No Time for Timidity: Reflections on Matthew 25 and Luke 19

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Lectionary Reflections
Matthew 25:14-28; Luke 19:12-24
November 13, 2011

The Parable of the Talents/Pounds
I heard recently about a New Testament professor teaching a course on the four gospels to a group of college freshmen. He called for four student volunteers to come forward with pen and paper and sit in the front row. Then he got up on his desk and jumped up and down and ranted about this and that. Then he got down. "Each of you write what you saw," he instructed them.

Which they did and came up with four radically different accounts. The student telling me about this had been out of college for five years, so apparently, this was a memorable pedagogical strategy!

The Talents (Matthew) and the Pounds (Luke) are two evangelists' variants of the same parable. In Luke we have a combination of two parables, much like we have in Matthew's combination of the Great Feast and the Wedding Garment. Luke, or his prior source, has introduced into the story of the Pounds a separate story about a nobleman, disliked by his countrymen, who seeks a kingdom. That story appears in verses 12, 14, 15, and 27.

The story may have an historical origin. In 4 B.C.E. Herod the Great's son, Archelaus, journeyed to Rome for confirmation of his kingship over Judea (the southern part of Palestine). The Jews sent a group of fifty people to Rome to protest his appointment. He was appointed anyway and returned to exact a bloody revenge on the people (Boucher, 140). Luke's version of the talents adds this context of historical urgency to the message of the parable. There is urgency to investing your pound wisely, since destruction may fall unexpectedly in an uncertain life. In Luke, it is placed between the story of Zacchaeus, who underwent a dramatic shift in his priorities in response to Jesus, and Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, an enacted parable of risk. Jesus' destruction in the crucifixion led to divine vindication of his investment of his life in the resurrection.

Looking through Matthew's Lens
Now to Matthew's version. By now we have noticed a couple of things about Matthew's use of parables. One is that almost all of his parables end in a person or group condemned for being foolish or wicked. Most of the parables unique to Matthew (Unmerciful Servant, Vineyard Laborers, Last Judgment) end on a note of judgment. This pattern fits Matthew's polemic against Jesus' opponents and his emphasis on the need for a higher righteousness that involves the inner life as well as the outer (Simpson, 49).

The parable of the talents follows this same pattern. It is the third in a trio of parables: The Faithful and the Unfaithful Servants (24:45-51), The Ten Bridesmaids (25:1-13), and, now, The Talents (25:14-30). All three of these parables have common features. In all three a powerful figure goes away for a time. In his absence people act in two contrasting ways. When he returns, he responds positively to the ones who did well and he judges those who did not.

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).