[November 16, 2014] The parable that follows the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is the “Parable of the Talents.” The setting is the same: Jesus speaking privately to his disciples of the coming holocaust of Jerusalem and its beautiful Temple, and in the same breath of the coming of the Son of Man in great glory as envisioned by the prophet Daniel. Beginning in verse 36 of chapter 24, however, he begins to speak of the delay of the Advent, and the surprise that will therefore overtake the people of the world and Jesus’ own followers. He warns them of the consequence of not being ready in a series of illustrations (or parables). In the first parable of chapter 25 some of the bridesmaids did not count on the possibility that the bridegroom coming for his bride might be late, and so they did not bring an extra flask of oil to keep their lamps burning through the night. As a result, the door was shut on them and they could not join the wedding feast. The meaning: we need to supply ourselves with enough of the Spirit of Jesus to have a reserve, or else when we awaken from our sleep in death—when the Lord Jesus comes in glory—we will not be prepared and will miss the wedding feast he has prepared for his bride.
The Parable of the Talents picks up on this idea of being prepared when we appear before the Lord Jesus at his coming in glory. We are still in the same place as the previous parable: when the bridegroom comes for his bride. Jesus does not yet have in view “when the Son of Man will take his seat on the throne of glory” and “all nations will be assembled before him.” That comes next. Prior to all the peoples on earth appearing before him, the Messiah will assemble his own people before him, his qahal or ekklēsia or “called gathering” (the gathering of those who have heard his call), both living and dead, now resurrected. In Matthew’s gospel they are not only the bride (the bride is the ḥāsîd—hosios in Greek—of all Israel, past and present, as well as all those whom the Messiah has called from among Jews and gentiles) but the groomsmen and bridesmaids.
In the parable before us the illustration changes but the context is the same. Here he becomes the master and we his slaves. Moreover, it is no longer about the unexpected delay of his coming. He summons us, entrusts us with his property, and then goes away on a journey. The parable is about what we have done in the meantime with what he has entrusted to us. A duration of time was presumed during which we could get the work expected of us done. When the master returns from his journey he will make an accounting and we will all each have to give an account of what we have done. Like in the parable before, there will be consequences. This is not, therefore, a reckoning of everyone but rather a reckoning of those whom Jesus has called. He is the master in the parable who is going away on a journey and who will come back. This coming back is the same coming as that of the bridegroom. This concerns Jesus’ disciples and all those who become his followers in the great expanse of time since his departure.
So it helps if we recognize these as illustrations and not picture them as journalistic accounts of what is to come. In other words, they speak the language of poetry—it would be foolish to take the literal meaning at face value as if it were an objective reporting of history, albeit in the future. This is true of everything Jesus says about the Second Advent. It is simply impossible to imagine what such an event will actually look like. When it comes to determining the kind of outward events that will accompany this manifestation, it is hard, if not impossible, to distinguish any concrete descriptions from the metaphors being used. What I say is that the divine revelation of Jesus—who he is—will become universally manifest. It will be an event of “light” that will have the force of wiping out the lie that comprises the “world”—the collective delusion that the human race lives in in its mind-space. Things will not become instantly perfect but rather the impediment to God’s purpose will be shattered. Paul (or Silas) says it like this (again, the language is poetic): “The Lord will destroy him with the breath of his mouth and will annihilate him with his glorious appearance at his coming” (2 Thessalonians 2:8). Who is he whom the Lord will destroy? The wicked One who “deludes people so that they believe what is false.” But I digress …
Unlike a similar parable in Luke 19—the Parable of the Pounds—in which the master entrusts each of his slaves with a pound, in this parable the master entrusts his property to his slaves “each in proportion to his ability,” so one receives five talents, one two and one only one. The first problem then that we have to solve is what the “talents” represent: they are the master’s property in the parable; how does that metaphor translate into our experience?
We need to dismiss two misunderstandings of what the “talents” actually are. The careless English reader might automatically assume that the “talents” are actual talents—aptitudes or abilities or endowments that are either inborn (natural) or acquired. The word that Matthew uses is talanton. It means first of all a measure of weight (between 26 and 36 kg.) and then a monetary unit the value of which differed considerably in different places and at different times. In other words, what the master loaned to his slaves were different amounts of money. These were not the aptitudes given to every human being by their Creator but rather something that Jesus gives to his disciples, to the ones whom Jesus has called to himself. (He may or may not call everyone, but that is neither here nor there; he is referring to those who have responded to his call, those who have come to him: these are his slaves.)
