Textual Tuesday

Textual Tuesday: Matthew 25:14-30

The Revised Common Lectionary this Sunday points us to Matthew 25:14-30, the Parable of the Talents. It’s a parable with a well-known and time-honored interpretation: God is the landlord who gives money (talents) to his servants. The servants who return with more money are blessed, the one who does not is shamed and cast out. The interpretation is so ingrained that event the word “talent” has come to mean a personal gift for something. God gives us gifts (like hospitality, tongues, service, leadership, etc) and we should use those to grow God’s kingdom.

But this interpretation doesn’t always sit right in my gut. Here’s three reasons why:

  1. If God is the landlord, then is God the author of inequality? Some are rich and some are poor. “To those who have, more will be given.” It hearkens to the now-rejected verse of All Things Bright and Beautiful:The rich man in his castle,
    The poor man at his gate,
    He made them, high or lowly,
    And ordered their estate. (Source: CyberHymnal)
  2. If material wealth and capital gains are the symbol of blessing, then is this a creeping-in of a “prosperity gospel?” After all, Jesus routinely says that the image of salvation is instead one of giving up, renunciation and self-sacrifice.
  3.  Treasure Field #3, by James B. Janknegt
    Treasure Field #3, by James B. Janknegt

    If we trust Matthew, then how should we read the symbols of talents and burial? His only other use of the word “talent” is in Matthew 18:23, and it isn’t a sympathetic one nor congruent with the idea of blessing. Further, in Matthew 13:44, buried treasure symbolizes the Kingdom and not failure and curse.

  4. In Luke’s gospel, the also-familiar parable of the Good Samaritan has the third character in the trio as the hero of the story. How can I read the third person of this trio as a hero?

So, how can I read this differently? Here’s a few starting points:

  1. Read the landlord not as a symbol for God but rather as a symbol for “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
  2. The god “of this age” can be the author of inequality.
  3. This landlord is always pleased when the first two servants play his game: turning money into more money, increasing the wealth gap and so on.
  4. The third person in the trio has opted out. This poorest one refuses to play the games of the world by the landlord’s rules.
  5. This landlord will punish harshly the third person, who many Bible commentaries name as lazy, unfaithful, slothful, neglectful, making excuses, etc. These are familiar insults heaped on the poor in our own day.

So, this parable becomes a parable of the Kingdom of God by highlighting the poor servant who refused to play the landlord’s twisted game. Of course, as Jesus always says, there are insults that come along with this (Matthew 5:11).

Could this reading be more faithful to the way of Jesus, even though it turns our usual interpretation upside-down? What do you think?