Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)
The Parable of the Talents
14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘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.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘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.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 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. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“I am not called to be successful; I’m called to be faithful.”
- Mother Theresa
When we read ‘the kingdom of heaven is like’ it is easy to assume that what follows is an allegory in which one character represents Jesus or God as the King. Perhaps this isn’t always the case. If the text is translated as ‘the kingdom of God can be compared to’ it can leave it open to seeing what the kingdom looks like or what the kingdom does not look like.
It is easy to think this parable is simply about ‘not wasting your talents’ which is not necessarily a moot point. Of course God wants us to use our gifts and ‘talents’ for the betterment of those around us but if this is true, that the King in this parable is God, it does say something about the character and nature of God which is something I can’t get away from.
In much of Matthews parables the ‘king’ is a harsh taskmaster. Is this what God is really like? A harsh task master? In this parable, he is an absent landlord who doesn’t do any work himself and lives off the work of his servants/slaves. It’s possibly convenient to read the parable as a simple capitalist allegory.
As with most parables we will bring our own understanding of God to the text. If we think he is absent, harsh, judgemental, angry, stingy, facilitates an economy of exchange, retributive, well we’ll easily see that in the text. I also think if that’s how we see him, that’s what we’ll become. Jesus shows us that there is a better way to understand his father which is why I’m just not convinced that the King in this parable is God.
Considering the character of the King and the fact that the Greek word for talent here is specifically related to money, I wonder if a modern day reading could look like a CEO of a big coffee company setting up in Latin America to ensure his coffee company continued to expand and infiltrate most cities in the West. He gave one leader rule of 5 farms, one rule over 2 and one rule over 1. The leaders of the 5 and the 2 combined their 7 farms in order to keep their CEO happy and facilitate the best profit margins, employed local children for very, very little and had them work under extremely harsh conditions. The leader of the one farm chose to do what was best for her workers, paying them well, facilitating thriving working conditions and ensuring fairness among all. When the CEO came back to check on how his empire was developing he was delighted with the profit margins of the combined 7 farms, choosing to overlook the injustice that facilitated those profits. When he saw how the one leader had chosen the dignity of her workers over enormous profits he fired her on the spot, casting her aside. What message do we see from this? Don’t waste your talents? Or do not be afraid to stand up to the ‘king’ and see to the well being of the outsider, the marginalised, the bottom of the pecking order? Considering the next parable is about the sheep and the goats which says nothing about judgement having to do with money or right beliefs but everything about how we treat our fellow humans. Jesus is telling us that the rich get richer but that world will pass away and it is no way to truly live. A day will come when dignity and justice will rule and we get a chance to usher that in now by how we treat those around us, whether as a consumer or as a business owner, as a voter or just as a straight up human being caring for those around us. We are inching towards Advent, the most timely reminder that there is hope, an incarnate hope that we get to partner with. The 'powers' most likely won’t like us advocating for the ‘powerless’, but Jesus will.
Ferg Breen is married with two kids and is a counsellor, psychotherapist, lecturer and pastor in Dublin. He also performs motivational seminars inspired solely by the work of David Brent.