The second misunderstanding, which I have heard with my own ears, is that the talents are not a metaphor at all but refer to actual money, and the parable is thus a justification for free-market economics. We are each to invest our money wisely and thus we will be rewarded with greater wealth. That is actually what the parable says, though the money is never owned by those who invest it. But that is the meaning within the world of the parable itself—it is not an application or interpretation of the parable. Jesus in fact gave no one money, as far as we know. (Again, our property is something by which every human being becomes a steward of God’s creation, but the parable is not about God’s relationship to everyone but about a transaction that takes place between Jesus and his disciples, inclusive of his future followers.) Since the parable is not about actual economics but merely uses the economics of the world to make another point, it cannot be used as a justification of free-market economics any more than it can be used as a justification of slavery.
What does Jesus impart to his disciples that they can then “work” to make it fruitful, to make it multiply? In the Parable of the Bridesmaids we saw that the issue was one’s supply of oil and we said that this was our supply of the Spirit of Jesus, i.e., the Holy Spirit. I would not say that the talents represent the fruit of the Spirit as in Galatians 5:22, for in this there is no difference between believers. We all bear the same responsibility for we have all “put on” the same Christ and live by the same Spirit. (Perhaps that is represented by the pound given to each in Luke 19.)
What differs among believers, in terms of responsibility, are the “gifts” or charisma that the Lord gives us, not the fruit we must bear. There is a difference. Fruit emanates from our regeneration, that is, from the Holy Spirit who has made a home within our spirit. Gifts come from the operation of the Holy Spirit “upon” us, and can operate independently of the quality of our personal spirituality. They are given to us according to our ability, not according to our merit. They are not gifts in the sense of presents or rewards but rather of an endowment in the sense of a responsibility. They are never our own. So when a gift is “given” to us, we are in trouble, for we must exercise responsibility over it or pay the consequences.
It is not something about which we are given a choice. We do not earn it nor is it ever our own. But it is entrusted to us and we must develop it and use it, whether we like it or not. Jesus chose the harsh metaphor of slavery to make this point. If we are given five talents, we are in the most trouble. We had better not bury them in a hole in the ground. However, if we are given a little gift, the temptation to bury it in a hole in the ground is greater, for we do not think we can do much with it. Jesus says that even in this case, even if we think we cannot do much with the little coinage (gift) that we have, we should at least give it to the bankers so they can do something with it. That means we should put ourselves under someone else’s direction and do as they direct us. (This does not mean that we let them do the work for us! But rather that we let them show us how we can work—like a good teacher. What kind of teacher would do a student’s work for her?) There is no excuse to let our little gift sit and do nothing.
So Jesus uses the harsh metaphor of slavery to describe the situation that we are in before God, that is, to impress on us the weight of our responsibility.
What gifts might the talent refer to? In Matthew 10:1 Jesus “gave them authority over unclean spirits with power to drive them out and to cure all kinds of disease and all kinds of illness.” Luke 9:1 adds “power” (dynamis) to “authority” (exousia, more literally, jurisdiction), though the idea of authority can already include the power to wield it. In Romans 12 Paul lists as examples of gifts (or charismata) prophesy, practical service, teaching, encouraging, giving, being in charge, and working mercy, but in 1 Corinthians 12 he is more systematic, describing how “there are many different gifts (charismata), but it is always the same Spirit; there are many different ways of serving, but it is always the same Lord [the Son]. There are many different forms of activity, but in everybody it is the same God [the Father] who is at work in them all. The particular manifestation of the Spirit granted to each one is to be used for the general good.” Then he lists: utterance expressing wisdom, utterance expressing knowledge, faith, healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, the power of distinguishing spirits, different tongues, and the interpretation of tongues—nine in all. Still, these are representative of the kinds of gifts we can be given; Paul did not intend his list to be exhaustive, only comprehensive. Charismata (gifts) is used in this sense in Romans 12:6, perhaps in 1 Corinthians 1:7, and in 1 Corinthians 12:4 and 31 (12:9, 28 and 30 refer to “gifts of healing”), and 1 Peter 4:10.
The eternal life is also considered a gift (charisma) in Romans 6:23. In Romans 5:15 and 16 gift (charisma) refers to eternal life freely given to us on the basis of the obedience of Jesus Christ. This is conflated with the gift of justification—the “justification of life”—which constitutes us righteous, for grace reigns through righteousness unto eternal life (5:21). That is not the meaning of the talents in the parable.
