The Talents and the “One Percent”

Proper 28, Year A

Matthew 25:14-30

ost of what we would think of today as commercial trade or “investing” in first century Palestine was done by the wealthy one percent—meaning the royalty the and the priests (who took in and spent investments held in the temple, and then traded with them for foreign goods and currency). 
There were two common ways that one with sufficient capital could make a profit from investing. The first was by lending to those involved in the currency exchange business in the Temple. When Jews or others came to Jerusalem from other parts of the world, they needed to change their international currency into the local Jewish currency, and the exchange tables served this purpose. International Jews in particular (and there were many) needed to make a sacrifice in the Temple, but typically only carried Roman currency, with the Emperor’s picture on it, so they exchanged it for local currency, which did not. A wealthy person’s investment in this, from fees, skimming, and exaggerating the exchange rate, could be very high. 
The second form of investment was in mortgage loans or bridge loans to small farmer families struggling to stay afloat in the declining first century Palestinian economy. Most loans made huge returns on their investment because interest rates were so astronomically high by today’s standards—anywhere between twenty-five to fifty percent. (It’s worth noting in this regard that one of the causes of the “lost decade” of the 1980s, for poor and developing countries of the global south, was that the interest charged by banks in the “First World” on loans to countries in the “Third World” rose sometimes to as high as twenty-seven percent.) The purpose for loans then, was primarily for the purpose of getting borrowers in over their heads and then being foreclosed on and losing their property.  They would then either become tenants on what had been their own property, homeless, or join the ranks of the growing number of bandits or revolutionary militias.

Much of the income from these loans was deposited in the Temple to keep the rich from having to pay a Roman tax on it, and to allow them to claim they didn’t have any money on hand when the Sabbath and Jubilee-debt-cancellation years rolled around (a law called the “Prosbul” allowed them put their money in the Temple just before the seventh year, to claim they no longer could afford to cancel the debt). And then that money was often invested elsewhere by the priests who were the financial overseers of the bank’s holdings. There are ancient inscriptions that show Priests investing in trade and commodities using this “tax-sheltered” money drawn from mortgages taken out by poor families in rural Palestine. That’s probably one of the reasons why Jesus decided to occupy the Temple and set up a temporary boycott of currency trading there as his first official act in Jerusalem. And it is clearly the reason why—when the revolution finally came—the angry 99 percenters stormed the temple and burned the mortgage papers that had been held there.

It was also common, as this parable indicates, for wealthy lenders to assign the dirty tasks of originating the loans, collecting on them, and then repossessing the properties, to their servants. It was considered dishonorable for nobility to expand their wealth, and since servants were a class without honor, they were given the job. That gave the lenders the ability to deny any knowledge of wrong-doing if an evicted family’s misery became too public.[1] The story of the widow and the unjust judge is similar to this (Luke Luke 18:1-8, Proper 24 C).
It’s also important to add here that the servants who were entrusted with inflicting this pain on people didn’t do it for monetary gain (because they weren’t paid anything), but instead they did it for the power and prestige they received for successfully managing the company. As the parable says, if they were successful in little, they would be given power and responsibility over much. The lead character in the parable of the Dishonest Steward plays a similar role. Also reflected here is that interest rates were often as high as fifty percent, so it would not be at all unlikely for a steward of a powerful finance family to double or even triple an investment.

In this story, servants one and two clearly went along with this insidious system and were rewarded handily for their efforts. The first put his money into trading (ergázomai, probably in commodities because they were the most frequently traded at the time), and the second in interest-bearing investments (kerdainō, like the loans and currency-trading mentioned above), but both made a healthy profit.

But the third person (often the hero in three-part tales), following the Torah that forbade lending money at interest (Exodus 22.20-30), believed that the system was corrupt, that the leader was evil, that money should not be used as a weapon against homes and farms and families, and he refused to participate. He accused the wealthy one percenter of being a “Sklēros,” someone who is violent, rough, offensive, and thoroughly intolerable. He accuses him of doing nothing on his own to gain his wealth: he doesn’t plant, he doesn’t distribute (diaskorpízō) his wealth, but just by collecting interest on it from the misery of people who were sucked into the downwardly spiraling system.

So he denounces the crime, buries the money, and in the end he gets crucified for his actions. It is telling that he put the money in the ground, which is ultimately owned by God (Leviticus 25:23-28), and it is also where Judas hid his “blood money” when he realized that it had just caused his friend’s death.

So, what are the preaching themes and possibilities in this story? There are two traditional readings of this story. The first is that the (evil, greedy, wicked) Master is Jesus, who left us for a while and will come again at the end of time for an ominous reckoning of how we have used or misused our “talents” (mis-interpreted as skills and gifts). That’s an odd role for Jesus, but it seems to have survived thousands of years of puzzled looks during children’s sermons. A second traditional reading is that God is the (evil, greedy, wicked) Master who does the judging, and who is just as nasty in the end. Making God the “heavy” somehow doesn’t feel any better than making it Jesus, but there you have it. The way that my pastors as a child got around this was to ignore that the third servant got tossed into outer darkness, and gave heroic examples of the non-squandering of our “talents.”

