The

man who had received the five talents brought the other five. „Master,‟ he said, „you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.‟ 21 “His master replied, „Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master‟s happiness!‟

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“The man with the two talents also came. „Master,‟ he said, „you entrusted me with two

talents; see, I have gained two more.‟ 23 “His master replied, „Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master‟s happiness!‟ 24 “Then the man who had received the one talent came. „Master,‟ he said, „I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.‟

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So I was

“His master

replied, „You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?

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Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that

when I returned I would have received it back with interest. one who has the ten talents.

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”„Take the talent from him and give it to the

For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance.

Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.

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And throw that worthless servant

outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 1


1. DISCONCERTING If the Parable of the Sower and that of the Shrewd Manager were the two parables which I found difficult and puzzling to interpret, then this Parable of the Talents is the most disconcerting of the three. I believe it is disconcerting and especially challenging to certain strands within the confessional Lutheran fellowship and the way we use God’s Word to reach out into the world. With this sentence I am reflecting of course not on others, but rather on what I over the years have experienced within the church or synod to which I belong.

In interpreting this parable I also hope that the rather dooming words of the concluding scene of this parable will not put a damper on a conference aimed at encouraging one another to delve deeper into the Word of God, but will instead promote the joyful mission of the Lord, as I indeed believe the intend of this parable is.

2. FORMLATING AN APPROACH You will be aware that this parable is not peculiar to Matthew, but a similar version is also present in the Gospel of Luke (19:12-27). In fact it also features in the gospel of the Nazoreans (as recorded by Eusebius, De Theophania 4.22). Not much needs to be said about the Nazorean version as it is generally regarded as a “moralistic perversion”1, the first servant, for example, spending his master’s money on prostitutes and being lauded for it. From a historical perspective the question raised is: Which version is the closest to the “original”, be it the actual words of Jesus or the originating form of the parable? This is a question which I have largely circumvented as I am limited by the task giving to me. But it should be noted at least that the parables in the Synoptics are already a “sermon being preached” to a particular community. In other words, the parables are translated, transposed and even transformed in terms of viewpoint, arrangement and occasion.

There are differences between the Matthean and Lukan versions of the parable. Striking is the eschatological context of the Matthean parable. It forms part of Matthew’s apocalyptic discourse of judgment (Mt 14-25). It is juxtaposed between the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Mt 25:1-13) and the Parable of the Sheep and the 1

Ernest van Eck. Do not question my honour: A social-scientific reading of the parable of the minas (Lk 19:12b-24,27). HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 67/3, 2011,1-11. 2


Goats (Mt 25:31-476). These parables emphasise the need for faithful activity whilst the second coming of Jesus is delayed. Luke’s version largely lacks this eschatological colouring. The last servant, for example, is just called “evil” but he is not judged and thrown outside into the darkness. The introductory line, “While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable” (Lk 19:11), clearly links the parable to the preceding story of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector (Lk 19:1-10), which reaches its climax in the sentence: “For the Son of man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk. 19:10). This could be a pointer on how the parable is to be understood in Luke’s context. The entrusted “property” should be used to reach the lost, the focus being on the objects, whereas as in Matthew’s Gospel the focus is more on the subjects, those to whom the property is entrusted and their corresponding responsibility to give account of their actions. Significant is the difference between “talents” (Matthew’s version) and “minas” (Luke’s version) entrusted to the servants. Whereas a mina equaled a 100 denari (one denarius being the average subsistence wage for a day laborour), a talent was a silver coinage that weighed between 57 and 74 pounds, equaling 6000 denari. 2 This means, if a servant worked for 300 days in a year, one talent corresponded to 20 years wages, two talents to 40 years wages and five talents to 100 years wages. These are huge sums – even one talent. Whereas the use of the word “talent” can be attributed to Matthew’s description of events in “grand scale” (hyperbole) or Luke’s efforts to make the sums entrusted more “realistic” remains a matter of debate. In interpreting this parable I will be focusing primarily on the text as it features in Matthew’s Gospel. The eschatological context in which it features will be recognized, but our methodological approach and focus will primarily be on its 1st century social setting.

As before I will be on the outlook for a diaphor, the shocking twist in the parable that turns conventional views upside down and challenges us, not only to view the reality of God’s Kingdom differently, but also to act differently. Many contemporary preachers have not only failed to recognize the diaphor(s) in this parable, but have also anachronistically interpreted the entrusted “talents” quite literally as “natural skills” (or “gifts of the Spirit”) that each one of us have received to be used in God’s Kingdom, or simply as “money.” I am 2

See Bernard Brandon Scott. Hear then the parables. A commentary on the parables of Jesus. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 224. 3


aware of at least one congregation in our country where each member received an amount of money and was send home to multiply the amount, each one with his or her ability, for church purposes - with the implicit threat of judgment if no profit was generated.

