Therefore it was common (especially by the proliferation of all that Bible study) to cycle through many of the Parables. And within the speech on the Parable, we would enter a familiar formula. First read the passage. Then assign the “actual” names to all the participants within the story. Give the spiritual point of the story. Tie in some historical fact to anchor the tale within the time period (and impress the audience with your ability to own and read a Commentary) and finally reinforce the application the recipients should utilize out of the story. Often one would work in a personal tale to illustrate the parable. Beginning, end or middle—it could go anywhere.
Since my friends and I had sat through the same routine on countless previous occasions, and having half a brain a piece—we figured out the point, the illustration and “who’s who” long before the person finished reading the verses. We were raised to be polite enough to listen through the next 27 ½ minutes of a person telling us what we already ascertained.
The Parable of the Talents entered the rotation on a regular basis.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord's money. After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them. So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, “Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.” His lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” He also who had received two talents came and said, “Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.” His lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” Then he who had received the one talent came and said, “Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.” But his lord answered and said to him, “You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matt. 25:14-30
The teacher would enter the tired monotone, we would hear (as we expected to hear) that the man was God, and the servants were Christians, and the talents were abilities, and we should use our abilities with hard work toward God’s work, and it was bad to not use our abilities, and someday we will be rewarded/punished for how we used our God-given abilities.
A story about a Christian who stopped singing for God, and started singing Rock-n-roll and then lost his ability to sing in a horrific blender accident…and the half hour was up…Time to go!
Seemed pretty straightforward and obvious. Hard work rewarded. Different people have different special abilities. Shouldn’t squander what we have.
And 100% wrong. This was not what the parable was about. We thought the first two servants were the “good guys” and the third servant was the “bad guy.” This is a total reversal to what the first century Judean audience would have understood. To them—the first two servants (and the man) were the bad guys, and it was the third servant who was doing the right thing.
How come they never taught that in our Sunday School?
See, to the Judean mind, including the peasants to whom this story was directed, “goods” were of a pre-determined quantity. One person gaining was ONLY possibly by another person losing. The first servant’s gain of five talents would only be possible by another, most likely a poor person, losing an equivalent sum.
Therefore, the only commendable person in the parable was the sole person who did not cause harm to others, yet retained what was rightfully the masters. The audience would understand a man who “reaped where he did not sow, and gathered where they did not scatter seed” was—in essence—a bad person who was only becoming rich at the expense of others.
Luke 19:12-29, further exemplifies the character of the man in highlighting the fact the man was going to receive a kingdom, which was opposed by the citizenry. When he did receive the kingdom, the man killed those who opposed him.
Eusebius, in reviewing this parable, thought Matthew was using a literary device to demonstrate the real person who was punished was the first servant who had gain illicitly. Even Eusebius understand the “good” guy in the parable was the third servant, and the “bad” guy was the first servant.
(And a side note not often pointed out—when there were multiple items it was often the “oddity” that was the exemplary item in Jesus’ Parables. One good seed, the rest were bad. One good Samaritan; the rest were unhelpful.)
O.K. so we have two very different interpretations of this parable—one very 20th Century (“use your abilities”) and one very 1st century (“The rich get richer.”) Which one did Jesus intend? Which one is the one we should use?
I ask this because often, in Biblical discussions, people talk about how Jesus’ words would be perceived by the people of the time. What it meant to them. Why he used certain terms. And how, to fully understand what Jesus was saying, we have to immerse ourselves in First Century Judea.
But in doing so—this parable is much different than what most of us were taught in our classes. Were all those classes wrong? Or are we to derive two completely different, even juxtaposed interpretations of the same passage?
Was Jesus talking to 1st century peasants, but in the back of his mind also talking to 21st century capitalists?
I often see Christians hopping back and forth between two opposing positions—that the books of the Bible were written for a specific period of time as compared to the books of the Bible written for ALL time. When it comes to the skeptic questioning the scientific or historical accuracy—we are assured the books were only written for what the people knew at the time. Yet then we are told the moral implications of the Bible are for all time.
Are they? Or is the Christian picking and choosing which suits them best? Which conforms to the culture they know?
We are told slavery was appropriate at that time, or polygamy was appropriate at that time, or genocide was appropriate at that time; but not now. Not once we have come to understand the full moral implications of such practices.
Well then—what about women preachers? Oh, THEN I am assured THAT one is universal! That has nothing to do with “at that time” but rather is a mandate from day one until the earth blows up. Literally. The bit about women covering their head or not wearing gold…well sure…THAT bit was only appropriate at that time.
You know the question is coming…
How do we determine any consistent methodology of what was appropriate only for that time period, and what is universally mandated? How do we determine the Parable of the Talents was to mean one thing at that time, and a complete role reversal now?
When we are to define the terms of the Bible—which dictionary do we use? The one the First Century would use for the New Testament and the Sixth Century BCE would use for the Tanakh? Or do we toss those out and use our dictionaries of today?