The Talents: "The Fate of an Unlikely Hero"

Stripped of any metaphorical overlay, the parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-28) is about a servant who acts honorably by burying money given in trust, courageously by denouncing an exploitive master, and as a result is consigned to extinction for his audacity.

Most people understand the story as Matthew has (cf. Lk 19:12-24). But his concluding editorial, “To all those who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” is at odds with everything else Jesus says on the subject of haves and have-nots (Mk 10:25/Mt 19:24/Lk 18:25; Mt 6:19-21/Lk 12:33-34; Mt 19:30; Mt 20:16; Lk 6:24; Lk 16:19-31); and Jesus was obviously no capitalist. Matthew’s editorial implies that the first two servants are the heroes of the story, which Jewish peasants would have found outrageous.(1)

Richard Rohrbaugh and William Herzog have argued that the third servant is the hero of this parable, because he acted honorably and refused to participate in the rapacious schemes of the master. Contrast with the agenda of the first two servants:

“First things first: the master’s initial investment must be secured, then doubled; after that, the retainers can make their profit. They are always walking a tightrope, keeping the master’s gain high enough to appease his greed and not incur his wrath while keeping their own accumulations of wealth small enough not to arouse suspicion yet lucrative enough to insure their future. The master knows the system too, and as long as the retainers keep watch of his interests and maintain a proper yield, he does not begrudge their gains. In fact, he stands to gain a great deal by encouraging the process. Not only do the retainers do his dirty work, exploiting others for profit, but they siphon off anger that would otherwise be directed at him.” (Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech, p 160)

The first two servants do exactly as expected of them, doubling the master’s money and presumably making some “honest graft” on the side, as all retainers did in agrarian empires. But the third servant acts completely out of character — this alone is the tip-off that he will be the story’s hero — by digging a hole and burying the master’s money to keep it intact, acting in accordance with Jewish law.(2)

When the master (naturally) rewards the two servants, the third servant acts stunningly by blowing the whistle on him (as Herzog puts it), while at the same time giving him back the money he had buried in trust: “Master, I know that you are a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, gathering where you did not scatter.” This retainer says what many peasants have always wanted to say.

An alternate version of this parable was preserved in the Gospel of the Nazorenes (now lost), reported by Eusebius. Here the third servant is accepted with joy, while the other two are condemned. In “A Peasant Reading of the Talents/Pounds”, Rohrbaugh notes the chiastic structure:

The master had three servants:

A one who squandered his master’s substance with harlots and flute girls
B one who multiplied the gain
C and one who hid the talent;

and accordingly,

C’ one was accepted with joy
B’ another merely rebuked
A’ and another cast into prison.

(Eusebius, Theophania; from Hennecke & Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha 1:149)

Though I’m eternally suspicious of arguments based on chiastic structures, this one is powerful. Here we have an ancient author who rejected the Matthean judgment on the third servant, while modern critics insist on vilifying him.

Like many of Jesus’ parables, the Talents ends on dark ambiguity. “The whistle-blower is no fool,” says Herzog. “He realizes that he will pay a price, but he has decided to accept the cost (p 167).” The question is who his friends are after banishment. Will peasants acknowledge and respect his honorable course of action, or would the fact that he was a retainer make such meeting of the minds impossible? Listeners are left pondering the fate of an unlikely hero.

Endnotes

1. The ways in which critics have followed Matthew’s (and Luke’s) demonizing of the third servant are astounding. C.H. Dodd thinks that the third servant’s “overcaution” and “cowardice” led to a breach in trust. T.W. Manson believes that the punishment for the third servant’s “neglected opportunity” was a complete “deprivation of opportunity”. Dan Via says the third servant’s “refusal to take risks” led to repressed guilt and the loss of opportunity for any meaningful existence. John Donahue thinks that out of “fear of failing”, the third servant refused even to try to succeed. The list could go on and on. (See Herzog, p 153.)

2. According to the Mishnah, money could be guarded honorably only by placing it in the earth: M.B. Mes. 3:10; B.B. Mes. 42a.

Bibliography

Eusebius: Theophania (from Hennecke & Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, Westminster, 1963.)

Herzog, William: Parables as Subversive Speech, Westminster John Knox, 1994.

Malina, Bruce & Rohrbaugh, Richard: Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Second Edition, Augsburg Fortress, 2003.

Rohrbaugh, Richard: “A Peasant Reading of the Talents/Pounds: A Text of Terror”, BTB 23:32-39, 1993.

The complete series

The Prodigal Son
The Unmerciful Servant
The Mustard Seed
The Talents
The Dishonest Steward

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6 thoughts on “The Talents: "The Fate of an Unlikely Hero"

  1. Thanks for yet another nice post. I must admit to being quite persuaded by your reading here. The Tannaitic quote is the clincher–it seems to great a parallel to be coincidence.

  2. The text of Eusebius’ Theophania seems ambiguous but IMHO the interpretation of Matthew made by Eusebius on the basis of the Hebrew Gospel, (ie that Matthew 25:26-29 applies to the servant who hid the talent and verse 30 to the servant who squandered the money), makes it likely that in the Hebrew Gospel the servant who hid the talent was rebuked but not further punished, while the one who made a profit was approved by his master.

  3. This is what Eusebius says: “I wonder whether in Matthew the threat which is uttered after the word against the man who did nothing may not refer to him, but by epanalepsis to the first who had feasted and drunk with the drunken.”

    It’s true that Eusebius distinguishes between the rebuke of Mt 25:26-29 and the threat of Mt 25:30, the latter of which he clearly thinks should apply to the first servant (who squandered the money on harlots and flutes). But it’s not clear that he thinks the former should apply to the third servant (who hid the talent), even if in Matthew it did apply to him. His chiastic structure indicates otherwise. I should note that I’m not claiming the Nazorene version is necessarily an earlier version than Matthew’s, only that Eusebius’ chiastic structure and commentary indicate that some people thought the third servant was the hero of the story.

  4. I'm awfully late to the party, but I just to comment on what I think is tragic misrepresentation of the message of this parable, which seems both intrinsically and contextually consistent: bear fruit.

  5. Tim is on the right track here.
    The allegorical meaning here is very similar to that of the parable of the sower. In that parable those with little spiritual ability are variously depicted as “by the wayside,” “stony ground,” or “among thorns.” Even those depicted as “good soil” have varying amounts in their harvest representing the fact that we have varying amounts of spiritual ability. That varying amounts of spiritual ability exist is without question. If you believe that today’s religions are still spiritual organizations then look and see that there are layperson’s, pastors, priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, saints and the like. Clearly there are differences in spiritual ability.
    If you don’t want to look to religions that sometimes seem very flawed for evidence, then turn to scripture. There are these two parables, of course, “the talents” and “the sower.” And sayings like these:

    “He that has ears to ear…”
    Not everyone is able to receive this saying.
    Few there be that find it.
    Paul saying, “not everyone is able to remain as I do.”

    All those sayings and more indicate that we do not have equal amounts of spiritual ability. Back to the parable of the talents. Notice that the servant with the one talent digs in the earth. That seems to me to be a clear indication that he ignores the little bit of spiritual ability that he does have and turns instead to the earth, the material world.
    The master in this parable is spiritual reality, it is just the way things are. If you think you have been given such a small amount of spiritual insight that it is not worth working with, then you are going to lose even that small amount.

    Al a. Gary

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