It is the social-scientific interpretation, a method widely employed in biblical interpretation in recent decades, which has in particular highlighted the diaphoric nature of the parable. It is also a method that guards well against anachronistic and ethnocentric interpretations.

3. LIMITED GOOD SOCIETY Essential in understanding the parable is the notion of “limited good”.3 In present day (Western World) economics we make the assumption that goods are in unlimited supply. If a shortage exists (like a pair of shoes) we can always produce more. If one person gets more than another, it does not automatically mean that somebody else gets less. It is a matter of production. But in ancient Palestine the perception was the opposite: all good existed in finite, limited supply and had already been distributed. This means, if somebody suddenly got more, that is, his slice of the pie got bigger, it can only mean, that he had taken something away from another person. Acquisition, or accumulation of wealth, was therefore by nature understood as stealing – a rich person being branded as a “thief.” An honourable person would never be interested in increasing his wealth, but his efforts would be confined to maintaining the possession that was rightfully his and his status in society. I may add that the notion of “limited good” has never been totally discarded in countries like Africa and most third world countries. The perception of limited good is still prevalent. This is not only confined to natural resources (of which there is a growing awareness worldwide), but goods in general. Within these countries the emphasis is less on developing skills and increasing production, but rather the distribution of the wealth that is available by divine providence, within the parameters of ascribed honour, of course. Depending on the honour described to you (by “birth right”, for example) there are acceptable social and economic differences. But sudden accumulation of personal wealth is seldom if ever understood in terms of production and hard 3

See inter alia Bruce J. Malina. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Westminster/John Knox Press: Louisville, 1993), 90-116, and Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbauch. Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1992), 48-49. 4


work, but the result of employing devious means to obtain what strictly speaking belongs to others. Acquiring wealth is “evil” and is inevitably seen to be at the expense of others (This is of course often the case as the history of our country testifies – not only in the past but also today).

This notion of limited good is clearly reflected in the Mosaic Law regarding usury (referred to yesterday already) with the interesting clause that it applies only to fellow citizens, but not to foreigners (insider/outsider perspective): Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, so that the Lord your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess (Dt 23:19-20).

This law, however, did not prevent the accumulation of wealth at the expense of others. The dishonourable rich accumulated wealth with impunity. This they did in a number of ways, notably by trading, tax collecting and money lending – at (hidden) interest of course –, thereby always defrauding others by forcing them to part with their share of limited good. The only exception to gaining wealth honourably was if it was clearly provided by God himself – within the public sphere, like a rich harvest after good rains.

In contrast to the deplorable behavior of the rich, peasant production was primarily for use rather than exchange. Being subsistence economies, peasants in 1st century Palestine, did not see the purpose of labour as that of creating wealth, but simply as maintaining the family and the well-being of the village. As a result it was acceptable to peasants to sell commodities in order to obtain money to buy other essential commodities, but to use money to buy commodities which are then sold again at a profit was unnatural and was deemed to be dishonorable behaviour.

4.

DISOVERING THE DIAPHORS IN THE PARABLE

Against the backdrop of a “limited good” society the actions of the first two servants in Jesus’ parable are everything but laudable. They reflect the shameful behavior of increasing ones wealth through the exploitation of the poor. The listeners of Jesus’ parable would have been shocked and would have labeled the first two servants as thieves. But the master on his return praises them with the words: “Well done, good and 5


faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” This is a diaphor.

Even more disturbing is the judgment of the third servant. Conventionally his action is honourable and corresponds with the law. He neither increases the one talent entrusted to him, nor does he loose it. His action is prudent and trustworthy. In fact, in the ancient world “underground” was the only save place to keep entrusted goods. Although buried treasures were sometimes found (see Mt.13:44), the Mishnah (3.10) stipulated that if a person buried money entrusted to him, he was not liable if it was lost. By burying his one talent the third servant ensures a verdict of responsible behavior at the time of account. But again the judgment of his master is a diaphor, a shock to the listeners. He is labeled a “worthless” servant who is strictly speaking condemned to hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The parable can of course be interpreted in different ways depending on who the real or implied audience is and who the “man” (master) in the parable references. Reading the parable as an epiphor, that is a real-life illustration of the exploitation of the peasantry for personal gain, it can be seen as critique leveled by Jesus at the rich elite (the “man” referring literarily to a rich landowner) against the backdrop of Jesus siding with the poor. This approach is largely followed by William R. Herzog in Parables as Subversive Speech, with the sub title: “Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed”. Ernest van Eck comes to a similar conclusion. 4 For him the critical words of the third servant, “Master I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed” are to be taken literarily: That is exactly what happened in 1st century Palestine. The third servant’s action then describes a way, how the evil actions of the master can be resisted in a socially legitimate way: The servant can honour his evil master by safely returning the entrusted talent, yet without taking part in his devious actions of exploitation. Van Eck notes, that confronting those who exploit directly seldom if ever works. One therefore needs to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Mt10:16b).

