A Provocation: Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost: November 19, 2017: Matthew 25:14-30

Matthew 25:14-30
25:14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;

25:15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

25:16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.

25:17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.

25:18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

25:19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.

25:20 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.’

25:21 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.’

25:22 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.’

25:23 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.’

25:24 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;

25:25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

25:26 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?

25:27 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.

25:28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

25:29 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.

25:30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

A Question or Two:

Some Longer Reflections:

A man is going on a journey.  This man has slaves, slaves that belong exclusively to him.  This man also had property.  Listen to that word, “property.”  Inside that word in English is the word “proper.”  That is not an accident.  “Property,” in English, is that which properly belongs to a person.  When a person has property, it is not just that they have possession of a thing.  The relationship is closer than that.  The property belongs to them, and they belong to it, properly.

The same thing is true in the Greek of this scene.  This man with slaves who is shifting his domain to foreign places (also implied by the Greek) commits his property to those slaves.  The phrase in Greek is τὰ ὑπάρχοντα αὐτοῦ.  The participle that is translated as “property” is ὑπάρχοντα, and it refers to those things that a person has sole control of, sole responsibility for, and sole ownership of.  The man going on a journey “owns” the things he has “own-ership” of.  Again, notice the interwoven English words.  That which is his ὑπάρχοντα is more than just stuff that he has; it is his very own, his substance.  

And the Greek says that he handed ALL of it over to his slaves, each according to the unique ability of that slave (ἑκάστῳ κατὰ τὴν ἰδίαν δύναμιν).  That means that the first slave was judged to have the power to manage five talents, which some authorities estimate would have been equal to about $6.25 million.  

Remember that this is a slave, a person who does not even properly own (again, those words) their own body.  People who are held as slaves will have had remarkable abilities, to be sure, but they will not likely have had too much experience handling $6.25 million.

This parable, like all parables, is odd.

The first slave was given $6.25 million.  The second slave is judged to have the power to manage $3.75 million, which is less than $6.25 million, but still a remarkable amount.

The third slave is put in charge of a single talent, about $1.25 million.  It is worth noting that this is still a tremendous amount of money for most people.  Bankers may deal with such amounts on a regular basis, and venture capitalists may through a million or two at this project or that, but most of us hope to have that kind of money in our retirement accounts, or wish that we did.  But we don’t think of those amounts as walking-around money.

Everyone knows that when the master returns (after an indefinite period only named as a “long time”) the slaves are called to account for the money they were handed.

There are a few things to be noted here.

First, the storyteller does NOT tell us that they were ordered to invest the money.  They weren’t given any orders at all; they were just given the money.  It was just handed over to them.  And while the English translations tell us that the master was going on a “journey,” the Greek tells us that he was shifting his domicile, which could mean that he was leaving forever.  Return is not implied.  So the first two slaves might well have assumed that when the property was handed over, it was likely to stay in their hands.  They might well have assumed that the master was gone for good.

If that is the case, then the the third slave was the only one who thought the master was coming back.  Interpreters usually beat up on the third slave because of the things he says about the master: he’s a harsh man, he reaps where he does not sow, he lives off the hard work of others.  The master clearly doesn’t like him: he calls him lazy and wicked.  But his actions reveal that he clearly expected the master to return.  And he was ready when it turned out that he was right.  We have had plenty of parables about being expectant and ready.  It’s almost like the third slave has been listening in as the other parables were told, and plans accordingly.  And for that he is called lazy and wicked.

Did I mention that this parable is odd?

It gets odder.

As I noted in my commentary, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary, the Talmud also addresses this kind of situation.  When a master leaves a subordinate (over whom he has power, even the power of life and death), the Talmud advises that a subordinate ought “Take no risks.  Bury the cash in the ground.”  This advice recognizes the reality of the power differential between master and subordinate.  Masters often require subordinates to take risks that will get them fired if things don’t work out.  Have you ever worked for a boss like that?  I have.  Ish.

The Talmud’s advice is even better when you consider this odd little parable.  We are told that the master handed over to the slaves his property.  It does say that this is SOME of his property.  It may just imply that this is ALL of his property.  We ought, therefore, assume that the third slave watches as the situation develops and knows what to expect from the first two slaves: they will play the market, they will feel rich, they will gamble with someone else’s money.  Playing the market makes you look like a genius.  Unless you lose.  Perhaps the third slave knows that the first two won’t think of that.

If this is what is going on, he looks at his (measly) single talent and sees in it the last of his master’s fortune.  And he concludes that someone has to be the backstop for this crazy scheme.  He buries the money so that even if the other two lose everything, the master will still have $1.25 million to start over with.  That doesn’t sound lazy or wicked to me.

In the aftermath of his return and the settling of accounts, the master demonstrates that the third slave had estimated his character pretty accurately.  He was indeed harsh: “…from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away,” he says.  He seems to have thought that living off the work of others was a virtue, not just a fact of life: “…to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance,” he says.  And then, to cement our impression of the harshness of his character, he throws the third slave into the outer darkness, where he will learn to weep and gnash his teeth.

In the aftermath he also reveals the truth of what often seems true of the over-privileged in any century: he says to the slave who had been given $6.25 million to play with: “You were trustworthy in a few things….”  For almost all of us, 6.25 million of ANYTHING is not “a few things.”  Only the uselessly wealthy would even think to say such a thing.

I have to say it: if there is someone in this parable who is lazy, it would be the one who makes his living by reaping what others sowed.  If there is someone who is wicked, it would be the one who takes from the poor the little that they have.  And if there is anyone who is worthless in this parable….  Well, you get the picture.



If this isn’t an abusive parable about God’s absolute right to cast slaves into the outer darkness, then the point of this parable (thank you, Adolf Jülicher) appears to be: Don’t expect the return of the master.  We would appear to be on our own, whether the master returns or not.

I must have mentioned, sometime or other, that this parable is odd.  I must have.