The Gospel reading set for this coming Sunday is Matthew 25:14-30, in which Jesus tells a parable about a man who entrusts his property to his slaves before departing abroad. To one slave he entrusts five ‘talents,’ a weight of money commonly equivalent to 6,000 denarii (one denarius being the daily wage of a labourer), to another, two talents, and to yet another, one talent. Sometime later, the man returns. The first two slaves have doubled the weight given them, while the third, fearful of a master who reaps where he did not sow, had buried his hoard, and returned it in full. The first two slaves are rewarded with additional responsibility and invited to ‘enter into the joy of’ their master, that is, to experience his favour. For not even depositing his talent with the bankers to accrue interest, the third slave is deemed ‘worthless’ and thrown ‘into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
This parable is commonly interpreted in this way: God has given to each person talents, abilities, opportunity, as he sees fit, and expects a return on his investment. But this is to misunderstand the text.
It comes within a larger context, a lengthy conversation (chapters 24 and 25) between Jesus and his disciples, concerning the destruction of the temple. The disciples have come to believe that Jesus is the Son of David – a recurring title for Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel – that is, the rightful heir to the throne in Jerusalem. It is obvious that tension is rising, and that, sooner or later, there will be a crisis moment, in which Roman rule will be overthrown, along with their vassals and collaborators. In the aftermath of this, the disciples expect Jesus to ascend to the throne; but when will this take place?
In fact, the crisis they anticipate will come about in the First Jewish-Roman War (66-74 CE) with widespread destruction of Jewish cities, and the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 70 CE. From the perspective of Jesus, some forty years earlier, this is both inevitable in the broad sense and unknowable in its particulars. And his purpose is to prepare his followers to live through this existential crisis.
The Parable of the Talents comes immediately after the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and immediately before the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, or the Judgement of the Nations. What Jesus is seeking to get across is that the Day of the Lord – which would mark the end of the present age or geo-political reality – for which his disciples, in keeping with their peers, were hoping for would result in judgement first for the Jewish people (the bridesmaids, who are divided, and half of them locked out from the new age) and (only) then for the gentile nations (who are also divided, some being included in, and some excluded from, the new age).
In the Parable of the Talents, it makes most sense to see the man, who entrusts his property to his slaves before disappearing abroad, but returns to claim his profit, as the Roman emperor; and the three slaves as the sons of Herod the Great.
Augustus (emperor 27 BCE – 14 CE; succeeded by Tiberius, who ruled 14-37 CE) had appointed Herod I (Herod the Great) as a Jewish Roman client king. On Herod’s death, Augustus initially honoured Herod’s will, which divided his territory between his three sons (and his sister). Herod Archelaus was appointed ethnarch of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. Herod Antipas was appointed tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea. Philip was appointed tetrarch of Iturea, Trachonitis, Batanea, Gaulanitits, Auranitis and Paneas. (Salome I was appointed toparch of Jamnia, Azotus and Phasaelis.) But only nine years later, in 6 CE, Augustus, having judged Herod Archalaus incompetent, removed him, combining his three provinces into one Province of Iudaea, ruled by a Roman prefect. The fifth of these, serving 26-36 CE, was Pontius Pilate.
Parables, of course, are not histories. They do not have one-to-one correlations with historical figures. It could just as well point forward to 39 CE, when emperor Caligula removed Herod Antipas and gave his tetrarchy to another Herod, Agrippa. This parable is not so much a retelling of events that took place in Jesus’ childhood, as a depiction of how things work, under Roman rule. The population of this Province is ruled over, by delegation to client kings or Roman governors, at the emperor’s pleasure. Tiberius gives, and Tiberius takes away. And there will surely come a point when the emperor turns his attention back on this troublesome corner of his empire. Strangely enough, one of the key events that precipitated the Jewish revolt of 66 CE was the emperor – by this time, Nero – ordering the Roman governor – by this time, Gessius Florus – to take seventeen talents from the temple treasury as unpaid tax.
(Emperors didn’t always get their own way. The inevitable Jewish Roman War could have erupted fifteen years earlier than it eventually did. Caligula ordered that a statue of himself be erected in the temple in Jerusalem; fearing war, his governor stalled for a year, before his friend, Herod Agrippa, persuaded him to overturn the order. Jesus anticipates this as a likely event, Matthew 24:15ff.)
This parable serves as the transition between the judgement of the Jewish people and the judgement of the Gentile nations. It is, in itself, a profound warning: there will be no miraculous intervention, in the machinations and rise and fall of earthly empires. There is the in-crowd, who enjoy things, for now, and the in-crowd who will fall from favour and be cast into the outermost darkness, consigned to the scrap heap of history, forgotten. Their tears all the more bitter for having previously enjoyed favour.
In the light of this bleak synopsis of the signs of the times – as convoluted, power-hungry, and precarious as our own day – Jesus instructs his disciples to hold fast. Don’t get caught up in trying to force events, over which you have no influence, nor any right to influence (as John records in his Gospel, Jesus sees the disciples as remaining in this world, but not of it – not playing its games by its rules). Simply trust that I have chosen you and will keep you; that not even death can derail that promise.
But what has any of this to do with us, who live almost 2,000 years later, long after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem? I think it stands as a warning not to take up the ways of this world to shape it to our gain, or exercise rule over the lives of others. Which is not to say that we should not campaign for a more just society; but that even godly ends do not justify ungodly means.
There are many who claim to follow Christ who need to rediscover this parable today.