I like the contention that the servant who buried his one talent and got shafted by the boss might just be the hero of the story – not the goody two shoes (x2) who doubled their much more generous offerings. The proposition catches us on the back foot (like a good parable is supposed to do). The centuries old Protestant work ethic favours the traditional view that hard work and prudent application is duly rewarded. The lazy lay-about who did nothing with what he was entrusted got his just desserts – and you will too if you don’t get on with it!
Peel back the accretion of time and historical circumstance, however, and imagine the story as it was before this puritanical setting. Imagine it before Matthew got hold of it, and even Luke (who could be seen to be giving greater weight to the tradition that this post explores). It seems the parable was passed around orally before Luke and Matthew put it in the context of their own communities and set it down in writing. Matthew’s burden appears to be keeping the fledgling second and third generation church alert and disciplined, living out the teachings of Jesus rather than hanging around waiting for an imminent return. Hence “get on with it!”
Luke seems to use the story, with some interesting variations, to say, “This is the reality of how the world ticks.” It is unjust and unfair and if you are going to buck the system, be ready to meet the consequences. The third servant tosses in the towel and protests “I’m not playing this game any more!” knowing he will lose his position of privilege and be cast out among the tenant farmers who have been suffering the extortion of the landlords and their managers. He could stand for the disciple who is prepared to travel the way of Jesus, in the world of those who live on the margins of powerlessness, and not of the world of corrupt privilege.
Well, it’s at least worth a thought – yes? The strange outcome is that regardless of whether you run with Matthew’s call to diligence or Luke’s veiled urging to courageous discipleship, the result is the same – a more focused and active disciple. Neat!
4 thoughts on “Praising our one talent hero!”
Food for thought, WP: I’ve framed three comments and rubbed them out each time! Off to go and reflect. Thanks for this – really thought provoking.
Interesting thoughts on an interesting passage. I’ve always wondered why there was no ‘tried but failed’ servant in the story – i.e. one who invested but lost, rather than two successes and one apparent ‘did nothing’ failure. But the idea that the ‘loser’ was actually refusing to play the game is intriguing and helps to explain why there is no ‘tried but lost’ servant. The master has been identified with Jesus/God who dishes out the talents/gifts, but that wouldn’t fit in your scenario. Interesting idea, but does it fit with the rest of Matthew’s stories? Will have to think on this some more!
Steve, thanks for your thoughts. To answer your question, I don’t think Matthew’s placement of the story supports the alternative interpretation at all; we have to bring in Luke’s treatment for that. Matthew is a hard-liner – he doesn’t allow for triers or in-betweeners, just doers. The parable before (the ten bridesmaids) and after (sheep and goats) has the same black & white consequences. The teaser for me is: what did the story originally mean in its pristine form – and how did it sound in the Q source from which both Matthew and Luke seem to have drawn?
Kate, thanks for reading and responding – even after three attempts! For me, that’s a sign that a parable is achieving its purpose – not giving pat answers but posing questions that take us deeper.