However in following the theses that I presented in my introductory Bible study, I intend to read the parable not only as a diaphor but as a kingdom parable that also mirrors Jesus’ own life. Needless to say, Jesus sided 4

See Van Eck (Do not question my honour), 8-11 6


with the poor, but the reasons were not purely social but theological, the poor and unclean being excluded from the kingdom of God. Such a reading means that the “man” in the parable references God – just as the father does in the parable of the Prodigal Son (or A Man has Two Sons). This would further mean that the socially honourable action of the third servant, which surprisingly is condemned by the master in the parable, should indeed been seen as deplorable. And the socially dishonourable actions of the first two servants, lauded by the master in the parable, are to be interpreted as prudent and faithful acts that challenge the listeners to act accordingly, all the more so in the light of the approaching parousia of the Lord. The social dynamics of exploitation during the 1st century Palestine then provide Jesus with the backdrop and repertoire to speak about the kingdom of God diaphorically.

5.

THE ENTRUSTED PROPERTY AND THE BURDEN OF SAVE KEEPING

The introductory line of the parable refers to a man who entrusted his “property/possessions” to his servants. It is the same Greek word that is used in the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, being accused of wasting his master’s “possessions” (Lk 16:1). As noted then already, the entrusted ujparcovnta do not reference possessions in general, but is a terminus technicus for the Torah as the most valuable possession that God entrusted to his people, Israel’s joy that set it apart from all other nations.

One way in which the religious leaders of Israel responded to this entrusted possession was its preservation and its protection. This is confirmed by a saying taken from Aboth (1.1): “Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the law” (emphasis mine).5 However the effort made to preserve the law in an unblemished way also burdened the Israelite leaders. This is clearly seen in a rabbinic parable. 6 A son of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai has died and various rabbis attempt to console him, without much success. Then Rabbi Eleazar tells this parable: I shall tell thee a parable: to what may this be likened? To a man with whom the king deposited some object. Every single day the man would weep and cry out, saying: “Woe unto me! When shall I be quit of this trust in peace?” Thou too, master, thou hast a son: he studied Torah, the Prophets, the Holy Writings, he studied Mishnah, Halakha, Agada and he 5 6

Cf Scott (Hear then the Parable), 230 Ibid, 230 7


departed from the world without sin. And thou shouldst be comforted when thou has returned thy trust unimpaired. Striking are the words: “Woe unto me!” These words express the wish that the young Rabbi be freed from the burden that comes with the entrusted possession (the object). In this particular case the burden placed on the son of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai was lifted by his early death. But he is encouraged to take comfort that his son managed to keep the entrusted possession unimpaired – without sin. Indeed for the ancient rabbis nothing was more important than standing before the throne of God knowing that the Torah, entrusted to them by God, had been kept pure and unadulterated.

Referring to McGaughy (Fear of Yahweh), Scott notes that in the postexilic period this burden at times led to bitterness against God. He quotes Psalm 119:120, Job 4:14, and especially Job 23:12-17: I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread. But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store. That is why I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me. Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.

Job feels compelled to defend himself against his accusers.

But this burden is depicted even more graphically in the widely inexplicable words of the third servant towards his master. He justifies his actions by stating: “Master…I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you” (Mt 25:25-26). However this depiction of the master (in referring to God) is a distorted picture. That is not what God is like. But that is indeed how God is perceived by the conventional Israelite who is burdened by the weight of preserving God’s priced possession unimpaired. This burden and the resulting fear stifles the joy of having the Torah and the purpose for which it is given.

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If the parable was addressed primarily towards the religious leaders of Israel, it can be read as a critique towards those leaders who avoided the unclean (“sinners and tax collectors”) in order to keep the Torah pure. As such it would be directed towards those “pious” Israelites who practiced exclusiveness, whilst also serving as an encouragement to Jesus’ disciples (and the Matthean community – the implied readers) to use what has been entrusted to them wisely in manner that resembles the life of Jesus.

6.

THE TORAH AS A MEANS TO BE “LIGHT TO THE WORLD”

Fear of God in preserving his Law unimpaired results in an inability of serving the purpose for which the Law is given. Israel, the chosen nation, fails to become the “light of the Gentiles” – a task so vividly expressed in Isaiah 49: 6-7: It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.

