Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 25.14-30
Proper 28 - Year A

Other texts: 


Last week the "virgins" were responsible for providing and managing their own oil. Some managed it wisely and some poorly. This week, the master gives the "talents" to his slaves. Does it become their own property to manage or does it still belong to their master? As I suggested last week, both parables deal with the question, "What shall we do while we wait for Christ's return?"

WHAT'S A TALENT?

While we often use "talents" to refer to one's abilities, the word in this text refers to a very large sum of money -- between 75-96 pounds of silver. It would take nearly 20 years of work at the basic wage of 1 denarius a day to equal 1 talent. The master was very, very generous to all the slaves -- even the one who received only one talent: One talent = wages for 20 years; two talents = wages for 40 years; five talents = wages for 100 years.

WHOSE TALENTS?

When the master "gives" (paradidomi) his property to the slaves, does the money then belong to the slaves -- thus presenting God as being very generous? Or are the slaves just managers of their master's money -- thus presenting the slaves as stewards of what belongs to God?

I'm inclined to think that the money became the slave's property. The verb paradidomi usually means, "to give or hand over" and seems to imply, "giving up control of." I don't think that "entrusted" in the NRSV is the best way to translate this word. The slaves don't appear to give back any of the money to their master when he has returned. The one talent of the third slave is given to the first, not kept by the master. In contrast to this view, the third slave obviously considered the one talent as always belonging to the master (v. 25) and something he had to protect.

So rather than think of this text primarily as a stewardship parable, our first approach might be to consider it a parable about the graciousness of the master and our response to that. Even the one who received "little" received a whole lot of money.

ONE'S OWN ABILITIES ("DYNAMIC" PERSONALITIES)

Each received "according to his own ability" (dynamis) -- which indicates that the starting point of the parable isn't about the gospel or salvation, which we all receive equally, but about different gifts -- people's abilities, which are not all the same.

I think that the contrasts between the first two slaves and the third give us clues for interpreting this parable. However, I will add an uncomfortable wrinkle at the end.

CONTRAST 1: WORK VS. LAZINESS

One contrast: We are told that the first two slaves worked (ergazomai = "traded" in NRSV) with the talents (v. 16). The third slave is described as lazy (okneros, v. 26).

In contrast to our fear of works-righteousness, Matthew has an emphasis on works. (However, not as the means to salvation, but as "good fruit" being produced naturally from a "good tree.")

This verb is used in 21:28 -- the father asks his son to go and work in the vineyard (something he should have done).

And in 26:10 in reference to the woman anointing Jesus' body -- literally, "worked a good work for me"

We are to be ergates = "workers" or "laborers" in God's plentiful harvest (9:37, 38, see also 10:10; 20:1, 2, 8).

We are to let others see our good works (ergon) (5:16).

In contrast to working, the third slave "shrinks" from work (the literal meaning of okneros), which can imply being lazy or having a lack of ambition.

The story is told of a minister who, to show his reliance on God, entered the pulpit trusting that God would tell him what to say. After his prayer for guidance, he waited expectedly -- and God spoke to him -- "You're lazy!" That was the divine word addressed to him.

How much of the demise of many congregations may be due to "lazy" clergy? How much to "lazy" members? Or lack of ambition from both? Can a pious-sounding, "I'm waiting on the Lord," be a sign of laziness? "Shrinking" from work?

Perhaps Luther's "sin boldly" quote might be appropriate, which might be paraphrased, "Get off your butt and do something -- even if it's wrong." If it is wrong, "pray boldly" to receive God's grace even more profoundly.

NOTE: The only other place that "talent" is used in the NT besides this parable is Matthew 18:24 where a slave is forgiven a 10,000 talent debt. Perhaps that slave had risked the gift once or a number of times and failed to double the money as the first two slaves in our parable. He is forgiven. The third slave in our parable, lost no money. He was not in debt to his master; yet he is thrown into the outer darkness. I presume that Matthew intends for his readers to have this story in mind as they hear a second story involving talents.

Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) states: "'Good and faithful' is not mere theological correctness, passive waiting, or strict obedience to clear instructions, but active responsibility that takes initiative and risk" [p. 453]

Note that the master gave no clear instructions. So what one does while waiting goes beyond mere obedience. How will you use your time and God's generosity while waiting for Christ's return? Or, You have been generously and lavishly gifted by God, what are you going to do about it?

CONTRAST 2: GOOD VS. EVIL

A second contrast: The master call the first two slaves "good" (agathos) and the third slave "evil" (poneros).

These words are used in terms of good/bad trees that produce good/bad fruit. (7:17-19). (kalos is also used for "bad".)

And in terms of good/bad people who bring good/bad things out of good/bad treasure.

This would suggest to me that producing the good return by doubling the money isn't want made the slaves good, but that there was a good quality about them before they were ever given the talents, just as there was a evil quality about the third slave that resulted in his being called evil.

CONTRAST 3: GENEROUS VS. HARSH MASTER

A third contrast: The first two slaves hint at their master's generosity by their use of paradidomi = "what you had given me" in vv. 20 & 22. The third slave is centered on the hardness of the master and the fear that perception produced in him (vv. 24-25).

While I want to be very careful with this comment, I'll say it anyway: Could God become for us what we believe God to be? For those who believe God to be gracious, giving, and forgiving; to them God is that. For those who believe God to be hard, demanding, and judgmental; to them God is that. While I certainly don't believe that God is created by our own images of God, I do think that our inadequate beliefs about God may create perception blinders so that we are unable to see the whole picture of God that Jesus has revealed to us.

Related to the second contrast, the good quality of the first two slaves consists partly in seeing their master as the giver of good gifts. The evil of the third slave could only see his master as a harsh dictator.

The first two slaves seem grateful for what they have been given. The third slave rationalizes his inactivity by blaming the master. "I was afraid (of you)."

CONTRAST 4: ACTING ON BELIEFS VS. NOT ACTING ON BELIEFS

A fourth contrast: What the third slave did (burying the money, which was an appropriate way of guarding money according to the Mishnah -- more about this later) and what he should have done (earned at least a little interest).

The master does not disagree with the third servant's perception of him; but he suggests that if that is what the servant believed, why didn't he seek to earn a little interest = to reap where he didn't sow = to gather where he didn't scatter -- as he knew his master demanded? If he knew that the master wanted more, why not earn a little more? If he was afraid of his master, why didn't he do what he knew the master wanted?

How many people have good (or even faulty) beliefs about God, but fail to allow those beliefs to influence their actions? Their lives may be controlled not by God, but by fear or playing it safe or self-interests, etc.

CONTRAST 5: USING ONE'S ABILITIES VS. NOT USING ONE'S ABILITIES

A fifth contrast: The slave who received little and who didn't use his abilities, as he should have, lost his talent. The first slave who received the most talents and, who apparently had the most ability and properly used it, was given even more.

Perhaps what the three slaves illustrate is how they used their "abilities". If God gave to them according to their own abilities (v. 15), then presumably the third servant had the ability to do like the other two. There are some hints why he didn't use his abilities. He was lazy or lacked ambition. He didn't want to take responsibility for his own actions, but blamed his master. He didn't let what he knew about his master govern his actions.

I've heard musician/composer Marty Haugen state that he believes every church musician should be taking private lessons: organists taking organ lessons, pianist taking piano lessons, guitarists taking guitar lessons, singers taking voice lessons, etc. I also know of congregations who have paid for such lessons.

When I accompanied a high school choir in a public school, those in the elite ensemble were expected to take voice lessons -- and the school brought in a PhD. in voice to give lessons. (Of course the students, I mean, parents, had to pay for the lessons.) There was this high expectations of them working to improve their abilities.

