No Time for Timidity: Reflections on Matthew 25 and Luke 19
The first parable concerns slaves whose master is delayed. The second concerns bridesmaids when a bridegroom is delayed. This parable of the talents concerns slaves whose master went on a journey for a long time. The first parable ends just as we would expect. The slave who was punished had gotten drunk and beaten the other slaves. The next two parables, though, feature five bridesmaids and a slave who are judged and condemned, not for acting badly but for failing to act. They are rebuked and punished for their passivity. Apparently this theme is important enough to be addressed, not just in one parable, but in two (Simpson, 50)
The phrase "entrusted his property" (25:14) is the same phrase used in the parable of the unfaithful steward (24:47). This tips off the reader that the issue here will be the faithful maintenance of a trust (Donahue, 106). Matthew's version describes a man going on a journey. He is obviously wealthy, since he can afford to travel abroad and has a staff of retainers. In Luke's parable of the pounds the authority figure is a nobleman who is going to a distant country to get royal power and come back. In Matthew the man gives three servants differing amounts of money—five, two, and one talent. In Luke, he gives three servants one pound each. The amounts in Matthew are vastly more. A talent equaled about 6,000 denarii. A denarii was one day's wages, so 6,000 denarii amounted to about twenty years' worth of wages. A pound, a mina represented about 100 denarii (Boucher, 139).
Matthew specifies that the man gave the servants more or less according to their ability (dynamin) (25:15). "Ability" could also be rendered "power." Retainers in the households of the wealthy in ancient times gained power by the demonstration of their abilities to manage others and to increase their master's holdings and funds. So ability and power are not so different in meaning here. Some interpreters have speculated that the man is testing his staff, but it seems unlikely that he would use such massive amounts of money to test them. More likely, they have already passed numerous tests to make it into his inner circle. Testing retainers would have been done with lesser amounts. This is a bid by the man to enhance his resources by relying on persons with known skills, not a test for the untried (Herzog, 159).
The "One Talent Man": Hero or Coward?
There are two diametrically opposed, possible interpretations for how this parable disrupts business as usual. William Herzog and others argue that the "one talent man" is the hero of the parable. He alone of the three refuses to increase his funds in the only way a retainer in a wealthy household could in those days, by extracting funds from those who were already strapped beyond endurance by both Temple and Roman taxes. The wealthy elite used its wealth to make loans to peasant farmers so they could plant their crops. Interest rates were high, from 60 to as high as 200 percent. The purpose of making these loans was so that the peasants would be forced to put their land up as collateral, and so that the wealthy elite could foreclose on these loans in years when crops did not cover the incurred debt. In this way the wealthy demoted peasants from independent owners of small family plots to day laborers dependent on the owner for work. The retainers were the ones who brokered these oppressive interchanges. Though it is never said in the parable, it may be that there was an unspoken agreement that the servants would double the master's money, and, as long as they did so, they were free to profit themselves by some "honest graft" added on. The one talent man, by burying his talent, refused to participate in this oppression.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.