Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Parable of the Ten Talents

KJV Matthew 25:14-30

(14) For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.
(15) And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.
(16) Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents.
(17) And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.
(18) But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money.

During the Roman period, when Israel was under military occupation with its severe penalties for sedition against the State and a burdensome tax collection system, there was a deep longing for freedom which had been burned into the Jewish mind from their experiences of repression under the Syrian Greeks rulers and previous to that, by the Babylonians, Assyrians, and the Egyptians. Tensions had heated up to the boiling point, and many of Rome’s disenfranchised Jewish subjects were looking for a way to hasten the coming of a new military hero, the Messiah of God promised by the prophets, to release them from their bondage to Caesar whom they believed was a degenerate, unclean and godless overseer. During that roughly 100 year period, many Jewish writings spoke of this longing and there arose splinter groups that reflected different views in Israel as to how exactly to push things along to bring about his coming. One of these groups was the Essenes, who withdrew as completely could be possible from the mainstream of Jewish life so they might reach the level of ritual and moral purity necessary to move the hand of God in favor of Israel once, for all time and they left their imprint upon us with the discovery and translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among them is a scroll entitled “The War between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness” which envisioned a great apocalyptic battle and the coming of a god-man with extra-human powers who would lead them both against the Romans and also those apostates who benefited from a compromised Temple system and from collusion with the foreign occupation army. There were also a group of ‘freedom fighters’ known as the Zealots who believed that only by force and faith could they rid themselves of the Romans and their paranoid King and dictator, Herod the Great, who was in many ways strikingly similar to a modern-day Saddam Hussein who in parallel fashion constructed many lavish buildings and created an wealthy elite class who were loyal to him at the expense of the poor they oppressed.

Within this highly charged political atmosphere there also appeared several individuals with messianic aims who were able to collect enough followers to be viewed as a threat and sufficiently disruptive to the status quo and were turned over to the occupiers and summarily executed, ridding both the romanized Jewish upper-classes and their overlords of ‘extremists’ who had the ability to foment rebellion and further endanger their privileged status and the already fragile peace that held together that part of the Empire. Jesus of Nazareth was only one of these visionaries, but he managed to gain enough of a following so that the sayings and parables he is credited to have spoken have echoed down through the centuries to us in the books of the New Testament. One of these is known as the ‘Parable of The Ten Talents.’ In the context of the parable Jesus is answering the disciples in regard to the question of the nature of the Kingdom of God and those who would inherit it. Back then a ‘talent’ was equivalent to a sizeable amount of money, amounting to approximately several years’ work. Those servants who had invested what they were given received praise from their master but the one who buried his talent was derided for his lack of his shortsightedness as was the excuse the tentative servant gave in verses 24 and 25. What’s interesting to note here is that the master does not instruct them explicitly to bank the money. He just gives it to them to see what initiative they might show considering the status of the giver and value of the amount entrusted. This is how Jesus ends his discourse:

24"Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'
26"His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28" 'Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

This parable stands in stark contrast to other sayings of the usually mild-mannered Jesus known for meekness, forgiveness and forbearance. It is used I think mainly for emphasis although it can put a scare into you when you read it, especially about the part where the unprofitable servant is cast into the place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The Kingdom of God is not to be taken lightly, according the lesson of the parable so if one is to take the path of the Master, it is incumbent upon the servant to take the journey seriously and to put to use what has been so richly given and the vivid imagery used by Jesus here only heightens its meaning. The Temple system in Jerusalem can be compared to the idea of the value of the ‘talent’. At that time, the Sadducees (of the line of Zadok,) had the duty of being the kings and priests of God, and were responsible for keeping the Temple system free from desecration as did their forebears but had supposedly compromised themselves by practicing corruption while at the same time preaching holiness. This is most likely the reason Jesus often called the Sadducees “hypocrites.” You may recall that he did not spare their counterparts, the Pharisees either, who taught of the existence of an afterlife as a reward for doing good deeds. The Pharisees were the great Rabbis of the time, those who were supposed to set an example for the common people to follow. Evidently Jesus thought otherwise, that things were not going all that well in Judea and that all of its inhabitants were in need of repentance and unlike the reclusive Essenes, Jesus felt it necessary to leave the wilderness and move among all the people of Israel to preach as well as to serve as an example of true righteousness.

Anyway, just a little historical background here to possibly help bring out some the meaning from this chapter of Matthew. What does its lesson hold for us today? It is necessary to adapt the original context to that of our own time, so it’s really up to us to use our own judgement. How do his words speak to you? You may see him as a great teacher or as God incarnate, but there is a reason why the words of Jesus have had lasting power aside from Christianity’s fortunes in being able to join with Rome’s state infrastructure and spread throughout the world. His magnificent sayings and parables have had universal significance and although some of them have also been used to rationalize virulent anti-semitism down through the centuries they must also be seen in the light of their true brilliance and in the life-changing influence they have as to where and how we should use our ‘talents.’

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