I read a short article that perhaps the church is too forgiving. We continue to let poor performers perform. The off-pitch singer we continue to let ruin the choir anthems. The lector who can't read with any emotions. Etc. How do we encourage (or demand) that members need to grow in their abilities? (A case I heard about: When a church organist refused to schedule lessons that the congregation had paid for, so that the organist could better learn how to play the new organ the church had purchased, she was fired.)

I would extend this "improving one's abilities" to also include committee chairs, who should be reading and/or taking continuing education classes on conducting meetings and on topics related to their responsibilities. I once heard a consultant state that he had worked with a congregation that was run by a bunch of eighth graders. Not one of the elected leaders had taken any Christian education classes since 8th grade confirmation classes. How could they govern the church by the Word of God if they weren't studying it?

While private lessons or congregational support or continuing education classes may not always be feasible, I do believe that growing in one's abilities to use the gifts God has given is not an option. Just offering back to God only what God has given seems to be contrary to God's intentions from this parable.

CONTRAST 6: JOY VS. OUTER DARKNESS

A sixth contrast: The first two slaves enter into the joy of their master. The third slave is cast into the outer darkness.

Perhaps related to the third contrast that God becomes for us what we believe God to be. The ultimate end of the third servant indicates that he should have been even more afraid of his master and acted more appropriately on that fear.

Or, like the first two servants, he might have concentrated on the generosity of his master and joyfully risked everything while trusting that generosity. I would guess that the first two servants had great joy in using and increasing the talents that they had been given.

A favorite quote of mine from Robert Capon in Between Noon and Three hints at this contrast between the slaves.

If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the sons of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has had a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that she had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch (page 148).

The third servant was certainly afraid of some flub that would get him into dutch.

What does it mean to "enter into your master's (or lord's) joy" (vv. 21, 23)?

Neither the noun "joy" (chara) nor the related verb "rejoice" (chairo) are used frequently in Matthew. All of the other occurrences are listed below.

Both are used in 2:10 when the Magi see the star stop, they "rejoice with a great joy."

Jesus tells the disciples to rejoice and be glad when they are persecuted because their "reward is great in heaven" (5:12).

It is used in the interpretation of the seed on rocky ground. "It is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy," but then falls away when difficulties arise (13:20).

Having found and hid a treasure in the field, the man "in his joy" goes and sells all that he has and buys the field (13:44).

The shepherd at finding the one lost sheep, rejoices over it more than over ninety-nine that never went astray (18:13).

The women, after seeing the empty tomb and hearing the angel's message, leave with fear and great joy, running to tell the disciples (28:8).

(The three other instances of chairo are used as a greeting formula: 26:49; 27:29; 28:9.)

What causes joy in Matthew?

For the most part, joy comes as the result of what God has done: sending Jesus, speaking the Word, the coming of the Kingdom, saving the lost, and the resurrection. Or, in simpler terms, the Gospel -- the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ.

Could the master's joy be in giving away the riches? Could entering into that joy imply that the servants now have even more that they can give away?

We might interpret the "talents" as the gospel -- the great treasure God has given the church. By trying to protect it, or save it only for ourselves, we risk losing it.

AN UNCOMFORTABLE WRINKLE

Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) put a whole new wrinkle into this parable. They suggest that there was a "limited good" understanding in the first-century Mediterranean world. They write concerning this parable:

Because the pie was "limited" and already distributed, an increase in the share of one person automatically meant a loss for someone else. Honorable people, therefore, did not try to get more, and those who did were automatically considered thieves. Noblemen avoided such accusations of getting rich at the expense of others by having their affairs handled by slaves. Such behavior could be condoned in slaves, since slaves were without honor anyway.

The third slave buried his master's money to ensure that it remained intact. This, of course, was the honorable thing for a freeman to do; was it honorable behavior for a slave? Later rabbinic customary law provided that since burying a pledge or deposit was the safest way to care for someone else's money, if a loss occurred the one burying money had no responsibility. [p. 149]

They have further thoughts on the "limited good" in an earlier section:

An honorable man would thus be interested only in what was rightfully his and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another's. Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person (Jerome, In Heiremiam 2.5.2; Corpus Cristianorum Series Latina, LXXIX, 61). Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud. The notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron. [p. 48]

Perhaps the third servant's appraisal of his master as a "hard" man (v. 24), with which the master does not disagree, indicates that he had no feelings towards the poor who got poorer as the first two servants got richer. That is, the first two servants were as hard and uncaring towards the poor as their master, which is why they were able to make so much more money -- and that is why they are praised.

