On the Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25: 14-30

There are two main ways how one might read today’s parable: one would focus vertically on the world to come, on the kingdom of God in the parable; and another would focus horizontally on who God is within the story and what this means for the world here and now.   In other words, one reading is about the future, and the other about the present.  Spending a little time unpacking both vertical and horizontal possibilities shows how uneasy they both are as readings, and what this leaves us to say about the parable of the talents.
            The first way of reading today’s parable of the talents rightly sees the context as the Christian waiting for the end-times, the return of Christ.  Following on from other parables about watchfulness and preparation, the parable firmly sets itself as one about what the kingdom of God is like.  It recommends positive and responsible activity rather than lazy inactivity or fear.  The parable soon seems to have neat allegorical meanings: the man going out on a journey represents the post-resurrection Christ who will return to settle accounts; those slaves who enter into the joy of the master are the faithful who, as they are active in charity and mercy, will receive the reward of heaven; and the wicked slave whom the master has [thrown] into the outer darkness represents those who are too afraid or lazy to build on the gift of faith.
            Yet, as neat as this reading of the parable is, it also masks some rather unsavoury features.  First, the relationship in the ancient world between master and slave was often one of brutality, violence, and abuse.  If Christ is indeed the master, and the slaves us, then it seems a strange image to use, even if St. Paul also calls himself a slave of Christ (e.g. Romans 1.1, Philippians 1.1).  Second, the punishment visited upon the third slave seems terribly harsh.  A talent would be equal, according to modern estimates, to somewhere between fifteen and twenty years of wages for a common labourer.  Even though the other slaves make huge profits, this third slave neither squanders nor loses the massive investment portfolio.  This seems far from obviously wicked.  Third, the master acknowledges the shocking, hard truth that he that reaps where [he] did not sow, and gather[s] where [he] did not scatter and that from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  The master is hardly a cuddly figure of fun, and it may be difficult to see him as the Christ of love.  Finally, if the parable is all about the end times, then it seems to have little to say to us now other than that we need to use our time and gifts wisely, a rather vague and bland piece of advice.
              Another reading of the parable is offered, then, which emphasises the earthly quality of the text.  In his book Parables as Subversive Speech, the scholar William Herzog sees the parable of talents as Jesus speaking out against economic injustice, a kind of theology of liberation.  For Herzog, the master is driven by greed and enlists the slaves to increase his wealth while he is away. The first two servants quickly go out and double the amount by "trading" with them.  Since the acquisition of wealth was most often done in ways that exploited the poor and the weak, the first two slaves thus become like their master even as they do their master's bidding.  It is the third slave who dares to speak truth to power: ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man…so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.’  For speaking such truth, the master violently throws the third slave into the outer darkness.
These characters of the parable, according to Herzog, refer to very different analogues than those assumed by our first reading.  The master and the first two slaves refer to real masters and their agents who perpetrate actual injustices against the majority in order to create wealth for the few.  The third slave represents both the discarded worker and, more significantly, Christ himself who, through speaking the truth, is rejected and crucified.  Thus, Christ teaches against economic exploitation and identifies the kingdom of God with those who are exploited and rejected.
While Herzog’s reading directly addresses with whom the Church must stand – the poor, the downtrodden – it is also as problematic as our first understanding.  First, since the parable of the talents follows others distinctly concerned with the future kingdom of Christ, to read the parable simply as a Marxist unveiling of oppression remains somewhat of a stretch.  Second, the third slave is such a minor character that it would be surprising if he really were Christ.  Finally, the punishment visited on the third slave is consistently used by Matthew to indicate a just (if also terrible) judgement by God in eternity, not a temporal oppression.
How do we navigate, then, the tensions of these two very different readings in order to connect with this difficult parable?  I suppose the nature of parables gives us passage to see something as true and valid in both understandings of the parable of the talents.  Parables, unlike allegories, are open-ended, without fixed meaning, and demand that the hearer interprets, seeks meanings, and reads his or her own time in light of the Gospel.  It is quite possible, then, that the parable of the talents does have both a horizontal meaning and a vertical or transcendental one.  On the one hand, as disciples of Christ, filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we do need to look from side to side and ask what does and does not reflect wise investment of time, money, and energy .  These are questions we can pose to the City as well as to the Church. On the other hand, however, we should not conflate the Gospel with any one temporary or temporal issue or ideology, as grand, worthy, and meaningful as they may be.  The vertical dimension of the parable of the talents points us firmly to recognise the kingdom to come as the one on which ultimately we need to set our sights.  Just as horizontal and vertical axes meet at a certain point, it is our vocation to work at that point such that we co-operate with the kingdom announced in Jesus in the here and now and yet recognise that the kingdom is still to come and it is God’s gift to give.   That vocation of living at the intersection will be a wise investment indeed.  Amen.