Perhaps, instead, this is not an allegory. Perhaps Jesus was simply saying that if you stand up and denounce an immoral, evil, system, you may have to pay for it. Perhaps Jesus was saying that sometimes—like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 1–3)—the right thing to do is to offer up your life as a bulwark against injustice, even if it means losing that life.

Perhaps the message of the story is simply that the story is true, and that if you don’t like it, what are you going to do about it?

Notes and comments on this post:

[in response to someone who said that the storming of the temple was Jesus’ way of rejecting the entire corrupt system.]
That’s sort of true and sort of not true. It is probably true that the incident as written reflects Jesus personal desire to reject the entire corrupt system, but to be fair historically, only a shrinking number of NT scholars today believe the story actually happened. It may reflect his passions but probably not his deeds.
Most, I think, believe the story was created by his followers some years after he died as a way of fleshing out his occasional statements of distaste for the Temple. But it’s hard to see how it could actually have happened. There were as many as two to three hundred thousand people in and tightly packed around the temple that day, because of the festival, and each of the money changers had armed body guards standing next to them. The odds of his breaking through the crowds and overturning all of the dozens and dozens of tables are not large. And assuming he could have gotten two or three tables turned over, the hired heat would have ushered Jesus into a premature crucifixion with Roman swords purchased with the proceeds of the tables. And assuming he could overpower all of the changers and all of the guards and all of the people fighting in their defense, the crowds were so dense that it’s unlikely that the rest of the people, only twenty to thirty feet away, would even notice. The idea of his driving out hundreds of thousands of people, many armed and powerful, is difficult to imagine, that is short of a major miracle, and none of the Gospels hint that there was one.
I’m just sayin’...

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Interesting observations Stan. 
On the other hand . . .Borg and Crossan certainly imply in their book The Last Week that they regard this as an actual incident.  (How ironic is it that I’m the one quoting Jesus Seminar scholars on this list?)  Anyway, they seem to consider it an act of civil disobedience, an act of protest that they compare to someone breaking into a recruiting office and pouring blood on the draft card files.  They say that that action wouldn’t bring an abrupt halt to the Pentagon.  It’s just an act that makes a statement of protest.  They don’t say this, but someone else might argue that Jesus did overturn some money changers tables, did upset some dove-sellers and prevent some in the immediate area from carrying stuff through the temple, but that the gospel accounts are exaggerations of the scale of his protest.
What I find very interesting in Mark’s account is the detail that on Sunday afternoon/evening, Jesus went into the temple and looked around and didn’t do anything.  That is consistent with the idea that his action was a planned demonstration, not done on impulse.  He went in on Sunday afternoon to reconnoiter for Monday’s action. 

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Presuming that we follow this line, that the third servant was actually standing up to the “powers” of his world, what do we do with the line where he says, “And I was afraid, and I buried the money”?

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About his “fear” I’m not certain, but he could have been simply stating his fear of the harsh ruler, but deciding to stand up to him anyway. Without doing violence to the Greek, the verse could just as easily be translated something like “Even though I was afraid of you, I still went and hid your money.”
On the burying of the money, there are a number of possibilities. The most likely, as I said below, was that according to Leviticus, the land belonged to God and the third servant returned the money to the land, that is, to God. Another possibility, from the Inter-Varsity Bible Background Commentary, is that burying the money was considered the moral way to handle ill-gotten gains. People in the first century believed in “limited goods,” meaning there was only a set amount of things in the universe, so if you made interest on something you did it by cheating or stealing or oppressing someone to get it. The “moral” thing, then, would have been to bury it or hide it (as in Luke’s version of the story). By taking the money out of the economy, he was in effect protecting those who would have been harmed by the money. According to Malina and Rohrbaugh’s Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Rabbinic law taught that burying money to preserve it was considered the honorable thing to do and was the safest way to care for somebody else’s money.[2] Possibly, then, we could say that he was the only moral person in the group. And he was the one who was punished for being moral.
Incidentally, this is just one of many interpretations of the parable that do not follow the standard, “use your ‘talents’ that God has given you” line. David Harrington (Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew) believes that Matthew intended it as a rebuke of elements within the church who were resistant to change and wanted to do things the old way and wanted to give up and return to the old pre-Jesus days. Those who trace it back to Jesus recognize something similar, but believe Jesus was targeting people within Judaism who resisted working hard to bring in the new Realm of God. Both of those are possible, but different from my interpretation. The fact that with this interpretation the parable recommends the same trade and investment policies that impoverished much of Galilee makes preaching it this way a bit difficult for me, but it is not impossible and I will probably reference it in my sermon tomorrow.

