Ready and doing…what?

Talents2In what does readiness consist? Keep in mind that in our parable, the servants are not surprised at their master’s coming, so “readiness” is more attuned to whether the servants will be dependable in the use of the resources. We should note that the master entrusted his resources to the servants according to their individual abilities (25:15). The third one received only one talent, likely indicating that the master understands that he has less ability than the others. The master does not overburden the third servant who nonetheless fails – 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.

Ready and Doing….what? Warren Carter has a different take on the parable. He views the parable as criticism of “the perspective of the wealthy elite” who punishes “the one who subverts the system:” He writes “On the basis of Jesus’ teaching in 19:16–22 [the Rich Young Man], the master and the first two servants could rightly be rebuked for their greedy and acquisitive actions. The third servant should be commended for not adding to the master’s wealth by not depriving others!” Similarly, Barbara Reid (CBQ 66) notes: “The third servant is the honorable one because he unmasks the wickedness of the master”—though Reid herself mentions this exegesis only as a “possibility” which she does not in fact adopt.

Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) suggest that there was a “limited good” understanding in the first-century Mediterranean world. This is quite a different perspective than our western, 20th century, capitalistic world, where we operated with a sense that goods are in an “unlimited supply.” They write concerning this parable: “Because the pie was “limited” and already distributed, an increase in the share of one person automatically meant a loss for someone else. Honorable people, therefore, did not try to get more, and those who did were automatically considered thieves. Noblemen avoided such accusations of getting rich at the expense of others by having their affairs handled by slaves. Such behavior could be condoned in slaves, since slaves were without honor anyway.” The third servant buried his master’s money to ensure that it remained intact. This, of course, was the honorable thing for a freeman to do; was it honorable behavior for a servant? They have further thoughts on the “limited good” in an earlier section: “An honorable man would thus be interested only in what was rightfully his and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another’s. Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person (Jerome, In Heiremiam 2.5.2). Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud. The notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron.”

I primarily offer these voices to again point to the nature of parables. There is much room for interpretations. Still, one can critique Carter and the others since this is not the only parable which assumes the validity of acquiring wealth and of private ownership. Even in the end of our parable of the talents, the two servants acquire a great deal of wealth in private ownership. Yet there is the question of what one does while being ready.

Talents, Gifts, Readiness, and Responsibility. It is perhaps less about the “what” and more about readiness and responsibility. It is not about natural endowment, though the degree of responsibility given to each depends on their individual ability (v. 15). The “talents,” however, do not represent that individual ability but are allocated on the basis of it. They represent not the natural gifts and aptitudes which everyone has, but the specific privileges and opportunities of the kingdom of heaven and the responsibilities they entail. St. Paul notes this same distinction in “gifts.” The parable thus teaches that each disciple has God-given gifts and opportunities to be of service to the Lord, and that these are not the same for everyone, but it is left to the reader to discern just what those gifts and opportunities are. This is appropriate to the open-ended nature of parables, and different readers may rightly place the emphasis on different aspects of their discipleship. What matters is that, however precisely the “talents” are interpreted, each disciple should live and work in such a boldly enterprising way that the returning master will say “Well done, you good, trustworthy slave.”

Eschatological Application. “Eschatology” meaning the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. With the parable set between Matthew’s “little apocalypse” and verses regarding the judgment upon the nations, one is rightly prepared to be concerned with things eschatological. This very setting affects the way the parable is told. The repeated invitation, “Come, share your master’s joy” (vv. 21, 23), sounds more like the language of heaven than of commerce; and the ultimate fate of the unsuccessful servant is described in v. 30 in the eschatological terms which have become familiar from other judgment sayings and parables (8:12; 22:13; cf. 13:42, 50; 24:51).

As an aside, the excellent scripture scholar N. T. Wright [Victory 632–639] argues that the parable is not about Jesus’ parousia (2nd coming) but about the OT hope of “YHWH’s return to Zion,” symbolized and embodied in Jesus’ own coming to Jerusalem. Wright argues for a “realized eschatology” that is completely fulfilled in the person of Jesus. He has a point although this proposal fits much better with the introduction in Luke 19:11 than with the Matthean context, unless one is prepared to argue, as Wright does, that there is no idea of Jesus’ parousia anywhere in this discourse. It should be noted that Wright is of the considered view there is no idea of the parousia anywhere in the gospels.

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