Parable of the Valuable Coins
Matthew 25:14-30 Common English
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.
“After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’ “The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’ “Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’ “His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. Now take the worthless servant and throw him out into the farthest darkness.’ “People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.
A Shiny New Coin
William Faulkner once wrote, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” These words ring true for us today as we approach this timeless parable in a new way.
The proverbial shore here is the traditional way of understanding today’s parable. It holds that we’re called, as people of faith, to use our individual coins or “talents” for the good of all people. A great way to view this text. I have taught it that way many times as have many of my friends. This is also the way most Bible commentaries explain the Parable of the Talents. So, let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with viewing this text through the lens of servanthood. But, at the same time, there’s some more going on here. But in order to get-at that “something,” we must first look at the parable itself.
Okay. In this parable the first servant turned his five valuable coins (called talents) into ten, the second turned his in to four, but the third hid his talent in the ground so that he would not lose it. Common wisdom says that we’re to be like the first servant, or at least, like the second one, but we should avoid at all costs being like the lazy, unprofitable third servant. And again, this isn’t a bad way to look at it. But that being said, I also believe that our common interpretation of the Parable of the Talents is completely opposite of what Jesus really meant. Let me explain…
Over the past twenty years or so, I have read, written, and taught a lot about the cultural and historical backgrounds of various Biblical texts. Context is my favorite word! And because of this attention to context, I have come to see that the cultural lens through which we read Scripture is completely foreign to the cultural lens in which Scripture was originally written or read.
Therefore, if we really want to understand the meaning and significance of what was written, we need to understand the cultural background of the people who wrote it and originally read it.
What do I mean by that? Well, we live in a materialistically-driven culture, governed by greed and the accumulation of wealth. That should come as no surprise to anyone. The Bible however, was written in an honor/shame culture. A culture where stuff and money didn’t matter nearly as much. You see, in this kind of culture, people desire honor above all else. Money is not an end, but a means to an end. In such a culture, someone might be insanely rich, but if they had no honor, they were not well-liked or respected.
Furthermore, since wealth and possessions were in limited supply, honor/shame cultures believed in a zero-sum economy. In other words, if one person gained wealth, it was necessarily at someone else’s expense. And this is important to understand as we look at our text. It’s important because the only way someone could accumulate wealth (gain more talents) was by taking it from someone else. The rich got richer at the expense of the poor. This is why ancient cultures such as this had so many “patrons.” As the rich accumulated more and more wealth, they saw it as their duty and responsibility to give back to society in the form of humanitarian works, giving alms to the poor, caring of widows and orphans, and so forth. This way, the wealthy gained greater honor, but not necessarily greater wealth. [i]
Okay, let’s look at our parable once again through this cultural lens.
In our economically-driven culture, the heroes here are the servants who accumulate more wealth. But in an honor-based culture, the people who accumulate more wealth are the villains. Why? Because the only way they were able to get more was by taking it from someone else (i.e. the poor) So, the hero of the story is really the third servant, the one who did not become richer, but instead was content with what he was given. The master, however, gets mad at this third servant and tries to shame him by taking away (literally “stealing” is the word in Greek) the third one’s possessions and giving it to the one who is already rich.
Now, I know this is a challenging way of reading the Parable of the Talents, because we’re typically taught that the master represents God, and that each of us must give an account to God for how we used the time and money with which we were blessed. Obviously, in this alternate way of reading the Parable of the Talents, since the master behaves shamefully and teaches his servants to do the same, the master cannot represent God.[ii] I mean, when Jesus said, “…those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them” …he wasn’t advocating for an upward redistribution of wealth. Instead, he’s criticizing the wealthy who haven’t taken care of the poor as Scripture commanded them. The master in this story isn’t God, but rather, the ones whom Jesus is taking to task.
So, what does all this mean to us? Well, first of all, we don’t have to cast aside the idea of using our God-given talents for the benefit of humanity and all of creation. This is a twenty-first century, culturally defined way of viewing our text. This “servanthood” interpretation is an important aspect of our faith journey. But the original context is important for us to understand as well. I call this the “justice” interpretation.
In the justice interpretation we are invited to do more than simply use our talents, we are to share our resources as well. Like the patrons of old, we have been blessed with an abundance. Jesus is challenging us, both individually and collectively, to envision a society where everyone has access to the basic necessities and the opportunity to prosper. We are called to create a place where justice and equality and peace become more than mere ideals, but instead become living, breathing norms.
And this is vital for each of us to understand because over the course of the past eight months or so, we’ve found ourselves in the midst of “norm” building. What do I mean by that? Well, we’ve all heard the term “a new normal” in conjunction with this pandemic. But rather than lament the reality of these difficult days, maybe we should invest ourselves, our souls, into creating a culture where racial equality, kind words, and just actions become the norm. Maybe our new normal doesn’t have to be defined by disease, disunity, or death. These are the realities of our time, but we can choose to shine the light of justice in the coming days, months, and years by sharing our God-given talents and by participating in a downward, and ever-expanding, distribution of wealth.
So, as we continue to move in that direction, as we swim for Falkner’s new horizon, may we have courage to lose sight of the shore. May we, finally, turn our gaze in the direction of a just world for all people and the preservation of all creation. May it be so.
[i] Jeremy Myers The Parable of the Talents Revisited (www.redeeminggod.com)2008
[ii] Ibid. Myers.