The following is a guest blog by Brett Powell.
The Synoptic Gospels of Matthew and Luke share alternative adaptations of a parable told by Jesus in which a master, in preparation for a journey afar, temporarily entrusted various amounts of wealth to his servants. In Matthew’s version, eight talents (a unit of weight) are distributed among three servants: the first servant receiving five, the second receiving two and the third receiving only one—each according to his proper dynamic. In terms of wealth, it’s impossible to say just how much Jesus was imagining. The idea, so it would seem, is that each servant received, not just slight gradations in pay, but measurably different degrees of resources. Such that, the first servant is entrusted with a sum of resources which could potentially employ or support a multitude, the second is entrusted with the resources to support many and the third servant is given the means to support only a few.
As the parable moves along, Jesus explains that the first and second servants made use of their master’s wealth and were able to double what was entrusted to them. To the servant who had been given five talents and he who had been given two, the master said, “Well done good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”
Afterwards, the servant who had received one talent came forward, saying, “Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid…” Fear had taken hold of this third servant. He chose to bury his talent. His entrustment, small as it may have been, was put to no use.
In Luke’s version of this parable, ten minas (a smaller unit of weight) are equally distributed among ten servants. The servants come forward to give an account of their small entrustment, and each is rewarded according to their profitability. The first servant was able to multiply his mina by ten times. A second servant by five. But a third servant, fearing his “austere” master, couldn’t bring himself to do anything more with his entrustment than hide it away—free from risk or reward. As compensation for being “faithful in a little” the first two servants are awarded authority over cities—they are given the rights to centers of life, economy, community, society and well-being. The first servant that earned ten times was given the right to a multitude of lives (ten cities). The servant that earned five times was given the right to many lives (five cities). Meanwhile, the servant who fearfully chose to not put his entrustment to use forfeited any right to life.
These parables, despite our capitalistic impulses, are hardly a practical, analogical lesson in fiscal stewardship. But prior to any presumption of understanding is the qualification that Jesus did not intend for his parables to serve as explanatory analogies. They served to convict, not convince; to disguise rather than disclose. Understanding of a parable was given. In Matthew 13:10ff, the disciples asked Jesus why he chose to speak in parables. Jesus replied that it was given to the disciples to know the mysteries of the Kingdom, but to the rest it was not given, stating, “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Interestingly, this very statement reappears at the end of both Matthew’s parable of talents and Luke’s parable of minas, cautioning against any understanding of the parables that does not taken into account the intention and design of conviction.
That said, there are several important elements to be extracted from the parable of talents and the parable of minas. 1) The elements of occasion, entrustment, the right to life and the invitation into the joy of the master together constitute that which is given: grace. 2) The degrees of dynamism, degrees of profitability and degrees of reward gesture toward elements of human cooperation and will. Meanwhile, 3) the elements of excuse, inaction, and the fear of austerity constitute sin. Each of these elements should be carried forward and understood against the contextual backdrop provided by the Gospel writers; ensuring that the parables fulfill their intended purpose of conviction, while guarding against isolated, general “life-applications” which have become a habit of Christian inspirationalism.
Context of the Parable of Minas in Luke
Earlier, in Luke 9:51, Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem and began a steady, intentional approach towards the city—healing, praying, teaching in parables and announcing judgment as he traveled. Having finally arrived, the writer of Luke indicates that it was his proximity to Jerusalem which prompted Jesus to tell the parable of minas (19:11). This parable carried the weight of setting into motion a series of events that would force the hand of the authorities to eagerly move against his life. It is wedged between the Jericho event of Zaccheus, the rich tax-collector who turned his wealth over to the poor and defrauded, and three unique events which are occasioned by the arrival in Jerusalem: 1) riding into the city on the back of a colt, 2) weeping over the city and 3) disrupting the Temple during Passover preparations. A brief description of these three events will be useful for clarifying the parable’s convicting motif.
First, Jesus rides into the city on the back of a colt, enacting the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9ff:
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass…and he shall command peace to the nations, his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As Jesus approaches the city, the crowds welcome him by throwing their garments down before him and yelling, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” The event signifies the kingship of Jesus, whose victory is manifested in humility and whose reign is defined by a peace so cosmic that even if no human person proclaimed it, the stones on the ground would cry aloud.
Second, riding into view of Jerusalem, Jesus weeps over the city as it sits on the horizon. Speaking to the city he cries, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes!”
And finally, having arrived within the city, Jesus enters the temple, disrupts the daily order by driving out those selling, and declares, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; ‘but you have made it a den of robbers!’” quoting the prophecies of Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7.
Isaiah 56 lays out an eschatological vision of salvation whereby the covenant is extended to the outcasts of Israel:
Thus says the Lord, “Keep justice and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance will be revealed…Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree’…these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer, their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel.
Meanwhile, Jeremiah 7 condemns Judah for the sin of certainty that it had misplaced in its national identity:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will let you dwell in this place…Behold you trust in deceptive words to no avail…and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name and say, ‘We are delivered!’…Has this house which is called by my name become a den of robbers in your eyes?”