This is quite a different perspective than our western, 20th century, capitalistic world, where we operated with a sense that goods are in an "unlimited supply." If we start to run out, we can make more. We don't think that the worker who gets 20 hours of overtime -- that "extra" money -- is depriving anyone else of any money. In fact, we prize and reward those who can use their capital to make more money for themselves and to create more jobs for others. Yet, often when a Wal-Mart comes to a town, there are both arguments about how many people they would employ (a good thing) and about how many other businesses would close down because of them (a bad thing). There is a limited amount of money that a community has to spend. (My wife has worked for Wal-Mart for 17 years. (Today is her last day. She is going to a small quilt shop where there will be less stress.) 

We know something about limited wealth in our country, but we can also give illustrations of things that when given away do not diminish. An illustration Iíve used of this is a candlelighting service. When one person shares the light of a candle with another person, the first personís light isnít diminished in any way; and there is now twice as much light in the place. 

Could not the same thing be said of sharing love? or sharing the gospel? Our ability to love doesnít diminish by sharing it; and there will be more love in the world. The power of the gospel is not diminished by sharing it; and there could be more believers in the world.

On the other hand, there are also examples of things that disappear if they are not used. Unused muscles atrophy and become useless. Unused money in some bank accounts will disappear as the bank charge monthly fees. Could it also be true of the gospel? If we hoard it for ourselves, if we refuse to share it with others, can it waste away?

WHAT ABOUT THE PROPERTY OF THE RICH?

Related to this wrinkle, the word for "property" in v. 14 is hyparcho. It is used only three times in Matthew. The first time it occurs, it is a young man who comes to Jesus and says, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" Jesus eventually tells him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (19:21). Possessions, here, are a detriment to following Jesus and inheriting eternal life. Do they represent greed and power and oppression over the poor?

The second occurrence is in 24:47. In that parable, the faithful and wise servant, who does his proper work while his master is gone, will be put in charge of his master's possessions when he returns. Here, possessions, seem to represent the end time rewards of those who have been faithful in caring for other servants. If we assume a "limited good" in this parable, it is the master who loses while the faithful servants gain.

NOTE ALSO: 24:45 is the only other time in Matthew that pistos ("faithful") is used outside of our text (vv. 21, 23). Both parables deal with the question; What does it mean to be a faithful servant?

WHO IS JESUS?

A question that can be asked of parables is, "Who is Jesus?" Who is Jesus in this parable? Typically, we think that the man who goes away and comes back is Jesus. That may well be. But this question and the above comments have me thinking about Jesus being the third servant -- the "honorable" one (according to first-century thought), who has everything taken from him, who is cast out. Or could Jesus be the treasure that is hidden in the ground? Or is this completely misreading the parable?

FINALLY

Even though "talent" in our text refers to a large sum of money, I also think that we can use it to refer to abilities that God has given us and how we use them while we are waiting for Jesus' return. We need to consider them as gifts from the gracious God and we need to consider that what we do with them becomes our gift to God.

However, Long (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion) offers a different summary:

The parable is not a gentle tale about what Christians do with their individual gifts and talents, as helpful as that may be, but a disturbing story about what Christians do or do not do with the gospel as they wait for the coming of the kingdom of heaven [p. 281, emphasis in original].

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we would be as concerned about increasing the spread of the gospel -- God's grace -- as we are about increasing the return on our financial investments? Even in recent weeks when investments werenít doing so well, people were greatly concerned about them Ė more than most people have about growing the gospel for the sake of God. 

What are we doing with the generous gift of the gospel while waiting for Jesus to return?


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com