It was always intended for Israel to be a light and a blessing to other nations, also expressed in the promise to Abram: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you ... and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3). Instead the history of Israel testifies to a spirit of exclusivity. This is largely based on an interpretation of God’s holiness. “To be holy as God is holy” (Lev 11:45; 19:2, 7) was understood as keeping categories of ordering distinct, leading to a variety of purity maps and regulations. 7 Organising society along “purity” lines calls for a sharp distinction between what is “in order”, or “out of order”, what is “clean” or “unclean”, who is “included” or “excluded”. Gentiles are out of place in the land of Israel, especially in the sacred temple (Ac 21:28). Likewise all those not “whole”, the sick and people with physical defects, such as eunuchs, lame, blind, deaf, and lepers are all excluded and may not enter the temple area to offer sacrifices (Ac 3:1-2). It is in this “darkness” that the logos appears. At his birth boundaries are already crossed by the visit of the Magi (Mt 2:1-13). Jesus gathers disciples from amongst those deemed to be unclean and makes them into the 7

See inter alia Jerome H. Erro! Apenas o documento principal.Neyrey. The symbolic universe of LukeActs: “They turn the world upside down”, in The social world of Luke-Acts: Models for interpretation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991), 278-279. 9


“light of the world” (Mt 5:14-16) and commissions them to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19; Ac 1:8). “God, our Saviour, [who] wants all to men to saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Mission and the generous scattering of the Word defines the church and its right of existence. The Church is there for the world – not at the expense of the “knowledge of the truth” but to share it and to make it known to all. It’s driving force is God’s holiness, but not as understood by conventional wisdom in terms of purity and separation but in terms of mercy and acceptance as advocated by Jesus himself: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36)

The parable of Jesus is challenging. It intends to create uneasiness leading to critical self-reflection. It ends with harsh words. The third servant, who fails to use the entrusted talent, loses it. It is taken away and given to the first servant. In the concluding lines the master expresses the unthinkable: The servant who acted responsibly according to Israelite Law and (solely) focussed on preserving what was entrusted to him, is judged harshly. Do keep the Law (Word) of God unblemished, but failing to use it to reach out into a lost world is in stark contrast to the expressed commission of the Lord (Mt 28:19-20).

7.

SCATTERING THE WORD IN SPITE OF THE “RISK”

The handing down of the Torah was an act of grace to God’s people, likewise the Gospel of Christ. It is “good news”. This Word is to be kept pure and unadulterated (see inter alia Gal.1:6-9; 2 Th 2:15), but the sharing and the scattering of the Word is imperative. The former is, if you like, the servant (Magd) the latter the master (Herrin). This particular parable places the use and the passing on of God’s Word at the centre. The listener of Jesus’ parable may be encouraged: God has gifted each one richly. Even the one talent testifies to the lavish generosity of God. The Gospel is given abundantly. Using the Gospel for kingdom purposes is a task to be carried out joyfully. The first two servants “worked” with the talents at their disposal. Such work may involve risk. But worse is to bury it out of fear. Hultgren8 notes that taking risk is the work of faith in action. When it comes to serving Christ, one should be bold and not be afraid of risks, which – according to Hultgren – could be another way of saying something like the famous slogan of Martin Luther: 8

Arland J. Hultgren. The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000),280. 10


“Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in God even more.” Now that is a diaphor.

Despite the great responsibility of preaching the Gospel purely and administering the Sacraments correctly (CA VII) it is not fear that should motivate us in the use of God’s Word, but the grace of Christ for all people. In fact it is the “truth” of the Gospel that both equips and motivates us for mission work. In the service of a gracious God, who has promised us his Spirit, the servants can and are to speak the word of God boldly (Ac 4:31). In this parable Jesus demands it. At times the Gospel may be darkened and Christ’s followers may falter (Peter in Antioch, Gal 2:11-21), but that is why God provides us with brothers and sisters in faith, a family of confessional Lutheran churches, who guide, correct, forgive and encourage each other in fulfilling the Great Commission of the Lord. Not the fearful third servant, but the first two servants register – if you like – success. But notably it is not their success that leads to the master’s appraisal, but their faithfulness in carrying out their master’s commission. These words are also echoed by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: “So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (4:1-2).

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CONCLUSION

The golden threat that runs through all three parables that (implicitly) refer to the Word of God is: This valuable possession is to be used generously and needs to be scattered freely and fearlessly to all (across all boundaries). It is the knowledge of the creative power of God’s Word that encourages us to do so: It always does what it is send out to do.

Time for questions, engagement and group discussion.

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Parable of the Talents  

Bible Study of the Parable of the Talents