In this parable, the parable of the talents, we find three individuals, three slaves of a master. The master has departed for a time, and gives unto the three slaves three respective portions of his wealth, each according to the slaves’ abilities. These portions of wealth are quantified as “talents,” an ancient measurement of weight that functioned as a unit of currency, its value depending on whether the talent was of gold, silver, copper, etc. In any case, regardless of the substance of the talent, it represented a large amount of wealth to be bestowed. So the original hearers of the parable would have immediately understood the hyperbole involved in talking of talents. It’s classic Matthew, and the point is that the slaves have received a great deal to work with. But upon receiving their talents, the three slaves set themselves to two different kinds of activity. The first two dutifully go out and trade with them and thereby double their initial portions: the one who had five talents acquires five more, the one with two talents, two more. The third slave, however, goes out and buries his single talent. The master returns to settle his accounts and discovers the results of the three slaves’ endeavors. The first two, he honors for their labors, and invites them into his joy and entrusts them with greater shares of responsibility. The final slave, the one who buried his talent, comes forward with an excuse about the master’s harsh nature, attributing his decision to bury his talent to his fear of the master. The master then takes away his single talent in wrath, and condemns the useless slave into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Now, the Parable of the Talents has to be one of the most misunderstood and badly botched parables of our Lord’s repertoire. But we come by it honestly, as there are many reasons for our misunderstandings. And so this is one of those parables that comes with a standard interpretation that requires a significant amount of deconstruction up front before we can then return to the parable itself. So here we go.
First, we misunderstand the parable of the talents because it sounds so much like American conventional wisdom to us. It’s really no surprise that we have difficulty getting at its deeper meaning. Ours is a culture of individual initiative, personal responsibility, and of charting our own path in the world -- at least that’s what we often tell ourselves. And through that lens, this parable can easily sound as though it was pulled straight from a self-motivation manual. Three individuals, two of which exhibit entrepreneurial strategy while the other succumbs to cowardice in the face of risk. The fable practically writes itself. And at the end of the parable, the respective consequences that the three slaves receive reinforce this instinctive interpretation of ours: that what we ultimately acquire is the result of our own individual efforts. But that’s not all! There is also the added dose of stern moralism: the third slave is lazy and wicked, and even what he had at the start is taken away from him and given to the more industrious first slave. Indeed, it would not be difficult to find in this parable a biblical sanction for our deeply ingrained suspicion of the poor and a warrant for our collective habit of erecting punitive structures over and against them. After all, the chosen metaphor in this parable is a financial one, and money, specifically the acquisition of money, is highly operative in our consciousness of personal worth.
And then there is the unfortunate coincidence of the English word for the unit of currency mentioned in the parable -- a talent -- and the English word for “special stuff you can do.” So this parable becomes a gold mine for preachers who love a good play on words, because the text does half the work for them! The “talents” of the parable can seamlessly be translated into all of our various “talents,” and many a Christian young person has been coerced into performing bad renditions of “The Old Rugged Cross” on the guitar they just started playing a month before upon this equally bad reading of the parable. The point, so we are told, is to go out and find explicitly “Christian” outlets in which to exercise our “talents” -- don’t “bury them” in “secular” pursuits. At least that’s how I grew up hearing this parable taught. Or, more generally, it could just mean that God has given us all certain gifts and capacities and he expects us to go out and apply them towards the advancement of the kingdom. And in that sense, perhaps that’s not too terrible of a takeaway. Still, the equation of the “talents” of this parable with the various talents you might have that this reading depends upon is tenuous at best, even if it is better than interpreting this parable as either a piece of propaganda for American individualism or as being about actual material wealth.
But in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, neither of these readings get it right. Recall that Matthew is all about Jew and Gentile relations as well as the intense conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. It is about who is the real representative of Torah. Is the radically new perspective on the Law that Jesus puts forth via his words and actions, his critique of the scribes and Pharisees who have bound themselves and others to the letter of the Law while ignoring its spirit, the true perspective? This question is perhaps the central pulse of Matthew’s Gospel.
Along these lines, I think that the talents represent “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” that the disciples are said to have been given in Matthew 13, after they ask Jesus why he speaks in parables in the first place. “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says, “but to them it has not been given.” And this is no random connection that I’m making here, for what follows is actually the same statement that concludes the parable of the talents: “for to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” However, in today’s parable, this principle sounds harsh and perhaps even contradictory to the overarching theme that arises from Jesus’ teaching, that those who lack will be filled, that the humble will be exalted, etc. Accordingly, if you look around at how contemporary interpreters deal with this parable, you’ll find a great deal of discomfort with it and what can feel like its cold acceptance of oppressive structures. There doesn’t appear to be any hidden subversion of the master-slave relationship of the parable; in fact, it’s mostly taken for granted. Understandably, many try to uncover some subversive kernel nevertheless, but personally I think it involves too much of a stretch in terms of the text. The parable stands before us -- it is what it is.
But back in Matthew 13, where this principle first appears -- the “for to those who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” -- it refers to the fact that those who have been blessed with eyes to see and ears to hear will perceive the truth of the parables and then follow Jesus in his ministry. Others will resist the call of Jesus, refusing to follow him, not having ears to hear. But the blessed will build upon the blessing they received by producing the fruit of good works, or, in the language of the parable, by doubling their original talents. And when we bring this context back into today’s parable, it allows us to move beyond the literal, financial nature of the metaphor.
So who is the third slave? The lazy and wicked one who buries his talent instead of either trading it for gain or investing it for interest. He has been given something real -- his talent isn’t fake or illusory. But just as one can hear the words of Jesus without any effect being kindled in their life, so does this slave receive his talent in a merely literal sense. It’s his, but he doesn’t work on it. He doesn’t even really keep it close, choosing instead to bury it in the ground where it does no one any good at all. But fear governs him most of all, fear of the methods and actions of the master that he does not understand. He tells the master that he is a harsh man, that he reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter seed. This, of course, is in direct conflict with the description of the sower in that parable, where the sower scatters seed indiscriminately, letting the seeds fall anywhere and everywhere. But from the perspective of the Pharisees, Jesus’ fellowship with sinners and those of ill repute, and his apparent disregard for religious convention, it would look like Jesus was trying to gather children of God from places where God had not chosen. As a result, they fear Jesus as a threat, for they are personally invested in maintaining a clear boundary beyond which God’s blessing does not venture. And they squander the talent that they did have --the Law and the prophets -- as a result.
So where do we bury the Gospel that has been entrusted to us? In what ways do we maintain a safe distance from the power of God into which we have been called? Still possessing it in a purely nominal manner, of course, but calculating the use thereof so as to maintain the comfort of our present state. Rowan Williams says somewhere that in the New Testament, to stop growing is to fall away. There is no ground of absolute stability on which to rest, having captured holiness, or salvation, or grace, in a discreet, isolated moment. There is no ground in which to bury the gift. And what is the gift? The gift is the participation we have in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. And this participation begins in the blessing we received of eyes to see and ears to hear. Note how the first two slaves go out into the world to engage it with the talents; their gifts are intermingled in relationships with the world, and not only do their talents increase on account of those engagements, but those with whom they traded also exchanged with the talents. By contrast, no one, not even the third slave himself, gained anything from the talent buried in the ground. It was inert, and therefore was practically was of no value whatsoever.
To all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.