The readings for Sunday, November 16, 2014, Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
Proverbs 31:10-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-16; and Matthew 25:14-30.
Matthew constructed five major discourses or sermons attributed to Jesus. By composing five discourses he compares Jesus to Moses, since the first five books of our Bible are attributed to Moses. Moses was the first great prophet of God, that is, the revealer of God’s words. Jesus is the final and ultimate prophet of God. As Moses’ revelation is revealed in five books (discourses), so Jesus’ revelation is revealed in five discourses (books). It should be kept in mind that a “prophet” is primarily a spokesperson for God. Moses and Jesus are the two primary spokesmen for God.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is engaged in the fifth and last of the five discourses. Appropriately the final discourse is about final matters — preparedness for judgment, the end of time, final judgment. Chapters 24 and 25 constitute the final discourse. In chapter 25 Matthew presents three parables. The first two are concerned with readiness, watchfulness, and preparation for the end. The third parable, final judgment, is next Sunday’s gospel reading. The first parable is about five wise virgins and five foolish virgins. The second parable, entrusting investments to various agents, is this Sunday’s gospel reading.
A man plans to go on a journey. He calls together his employees (servants, slaves) and entrusts them with his property or investments. To each employee he entrusts according to the ability of that employee. One gets five “talents,” another gets two talents, and a third gets only one talent. The man then left. The employees now go about increasing the value of the property with which they were entrusted. The five-talent man and the two-talent man both double the value of what was entrusted to them. The one who received only the one talent buried his employer’s money.
After a long time the employer returned to settle accounts with his employees. Those who had received the five and the two talents reported their increase and were rewarded for being good stewards of the property of their employer. The man who received the one talent and buried it comes in with his report. He begins with a negative evaluation of his employer’s character, “I know you to be a hard man, … so I buried your money. Here it is. You have it back.” Bad move! The employer replies, “You wicked and lazy servant.”
Outcome: “Take the talent away from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents, for to everyone who has more will be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness, where they will weep and gnash their teeth.” The employee correctly analyzed his employer. He was indeed a harsh master. Casting into outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth are favorite expressions of Matthew. For him these were a standard way of ending a parable. Whether or not Jesus ended parables with this language, we cannot know. We do know that Matthew loved these expressions. Luke, a man of different character, used them only once.
For interpretation of this parable, it is important to recall that it is part of Jesus’ final discourse and that it is about final matters — the end time, judgment, etc. The Letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark left Christians with the impression that Jesus would return at any moment. When Jesus did not return New Testament documents after Paul and Mark have to deal with the delay of Jesus’ return. The parable of the talents is one of Matthew’s approaches to the problem. The owner leaves on a journey. Before he leaves he entrusts his assets to his employees — to each according to his ability. Matthew is thinking of Jesus’ departing from his disciples, and commissioning them to preach and baptize.
The owner/master returns “after a long time” — the delay of Jesus’ return. In the meantime, Christians must use the gifts entrusted to them to gain their reward. At the end, each must give an account of his or her use of God’s gifts. For those who interpret the parable as primarily addressed to Church leadership, those gifts would be the ministries with which servant/leaders are entrusted. For those who broaden the interpretation to include every Christian, the “talents,” (which originally meant a huge sum of money), are the talents (in our sense of talent) given each individual to develop for the glory of God and the good of the world. Bestowal by the master/owner of rewards and punishments represents the final judgment when Jesus returns as judge and rewards or punishes according to merit or the lack of it.