The Parable of the Talents
|'The Harrowing of Hell' by a follower of Hieronymous Bosch, date unknown|
The Parable of the Talents comes near the end of a series of parables and teachings on the end times and judgment in Matthew’s Gospel. It is most helpfully read in this context, as an apocalyptic parable. Apocalyptic teaching generally addresses: ‘signs of the end of the age’, ‘the end times’, ‘the coming of the Son or Man’, ‘the necessity for watchfulness’ and ‘judgment’.
It is in this context that we get the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, for instance. They are waiting with their lamps for the bridegroom: 5 are foolish and 5 are wise. The wise take flasks of oils with their lamps, the foolish don’t. Whilst the foolish ones go to buy oil they miss the bridegroom and are locked out of the banquet. It ends with the words: ‘keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’.
There is also the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Slave. The wicked slave acts badly in the absence of his master, beating his fellow slaves, eating and drinking with drunkards. The warning is given that the master will come at an unexpected time and catch the wicked slaves in his acts of unkindness and misuse of power: ‘Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives’.
Ethical teaching in these parables is dependent upon the idea of a returning ruler and judge who will reward those who have been faithful and will punish those who have been unfaithful; or upon the need to be ready and watchful. What is the reward? What is the punishment? We’ll return to these important questions.
The Parable of the talents begins, in our translation (NRSV) 'for it is as if’ but the opening of the parable, if read literally, says: ‘For it will be as when’. The use of the future tense is incredibly important here, for as we’ve established this parable is part of teaching on the end times.
So - ‘it will be as when’ a man going on a journey entrusts his property to his slaves. To the first he gives 5 talents. When this story was written, ‘talanton’ meant a weight of money; the first slave gets the equivalent of 6,000 drachmas, in today’s money 2 million pounds, a huge amount of money, an extraordinary amount. I wonder why the master thinks its okay to give so much responsibility to his first slave? Well, he does, with less to the second and less still to the third. What the slave is given is worked out according to his: ‘dynamis’, literally meaning in the Greek: power, more specifically 'the inherent power residing in a thing'. It’s translated as ability, but it means a bit more than that.
After entrusting his property, the man goes away. The first 2 show themselves to be good and trustworthy slaves; they not only look after the man’s money, but make it grow. The third however, hides the money and is strongly rebuked by the master. The summary of the parable is intriguing:
‘For 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.
Today, the word ‘talent’ in English, meaning natural aptitude or skill, comes from the traditional reading of this parable – which is that God wants us to use the gifts that we have been given and not hide them. Don’t hide your light under a bushel, that sort of thing. That certainly seems to be near the right sort of interpretation, except its important to make the link, which I was labouring at the beginning, that this is a parable about the end times and judgment. I posed 2 questions early on: What is the reward? What is the punishment? Heaven and hell are two stock answers; Christian thought has traditionally conceived of salvation and punishment with these 2 concepts. Today, however, certainly in liberal Christian circles, heaven is evoked to provide comfort and assurance, but hell hardly ever is. So, what are we to make of the apocalyptic tradition within our faith which takes very seriously, the end times and judgment?
It seems to me that these parables give us a different way into thinking about the subject more helpfully. For instance, the reward (from the masters) is usually a reward that is consistent with the behaviour of the slave. For instance, the first slave who takes the 5 talents and works hard so that he doubles the money is rewarded by being given more responsibility and power. What employer would not do the same to an employee? Those slaves who do well are rewarded by gaining a greater share in their master’s work:
‘Well done good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your Master’.
Those who prove themselves worthy are able to share in the exercise of power and authority in the master’s realm – we might extrapolate out to say that those who have shown themselves to be worthy will be rewarded with responsibility in the Kingdom of Heaven. Heaven, in my imagination at least, has always seemed a dull place as there is nothing to do. Whilst here we have a concept of the Kingdom of God or Heaven in which the slave (made co-worker) is an active participant, an active player in the master’s system of rule.
Punishment in contrast is about being denied that sort of inheritance, the inheritance which permits a slave to have his or her own authority and power, to be a co-worker. It’s not about torment in a fiery furnace (although gnashing of teeth always seems to feature!) but being denied the responsibility of co-management. Because of this it seems incredibly important that in the Parable of the Talents, the slave is only given the amount of money/responsibility that he is capable of handling, according to the power residing in him; his inner ability or capacity. This master is not unfair; he does not create a test which is unjust.
Hell in this reading is not about an inactive everlasting torment but about disinheritance, which also means not being in the presence of, or sharing in the joy of the Master. If you are not able to prove that you can be trusted with the master’s wealth, property or employees, then you can’t possibly be rewarded with more responsibility. That would be madness on the Master’s behalf. Those who are untrustworthy, who, for example: mistreat others in the master’s absence; hide away what has been given them out of fear; or who are lazy and unprepared, it is these people who are unable to receive the reward of sharing in responsibility of the kingdom, because of this they can’t share in the joy of the Master.
This lengthy passage of teaching in Matthew (of which the Parable of the Talents is one part) ends with a description of the Son of Man with his angels in glory, debating the merits of all the people of the world. In this passage final judgment is based on how much love we have shown to our neighbour:
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’.
Talking about eternal judgment makes fools of all of us mortals, and yet, these parables encourage us to believe that our actions have consequences; that God is only temporarily absent and that if we pass the test we will be rewarded with joy and co-worker status in the kingdom.