Anam Cara

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Parable of the Ten Talents

This week's Gospel lesson is from St.Matthew 25.14-30. This link will take you to the Bible Gateway site, which I have bookmarked for the Contemporary English Version (CEV) for easier reading. This website also has other versions available. If one is looking for accuracy, I personally recommend the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which will be here.

This post is also a part of "The Little Apocalypse," posted last Monday.

We read of a master that had to go to another country. What for, we are not told. He does selects three managers out of his slave pool to take care of his estate while he is gone. He gives according to what he figures is the ability and capacity of each. To one, he gives five talents. He gives two to another and one to the third one. The master's absence was long time coming, but when he does show back up, he is pleased with the work of the first two "promoted" managers. They doubled what they had.

The third servant did not do as well. He broke even. The reason: The servant was terrified of losing what the master entrusted to him that he buried the money under the sand. That servant did NOTHING! NADA! ZIP! The master of the house was not happy about that! He ordered that talent stripped and gave it to the first servant who has eleven talents now. The third slave was called worthless and "thrown out into the dark where people will cry and grit their teeth in pain." When people around the master heard this, they were dumbfounded. The master then said, "Those who have something will be given more. But everything will be taken away from those who don't have anything."

Notice, the master may not portray the Messiah at all, but someone else. If the master was Yeshua (aka Jesus), why would one person get five talents and another only one? Since when was the Messiah a respecter of persons? 

Also something to pay attention to is the idea that the same person who had five talents is the same one who gained five more (or six, if we count the one taken from the last). The same servant who received just a couple was also the same who doubled it and it is the exact same slave that kept that one, not investing in it at all. Even though we see that the master delayed his return, the time wasn't long enough to where one had to be replace due to either retirement or death. Why I bring this point up is because apparently, this parable is evidence of Preterism (see this blog). 

How does this compare to the parallel in the Gospel of Luke? We see similarities that allow us understand that this is the same story, yet it is a retelling of it because it is not the exact same.

For example, we read that some people in general wish to replace the “king” when the master leaves the country. In fact, the reason why the master leaves is to receive some royal title. This is not found in Matthew. In addition, there are 10 pounds, only one to each of the ten servants. However, we see that though everyone gets an equal amount, one multiplies by ten and another multiplies by five. The returning king is pleased with this. 

Then there is that one who neither added nor subtracted, but instead buries the "pound" not "talent" out of fear. That one gets the pound taken away from him and given to the one that has ten. He is called lazy and worthless. When he is stripped of that pound, the other people around are surprised. The king says, "Those who have something will be given more. But everything will be taken away from those who don't have anything." Just like in Matthew. 

Another difference is that Luke has Jesus tell this story right before Palm Sunday, whereas Matthew has Jesus tell the story after the triumphant entry on the donkey. Because of this, in Matthew, this story is in the “Little Apocalypse” portion, but is not included in that portion with Luke. In addition, the king had those people in the community arrested and ordered, "kill them as I watch." All for their petition to remove the master from ruling over them.

Because of these similarities and differences, many scholars wonder if this is the same or a different event. When I see this story told by two different people, it is no surprise that there would be differences. Given the geography, politics and culture of that time, this surely is to be expected.

If we agree that the two stories are actually the same one told differently; then Luke can shed light to the problems we find in Matthew, and vice versa. Let us also remember that these accounts were written a few decades (at the earliest) after the life of the Messiah and that their Gospels actually come from an already existing oral tradition. Matthew was written in one geographic area, Luke in another. Stories in an oral tradition have a tendency to morph and change over time. Somethings get left out, perhaps unintentionally and other elements get emphasized, all depending on the circumstances of that community where the tradition currently resides. With these things in mind, let us also remember that these stories were based upon events that was perceived by the original story tellers. 

At this point, it would be helpful to have a little working knowledge of first century Judea/Galilee, when these parables were being written down. Josephus was a Jewish historian living at that turbulent time. He wrote books regarding the conflicts that was raging in Palestine. He tells us in "The War of the Jews (Book 2, Chapter 14)" that during the mid to late sixties, Gessius Florus was the Roman procurator of Judea who looted the temple, taking many valuables and money. He justified his action by claiming that Nero, the Roman emperor, had been shortchanged by the Temple and demanded his share immediately. The Judeans mocked him. They passed the basket around, taking collections, implying that the procurator was so poor he needed charity. Several others resorted to violence, however. Guerrilla fighters, called Zealots, took to the streets and started a campaign of looting themselves.

A delegation from Jerusalem petitioned Cestius Gallius, the Roman procurator of Syria, to have Florus removed from his post. This attempt was unsuccessful. Many Jews and even Roman citizens in Jerusalem were arrest and crucified through Florus's retaliation. This resulted in riots that got the attention of Rome. General Vespasian and his son Titus led the Roman militia to quell the rebellion. When they were almost finished, Nero died and a civil war broke out. Vespasian went to Rome, fighting for the right to rule. He was victorious in this endeavor and immediately dispatched his son Titus to finish the job in Judea.  

It is in both versions of the parable that the master was ruthless, harsh, taking money that he did not earn and reaping what he did not sow. The third slave was terrified of his master if he were to suffer loss of any kind. That is why the third slave in both accounts did nothing. The "lazy" servant got his master’s wrath anyway. He did not act, did not participate, in his master’s business.

In this light, it does seem plausible that Luke’s master was Procurator Florus, or even General Vespasian. One has to wonder, could be that the Gospel of Luke is describing events taking place in the second half of the first century by cloaking his message in the disguise of the first half? If this is the case, then the writer of the Gospel of Matthew may also be describing the same events, especially since both wrote roughly at that time frame.


When we realize that these Gospel accounts may explain the circumstances were in a veiled fashion, how does that affect the message we get today?  Is there any relevance to us in the twenty-first century, or does it not at all apply?

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