480: THE PARABLE OF THE TALENTS

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This post is the fifth parable deconstruction from William Herzog’s book. It and the other posts are connected by links at the end of the page.
I hope you find it interesting,
Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.”

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The accounts of this parable in Matt. 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27 are somewhat different.

14/ For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.
15/ To one he gave 5 talents, to another 2, to another 1, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
16/ He who had received the 5 talents went at once and traded with them, and he made 5 talents more.
17/ So also he who had the 2 talents made 2 talents more.
18/ But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19/ Now after a long time, the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
20/ And he who had received the 5 talents came forward bringing 5 talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me 5 talents; here I have made 5 talents more.’
21/ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’
22/ And he also who had the 2 talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me 2 talents; here I have made 2 talents more.’
23/ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’
24/ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed,
25/ so I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground. here you have what is yours.’
26/ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed and gather where I scattered no seed?
27/ Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.
28/ So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the 10 talents.
29/ For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
30/ And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Matt. 25:14-30 (English Standard Version)

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After surveying what commentators have written about the parable down the ages, Herzog settles for Matthew’s version rather than Luke’s, and he discards vv 14a and 29-30 as being Matthean additions to Jesus’ original words.  One cannot interpret the parable without paying attention to its setting: the household of an urban elite. “Placing the characters in their social roles may provide information that can help to evaluate the different judgments expressed about the master and his servants.” As we have seen in the 4 previous analyses paraphrased in Zingcreed, Herzog is an expert at this contextualisation. It’s because he pays so much attention to detail and has such a complete grasp of  first century Galileean sociology that he is so much more convincing than his predecessors.

The master is a wealthy aristocrat who could afford to travel abroad. He had a staff of retainers/servants/slaves  who were ranked in a hierarchy. The gradations of wealth entrusted to each servant reflect their relative standing in the master’s household. “It is unlikely that the aristocrat is testing his staff, as so many of the moralizing readings of the parable imply; the retainers involved are his most trusted inner circle.” The 3 get monetized wealth, liquid assets, convertible assets, first century venture capital. The first 2 servants work the system with zeal to double their money. Then they may well have feathered their own nests, content in the knowledge that the master would be pleased with 100% profits they secured first. They wouldn’t want their accumulation of wealth to be too big or it would attract unwanted attention. After all, the master knew how the system worked. He did not begrudge their gains as long as he got his 100%. After all, these men do his dirty work, exploiting others for profit and syphoning off anger that would otherwise be directed at him and his class.

The elites made most of their money lending to peasant farmers so they could plant their crops. Interest was 60-200% and the land was the collateral, so if the peasant didn’t pay up the land would be foreclosed. The servants, however didn’t have time to do this. They may have partnered with makers of high cost luxury goods, using raw materials extracted from the peasants controlled by their household, i.e. they exploited the peasant/village base of the household in ways which would have been familiar to Jesus’ listeners. The retainers’ job was to extract as much of the surplus of agricultural production as possible  to secure their master’s base of operation among the elite. Their extractions are on top of the systems of tribute demanded by the colonial overlord (Rome) and the Jerusalem temple.

Both the profitable retainers are good in terms of the aristocrat’s values because they have proven to be effective exploiters of the peasants. They  are promoted in the household bureaucracy, while their dependency as clients is emphasized: they won’t be allowed to forget who is the source of their patronage.

The third servant is the focus of the parable. His action is prudent and sober: by burying the wealth he is not careless of what is placed in his care. His behaviour would have astonished Jesus’ hearers. He cuts through the mystifying rhetoric of the first 2 retainers and identifies the aristocrat for what he is: strict, cruel, harsh and merciless. He shames his master through his unexpected attack. He describes his master as  an exploiter who lives off the productive labour of others. He squanders the wealth he has ‘gathered in’, and spends it in riotous living, in socially approved forms of conspicuous consumption and status display. The third servant’s accusations are not denied by the master. His honest analysis exposes the sham of the conversation between the master and the first 2 retainers. To cover himself he returns to the master what is his, showing himself to be an honourable person. The master’s retort is an attack on a whistle blower. The servant has unmasked the “joy of the master” for what it is, the profits of exploitation squandered in wasteful excess, and he has demystified “good” and “trustworthy” by exposing the merciless oppression they define.

The whistle blower is now banished to the dark world of poverty, misery and certain death. Such was the price paid for telling the truth.
The hero of the parable is the 3rd servant. By digging a hole and burying the aristocrat’s talent in the ground, he has taken it out of circulation. It cannot be used to dispossess more peasants from their lands in the form of usurious loans. When he speaks he utters in the full light of day what he has learned in the dark. He has decided to accept the cost – to pay the price for his actions rather continuing to pursue his exploitative path. He has no support: he lived alone, he dies alone.
What would happen if all retainers identified with the peasants rather than with the aristocrats?
Could the interest of the rural poor be tied to  the retainers’ – the very class of people whom they despise?

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[London street art]

Zingcreed comment: the third servant was a red, a rebel, a liberator. Today’s equivalent might be someone like Julian Assange or  Edward Snowden. His class analysis is almost Marxist. His plain honesty shattered his master’s bullshit like a stone hitting a window pane. Jesus was indeed a pedagogue of the oppressed.

Source:
Herzog, William R. “Parables as subversive speech. Jesus as pedagogue of the oppressed” John Knox Press (1994)

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Jesus’ 14 authentic parables
Parables are subversive
The parable of the vineyard labourers
The parable of the wicked tenants
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus
The parable of the unmerciful servant

[480 i]

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