The lectionary gospel today is part of a series of parables in Matthew seeking to illustrate what the realm of heaven is like. I understand the realm of heaven not as some future event but as a way of life for now. These stories in the gospel often expose selfish and uncaring ways. They become pointers towards a better way of living; directions for a good life. Realistically, the goal, the desired outcome, will never be reached, humanness is far from perfect. It is something to be strived towards.
Today’s story is about a rich man (Matthew 25:14-30). He was going to undertake a journey so entrusted his money to his slaves. He gave them five, two and one talent respectively. When he returned, the two slaves with the larger amounts had both doubled their money and received praise. The third had kept the money safe but received scorn.
I have often heard it interpreted that God gives talents and it is the responsibility of the recipient to increase those talents. However, today I am rejecting that interpretation and subverting the parable. I read it as a critique of practices of the day, with lessons to be learned for contemporary society.
I want to start by saying, and I have said it many times before, that it is a mistake to assign roles for the characters in a parable. In this parable to read God as the rich landowner leads to problems. The character of the landowner is not how one would want to envisage in a divine being.
Firstly, the landowner was absent —he was going away and leaving his people. Secondly, the landowner is described as a harsh man. Thirdly, the man gets rich through the work of others, “I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter” (26). Therefore, if it is assumed that the landowner equates to God, it can also be assumed that these attributes belong to God. I find it much better to see the parable simply as a story told to illustrate a point.
In the time this story was written a talent was a unit of money. It is not about whether one can sing or is a good artist. That is a contemporary usage of the word talent. This is not a parable about using one’s gifts but about money-making.
The value of money was equivalent to its weight. One talent was worth 3,000 shekels. It is estimated that it was equivalent to about twenty-years wages for an ordinary worker. Therefore, it was an enormous amount of money the landowner entrusted to the slaves. Together the eight talents would equate to approximately one hundred and sixty years of wages.
Money-makers were not held in high esteem. It was often the case that the rich, the person who owned property, got richer through the work of the poor. Often the workers toiled long hours to enable them to eat and feed their families.
The third slave in this story kept the money safe. He wasn’t dishonest with it. He or she followed the common practice of the time, to bury one’s money to keep it safe. When the landowner discovered what had been done he was angry. He told the slave that he should at least have taken it to the bankers to invest it, thus making some extra money on it as it was lent out. Interestingly, this was a practice that was considered dishonest. It was discouraged and held in disdain particularly as the money was often lent to the poor (Ex. 22:25, Lev. 25:37, Neh. 5:10-11).
In this parable, I am not seeing God reflected in the harsh landowner who sought to get richer. I am not seeing God in the two slaves who made more money to receive praise from the landowner. I find God in the slave who kept safe that entrusted to them. I find God in the one who refused to allow the money to be used to exhort from others. I find God in the one who was rejected and thrown out.
This parable was told by Matthew as a prelude to the crucifixion story. A reflection of a God who, in human form, spoke against those who harmed others and was ultimately abandoned and rejected.
(Photo: Casowaco Retreat Centre, June 2017)