Commentary – The preceding parables have been about readiness, and this one is particularly about faithful stewardship which readiness produces. The third in the series of parables about being ready returns to a setting similar to that of the first, a master dealing with his servants. But this time there is a more specific focus on their commercial responsibility in their master’s absence. Each is left with a very large sum of money, with no instructions on what to do with it, and the story turns on their different ways of exercising this responsibility. There is again a division between good and bad, between success and failure. Yet the “failure” of the last servant consists not in any loss of money, but in returning it without increase. It was not that he did something wrong—he simply did nothing. This is, then, apparently, a parable about maximizing opportunities, not wasting them. To be “ready” for the master’s return means to use the intervening time to maximum gain; it is again about continuing life and work rather than about calculating the date and being alert for his actual arrival. This third parable is thus essentially making the same point about readiness as the two preceding ones (Mt 24:45-51 and Mt 25:1-13).
Matthew and Luke. It is very easy to conflate the Lukan and Matthean versions of this parable. In the Lukan version of the parable, a man entrusts each of three servants with a large amount of money – actually there are ten servants, but in the end only three play a part in the last scene. Upon his return, the first two have worked with the capital and greatly increased it. Attention focuses on the third, who has acted with caution not to lose what was entrusted to him and is able to return it whole to the master. It is unclear how this last servant who have been perceived by the original hearers of the parable. There is good evidence that they would have considered burying the money a responsible act, but not necessarily keeping it stored in a handkerchief. The third servant in the Lukan version would be seen to have acted irresponsibly and is thus merely lucky to still have it at the master’s return. When the Lukan third servant is challenged as to why he has not increased the money entrusted to him, he responds with a characterization of the master as a harsh and unjust man who inspires only fear and caution.
This perhaps gives the original hearers a bit of a pause. On the one hand, the hearers have just seen proof of the master’s generosity to the first two servants. On the other hand, the story has led them to be sympathetic to the action of the one-talent man in carefully hiding the money. To his (and the hearers’) surprise, the one-talent man is condemned for fearful inactivity, and his money is given to the first servant, who already has ten talents. The hearers must decide which characterization of the master to accept. The parable has led them in both directions, and it creates a dilemma rather than resolving one.
The careful listener should now be asking whether the original grant of money was entrusted to the servants to manage or was it given to them as their own. Perhaps only the third servant continues to regard the money as his master’s. If true, then the whole parable must be understood in terms of grace and the response to it, rather than stewardship of property that remains another’s.
Luke has positioned this parable between the story of Zacchaeus and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Matthew has positioned the parable (with different details) between his “Little Apocalypse” and a scene of the final judgment. It may well point to a different intention and understanding. But then parables always have such leeway. As mentioned above, “readiness” seems to be the point of Matthew’s use of the parable – but then, we shall see.
Matthew’s Thought. A comparison with another Matthean parables is useful. (1) In 18:23–35, a servant is entrusted with the great wealth of another, and an accounting is called for (only place in the NT this expression is used). The servant is forgiven a fabulous debt incurred by his mismanagement of his master’s money. In our parable, a servant is condemned, although he had lost nothing of his master’s money. (2) In both parables the servant is called “wicked.” (3) But, earlier, the judgment it is a matter of actively and profligately abusing his authority, while in the later parable the “wicked” servant is cautiously circumspect. (4) the final judgments in each case are severe: “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.” (18:34) – and – “And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (25:30). It is worth noting that the differences are in what lead to judgment: abuse and profligate waste, as well as, lack of action.
Such contrasts in Matthew’s pictures of the judgment and the ultimate judge serve to guard the reader from too readily objectifying the meanings presented allegorically and to frustrate our efforts to summarize the way God works into neat coherent systems. The pictures point beyond themselves and resist systematization, while still speaking of the reality of judgment and the necessity for decision and responsible action – in other words, “readiness.”