These three events, set into motion by the parable of minas, portray Jesus as the humble, cosmic king of peace—weeping over his own people who have been blinded by the delusion that an institution and form of religion which is established and maintained on the basis of national identity and violence, legal and outward acceptability can provide salvation and security.
Context of the Parable of Talents in Matthew
The parable of talents is woven in as the penultimate section in a series of apocalyptic images which concentrate on the immanent judgment of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. It is the final parable in the Gospel of Matthew: a final conviction. As quickly as the third servant has his talent taken from him and is cast into the darkness, Jesus concludes his prophetic ministry with the judgment of the sheep and goats—those who did and those who did not. Those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the foreigner (xenos in Greek), clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned are welcomed into the Kingdom. Those who do nothing depart into eternal punishment.
Elements of Conviction
The contexts of these parables signal a humble reign of peace welcomed by all of creation, a putting away of violence, the inclusion and care for those on the outskirts of law and nationality, and charity towards those in desperate situations. This context provides a location from which the parables’ elements of given-grace, human will, and sin may convict.
What is given is what is laid before us. We are handed over that which was beyond our control and which we did not cause. Occasion and entrustment are located within every opportunity we have to create this parabolic context, whereby we enact peace rather than violence, embrace those outside our law and identity, and exhibit a reckless lack of discretion in charity—unsure which needy soul might be our master and always uncertain as to the moment of his return. On the one hand, these occasions do not require a response. And while they may go unanswered, they will not go unpunished. On the other hand, any degree of dynamism and “profitability” receives special grace: a welcome into the joy of the master and the right to life.
While there is very little apprehension among Christians in thinking of life as a right that is given in terms of occasion and opportunity, the thought of life as a right of special grace can be problematic. Especially when we consider this right in relation to human cooperation and will. But here lies the conviction. For in the event that we do not will or cooperate with occasions of peace, inclusion, and charity, we forfeit this right. We further forfeit it in the event that we turn down what has already been entrusted to us, fearing our own inner austerity as we project it upon the Master. Through this austerity, we tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, when we ourselves are not willing to move a finger. We strain a gnat but swallow a camel. We calculate a litany of excuses which immobilize us and prevent us from entering into the joy of the master: “What right do they have?”, “The system is broken…”, “The economy can’t continue to handle this massive flooding!”, “They broke law. They’re criminals.”, “There’s not enough room.”
We who claim to defend the right to life lament the 45-60 million legally induced abortions that have occurred since 1973, raising no objections with regard to the economic resources that would be required to sustain so many people (including their children and grandchildren) in the event that they had survived abortion. All the while we resent the legality of abortion. Yet we fiercely object to the legal acceptability of 600,000 DACA Dreamer who were illegally transferred across the border and have since taken advantage of a legal process to establish themselves as contributing members of our economy.
We who defend the right to life lament the abortions which occur at an average annual rate exceeding one million. Yet we do not have the room or resources to accept more than the proposed 45,000 “extremely vetted” refugees per year who are fleeing desperate situations—many of which have undoubtedly been complicated and compounded by US foreign policy.
We who defend the right to life fail to notice that 50% of abortion patients are living below the federal poverty line and 25% are living just above. Nor do we realize that abortions are taking place among minority groups at rates 3 or more times higher than whites. Meanwhile, we object to universal healthcare, turn a blind eye to the disproportionately high rates of poverty and imprisonment among minorities. All while believing that the pro-life movement will achieve ultimate success when it overturns legislation that would potentially introduce hundreds of thousands of lives, every year, into circumstances that are a result of this “broken system” cliché.
We refuse to rise to the occasion that is before our eyes. Our defense of life is simply not consistent with our objections to life, and we have contrived excuses out of fear. Such fears prevent Christians from taking up the existing struggles of poverty, racial inequality, immigration, and international displacement as causes worthy of the label right to life. These fears are transposed into righteous indignation by the delusion that by imposing one more denial of choice upon those whose lives are already being dictated in a large part by their social circumstances, we can upend the moral degradation of society. However, any notion of Christian individualism that mitigates these fear-driven failures and refuses to place the impetus on a globalizing society is an affront to the universal reign of peace through Jesus Christ. Any notion of Christianity that welcomes, feeds, cares, and clothes only when it is economically prudent and legally justifiable fails to understand the cruciform life which is full of contradiction, paradox, absurdity and, yes, pain. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan mystic, wrote:
Jesus was killed on the collision of cross-purposes, conflicting interests, and half-truths. The cross was the price Jesus paid for living in a “mixed” world that was both human and divine, simultaneously broken and utterly whole. He hung between a good thief and bad thief, between heaven and earth, inside of both humanity and divinity, a male body with a feminine soul, utterly whole and yet utterly disfigured—all the primary opposites. Jesus “recapitulated all things in himself, everything in heaven and on earth” (Eph 1:10)…The people who hold the contradictions—and resolve them in themselves—are the saviors of the world. They are the agents of transformation, reconciliation, and newness.
This is, after all, the final parable—the final conviction—and the events that it will set into motion will be difficult. But it is clear that the occasion which has been entrusted to the church has not been met with any substantial degree of willingness or cooperation, and, as a result, I fear that we will continue to forfeit the special graces that could extend to us a greater right to life and the invitation into the joy of the master.