The Gospel for Sunday was about the master who was going on a journey and give one servant 5 talents, another 2 talents and a third 1 talent. First, remember a talent was a large sum of money. The servants with 5 and 2 talents doubled their talents while the servant with 1 buried his and gave it back and the master threw him out. This parable has troubled me as I have read several commentaries, some lauding the ambitious servants who doubled their money while others noted the master and the two servants who doubled their money were greedy and may have taken from the less fortunate. Today a read another reflection which I share below. I read this in my favorite prayer book on the readings for each day “Give Us This Day” https://giveusthisday.org
Who’s Got Talent?
You have no doubt heard it said about Sunday’s parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) that we must use the personal gifts we have been given (our talents) and develop them to increase their effectiveness. What could be simpler? A parable with an obvious meaning!
Not so fast. A talent (Greek talanton) was originally a measure by which very heavy objects—often gold or silver—were weighed (see Exod 25:39 and 38:27; 1 Kgs 20:39). From there it acquired the meaning of a very large amount of money. In 2 Maccabees 8:11, one talent is the price for ninety slaves.
In an earlier parable, Matthew tells of a debtor who owed 10,000 talents (18:23-35; the New American Bible’s “a huge amount”). Such an outrageous amount tells everyone that this is exaggeration to make a point. One estimate is that it would take a day laborer about one thousand years to pay it back! By contrast, a denarius was usually one day’s wage (see Matt 20:2, the NAB’s “usual daily wage”). So the one hundred denarii that a fellow slave owes him could probably be saved in a few years (Matt 18:24, 28). In Sunday’s parable, the slaves are given amounts of five, two, and one talent, far more money than they would otherwise ever hope to see. A talent—or two talents or five talents—is a big deal!
On Wednesday of this week, we hear Luke’s version of the same story line (Luke 19:11-28). But rather than talents, Luke speaks of the mina, a Semitic word adopted into business Greek, equal to one hundred drachmas (“gold coins”). Like the denarius, each drachma is roughly equivalent to one day’s wage. Luke’s story lacks the clean lines of Matthew’s version, however. He attempts to blend it in with another about a nobleman who imposes his rule on unwilling residents. Though the nobleman gives ten coins to ten slaves, only three report back: one with ten more coins, one with five more, and another with just one.
Before we assume that the master in these parables stands in for God, notice that in both Matthew and Luke, the master/nobleman harvests where he did not plant and gathers where he did not scatter, an admission of abuse of power. Luke’s character commands that those who did not want him to be king should be slain in his presence. What kind of a God figure is this?
Moreover, we should question whether a God figure would willfully ignore the biblical injunction against charging interest on a loan (cf. Exod 22:24; Lev 25:36-37; Ps 15:5; Ezek 18:13; and many other examples). Both masters praise their slaves who have invested the money and gained more. Both condemn the slave who carefully guarded what was entrusted to him, lest it be lost. The Matthean master explicitly asks why this slave did not invest the money to earn interest with the bankers, who were considered exploiters of the poor. There is a natural storytelling structure of three examples, with focus meant to be on the third (“a priest, a minister, and a rabbi . . .”). If the slave who made the most money did the right thing, why is he first and not last? If the first and second slaves, who invested at interest, are examples of doing right, then this is the only biblical passage that approves of charging interest, this on behalf of a man who admits he is unjust and rewards his slaves for further enriching him.
Not such a simple and obvious parable after all.
—Sr. Carolyn Osiek
Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ, is Charles Fischer Professor of New Testament Emerita at Brite Divinity School and archivist for the Society of the Sacrd Heart, United States-Canada Province