Textual notes on Matthew 25:14-30
The Parable of the Talents
14“For it is as if[3] a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves[4] and entrusted[5] his property[6] to them; 15to one he gave five talents,[7] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.[8] Then he went away.[9] 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded[10] with them, and made five more talents. 
17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made[11] two more talents.[12] 
18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 
19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 
20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing[13] five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 
21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things,[14] I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’[15] 
22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’
23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 
24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man,[16] reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 
26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

[1] Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), p. 149.
[2] Jeremias (Parables, p. 61) says that buying money was the best hedge against theft. That meant that you were free from liability for it. On the other hand, just hiding it (as with Luke) made you still responsible for it in case something happened.
[3] “For it is as if…” (JWsper gar) What is the it in the sentence? “It is as though a man….” This doesn’t fit well as an introduction. The use of gar gives the sense that this is a continuation of the previous teaching, as in, that about which I was referring before, is as if…” But it doesn’t quite read as though that is the case. John Nolland (The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005], p. 1014) believes that this introductory phrase was intended for the previous parable about the bridesmaids. David Harrington (Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew: Vol. 1 [Collegeville, Minn: The Liturgical Press, 1991], p. 352) suggests that Matthew intended the introduction to the chapter (“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this...”) to encompass both the parable of the maidens and this parable. That is, of course, assuming that Jesus intended this parable to be about the Kingdom/realm, which both (and others) also believe, but that is not totally clear to me that that is the case.
[4] “Slaves” (doúlos; gen. doúlou, masc. noun.). Historically translated “servant,” and more recently “slave,” is actually somewhere in the middle. Not the beaten down image we have of slaves, but not free to find employment elsewhere either. “Generally one serving, bound to serve, in bondage” (Complete Word Study Dictionary
[5] “Entrusted” (παραδίδωμι, paradidomi, vb.,aor.) “‘Entrusted’ - give, deliver to. May be stretched to ‘entrust’ although this is reading into the parable. ‘Put them in charge of.”’ TEV” (Pumpkin). “To hand over to or to convey something to someone, particularly a right or an authority—‘to give over, to hand over.’ ὅτι ἐμοὶ παραδέδοται καὶ ᾧ ἐὰν θέλω δίδωμι αὐτήν ‘because this has been handed over to me and I give it to whomever I wish’ Lk 4:6” (Louw-Nida).
[6] “Property” (ὑπάρχοντα, hupárchonta; pres. part. neut. pl. of hupárchō, ὑπάρχω [to exist]). Property, but more generally, “Things which constitute someone’s possessions, goods.” Translating it here as “property” leads one to think in terms of land or buildings, while in the parable it means it as something of value that can be traded or invested, “Talents.” Noland suggests “something like ‘[business] capital’” (John Nolland, The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005], p. 1014).
[7] “Talents” (talanton, τάλαντον, noun neuter from tlá  [n.f.]). To bear, "talent," a weight, a unit of measurement. Five thousand gold coins", TEV. In New Testament times a talent was a unit of exchange which varied in its value. The word can be used of money or silver or a weight of between 26 and 36 kilos of copper, silver or gold. So, it is a variable amount of money. We tend to think of a talent as a skill, but we draw this notion from the parable, not the meaning at the time."
[8] “His (own) ability” (ἰδίαν δύναμιν, idian dunamin). “Lit., his own or peculiar capacity for business. For some reason, idian, “own,” is seldom translated. The KJV has “His several ability.”
[9] The NRSV leaves out εὐθέως, immediately.
[10] “Traded” (ἐργάζομαι, ergázomai; imperf. ). “To trade, to make gains by trading, ‘do business’” (Thayer). Nolland suggests, “He worked with them (the talents)” meaning he actually put in some effort. “The slave and not just the money is on the job” (p. 1015).
[11] “Made” κερδαίνω, kerdainō, vb.). To make or gain or earn by way of interest. To increase wealth by investments usually in land. Notice that both the five and ten talent people made money through interest. But the first did it through trading in goods and the second just made it, presumably by collecting interest off of investments.
[12] “Though the second slave has less capital to work with, he makes the same percentage gain” (Nolland, p. 1015).
[13] “Came forward, bringing…” It has the sense of being a ceremonial presentation. Luke’s version says “your “Minas have earned ten minas.” Matt here says, “I have made five more talents.” Real pride in his work.
[14] See above on the value of a Talent. Only an extremely rich person could call this amount “little”
[15] “Enter into the joy of your master” (tēn charin tou kuriou sou). “The word chara or joy may refer to the feast on the master’s return. So also in Matt. 25:23” (Archibald Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament).
[16] “Harsh” (sklērós, σκληρός, adj., nom., masc.). A Harsh , stern, and unyielding person. Luke’s version of this parable has austere (austerōs), someone who might be inclined to impose an “austerity program” on indebted property owners. “Pertaining to being hard and demanding in one’s behavior—‘hard, severe, demanding.’ ἔγνων σε ὅτι σκληρὸς εἶ ἄνθρωπος, θερίζων ὅπου οὐκ ἔσπειρας. (Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), 1:756.). “to harden, dry up. Dried up, dry, hard, stiff; of the voice or sounds as hoarse or harsh; of things as hard, tough, not soft. In the pl., tá sklē, the hard things, stands in contrast to tá malaká, the soft things, or with a neg. connotation, the effeminate (1Co_6:9). Also from skéllō (n.f.): skoliós, crooked, warped. (The Complete Word Study Dictionary, (AMG International, Inc.: Chattanooga, TN: 1992, Rev. ed., 1993).

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