There is a broader sense that gift or charisma has which might be applicable to this parable. In Romans 11:29 Paul speaks of Israel’s vocation as a gift. In 1 Timothy 4:14 and 2 Timothy 1:6 Paul speaks of a gift given to Timothy by the laying on of hands and asks that it be not neglected but rather rekindled. It seems to be related to his particular vocation. In Romans 1:11 Paul speaks of his imparting to the saints in Rome, or the church that is there, a spiritual gift (charisma pneumatikos). Perhaps too would be something peculiar to them. It is neither the gift of life that Paul speaks of in Romans 5 and 6 or the particular gifts of ministry that he speaks of in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. It has something to do with the peculiar calling of that particular church. 1 Corinthians 7:7 likewise speaks of the “gift” of celibacy (of being free of a spouse) as something given to some while something else is given to others. And finally, in 2 Corinthians 1:11 speaks of a gift given to him and his apostolic companions through the prayers of many, perhaps related to the continuation of his ministry after being released from prison. In other words, a charisma is the grace of a vocation that is peculiar to us by the power of which we serve God. This broader sense includes all the gifts of the Holy Spirit given for the building up of the people of God (including the elect who do not yet believe and those who are yet to be born).
Sometimes a peculiar charisma is given to a group within the church. This group exists for the sake of the whole church but it has perhaps unique characteristics, has been given a peculiar orientation, and depends on the continuing work of the Holy Spirit within and among them to carry it out. Every Christian is given a charisma, and for some it may be given within the context of a group’s charisma. For example, Franciscans possess the charisma of their founder and bear a responsibility for that charisma. Not all Christians are called to be Franciscans. It is a charisma peculiar to some for the sake of all others. In addition the Holy Spirit grants each individual charismata peculiar to their particular life whether or not they share in the charisma of another.
Remember that the possession of one charisma in no way makes one superior to another who possesses a different charisma. Yet every charisma has a superior relation to the one who benefits from it, for it is by all the varied charismata given to the church that the Head ministers to the body, meaning that when you minister to me by means of the gift you have been given, it is Christ who ministers to me, and an inward attitude of respect and openness and even submission (in contrast to subservience) is required of us. Christ is superior to all of us; none of us is superior to another; yet Christ needs to ministers through each of us to each of us.
So let us suppose that I do not know what gift or gifts I have been given. We discover them by striving to minister to others however the opportunity comes to us. We cannot discover them by introspection: this merely produces a perverse kind of pride that makes a mess of us and how we actually serve others. Our discovery comes from taking action according to how we are led and moved by the Holy Spirit in whatever situations we are led into or in which we find ourselves. What it does is never under our control, for it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, yet the gift itself is under the control of our will, and we certainly are responsible for what we do with it and how we develop it.
In the parable it is important that we “make more” with the portion of the master’s property that has been assigned to us. In other words, that we put our gift to work and grow it, both in terms of developing it within ourselves and putting it to use in the service of others. If we use it for our own self-aggrandizement we have abused it as if it were our own, and our master will see it as a form of theft. It will not turn out well for us.
The real problem however is for those who do nothing. They hear the call of the Gospel, they turn to Jesus, and then they do nothing with their lives. They live only for themselves. Their talent, the equipment they have been given to serve others, has been put in a hole in the ground and covered. They go to “church,” sure, though sometimes not even that, and they mouth the prayers and sing (if they do that much), and perhaps receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and maybe put a little money in the plate for whatever the “church” is going to do with it, but when they leave the worship assembly they live no differently than any of their neighbors—good people all, and perhaps serving others, sometimes quite vigorously, but none of them with a special endowment of the Holy Spirit with which to serve others. In fact, these people have so underutilized their gift they tend to be completely unaware that they even have a gift and the responsibility that goes along with it. They expect to go to Jesus empty-handed and to say with all their unbelieving neighbors that they tried to be a good person and, unlike them, they went to church and made an offering (if they did that much).
The gifts do not belong to us, we did not ask for them and our preferences were not consulted, yet we are responsible for them and are accountable for what we did with them. The master takes each slave individually and asks for an accounting and then rewards them accordingly. To those who acted responsibly, he says, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have shown you are trustworthy in small things; I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness.” Perhaps this “happiness” it refers to the same thing that the wedding feast refers to in the previous parable. In any case, we will be rewarded according to what we did with what we have been given. “To everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough.”
To the slave who acted irresponsibly, on the other hand, the master says, “Take the talent from him and give it to the man who has the ten talents … anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has. As for this good-for-nothing slave, throw him into the darkness outside, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” This is the fate that befalls a believer, not an unbeliever. The “unbelievers” will be dealt with in the next parable. Many Christians have refused to acknowledge this, interpreting this fellow to be only a nominal Christian, one who is a Christian in name only. That however is clearly not the case. This person is not a nominal Christian but a failed Christian. They nevertheless are a slave of the master and the master treats the slave as his own. They are thrown out into the darkness outside, the same way that the foolish bridesmaids were locked out of the wedding feast. Only here, they are punished according to the responsibility that they shirked. Are they damned? No. That is not the meaning here. However, they miss out on the master’s happiness and will weep and grind their teeth at the opportunity they foolishly missed.