Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- We have to recognise that Jesus’ parables are never what they seem; they are not about wine production or agriculture, or here, in our gospel (Matthew 25:14-30) about capitalism and the making of money by judicious investment, nor are they fundamentally about morality. The key lies in the introductory phrase Jesus uses time and time again, “The kingdom of heaven is like…They are parables of the kingdom, of our life with and in God.
In this particular case, as my Dominican tutor would constantly say, ‘the context of the particular parable is everything.’ I think in retrospect I would also add that the particular use of the Greek is equally important, a factor the translators of the Jerusalem Bible seem stunningly to ignore.
Throughout Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ actions, such as his healing of the sick and his fraternising with those seen as ‘unclean’, causes the temple authorities and the religious purists to see him as a scandal and one to be removed. In his outreach to the needy, Jesus will be outraged by their lack of care and generosity, and will see those in authority equally as a cause of scandal. He will castigate them as ‘blind guides and hypocrites’, and the tension between them and Our Lord will mount and come to boiling point.
At the time of our gospel passage, Jesus was already in Jerusalem and it was two days before the Passover and his death. This parable is delivered to his disciples, so is for his intimate and close community and its message is sharp and urgent, meant to instruct them precisely on the meaning of discipleship and belonging to the Church. This is why attempts to draw morals from it, or generalise it, devoid it of its power and potency.
First, we notice that the three men involved are ‘slaves’, entrusted with vast sums of money by their Lord, as was common with aristocrats who could not engage directly in commerce but did so indirectly through their slaves. Implied then is that they belong to him body and soul; as we do to God. A talent was a weight of gold or silver, and it is reckoned that it would take the average labourer some 200 years to acquire a single talent. Clearly then these slaves are trusted members of his household, not just any old riff-raff. This is a message for intimates, and the disciples, hearing this parable in this context should have been keenly aware of its significance.
Secondly, we notice in the Greek that the Lord does not ‘entrust’ these colossal sums to his slaves; rather he ‘handed them over, (paradidomi). This is the same verb Jesus has frequently used of himself, as when he three times predicted his passion and death; he would be delivered up, “handed over”, to the Jewish powers and the Gentiles for death. Surely this can be no coincidence. Indeed, this is borne out when the slaves who had doubled their master’s money report back to him. Both the slave with the five talents and the one with the two say ‘Lord, you handed over to me five talents….two talents, here are five more….’ They have amply fulfilled their Master’s trust. They have guarded and enriched what has been handed over to them.
The weight of the Passion hangs heavy over this picture, with the devastating abandonment of the Lord by the disciples, but is redeemed by their subsequent post resurrection rehabilitation and their mission out to the world. In most cases this ended with their deaths, as missionaries and martyrs for Christ. The proximity of this powerful parable to the passion and the resurrection cannot be accidental, and it is surely meant as a lesson to the 12 and as reassurance when they fail at his arrest, but subsequently return to give their lives for Jesus.
This is even more borne out by the sting in the tail; the problem of the slave with the single talent who simply hoards it up. Unlike the two who speak of the Lord’s having ‘handed over’ their talents, this man strives to defend his action by going on the attack, aggressively defending himself. Here is a trusted slave who should have responded well to his Lord’s faith in him, but who contemptuously turns against all that he had been given and graced with. Surely he is Judas. The picture from the perspective of the mechanics of ancient society is appalling, horrific and devastating and we should not dismiss it lightly. Slaves and freedmen who betrayed their master or patron could expect the death penalty.
What we have then is the picture of a tightly structured society, a picture of what the Church is meant to be like and of how terrible it is when we fail to be that community. Our reading from Proverbs 31 looks at this from the perspective of the Good Wife. What we notice there however is that this woman does not merely organise and direct her own household, she is outgoing too, generous in almsgiving, and a member of the community who earns its praise – in this case; unusually for a female, being ‘praised at the city gates’, that bastion of masculine meeting and discussion.
St Paul too (1 Thessalonians 5:1-6) reflects this concern for the Christian community, warning them not to merely observe ‘times and seasons’. For all time is now hallowed in Christ, and the purpose of each and every Christian must be continual preparedness for the Day of the Lord. He will constantly emphasis that we are already ‘in’ Christ, that we are not simply awaiting a far distant advent but live now as redeemed and saved, already members of the Kingdom, and his motif for all this will be ‘watchfulness’. Christians are those who are on the alert, continually living out the grace we have received, handed over.