Matthew 25: 14-30: Two Wise and One Unwise Slaves

By Андрей Николаевич Миронов (A.N. Mironov) -The Parable of the Talents, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Matthew 25: 14-30

14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents,to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This second parable, in a group of three, shifts from feminine to assumed masculine imagery and from the setting of the wedding feast to the stewardship of the household. Jesus has used this type of imagery multiple times in parables in Matthew, and although they are now organized in a different manner the theme of a lord ‘settling words’[1]  with those charged with managing the household of the master. Keeping the framework of wise and foolish from the first parable, we know see these ideas cast within an economic metaphor. These slaves are entrusted with resources according to their power[2] and then the lord departs on a journey.

In this parable there are two slaves who act wisely and one who acts foolishly. The first two slaves who have greater power and receive a greater portion of the master’s possessions to manage immediately begin to work[3] with the property entrusted to them. As we encountered in 18:23-35, where slaves are also entrusted with ‘talents’, this is an extremely large measure of economic resources. These wise slaves continue to work from the moment of their master’s departure until his return as earnest stewards of the resources entrusted to them, and as faithful exercises of the power they have in the master’s household. In their work they gain[4]additional talents. They look forward to their master’s return in expectation instead of fear. They are called ‘good and faithful[5] and can enter into the joyful celebration of their master’s long-awaited return.

In contrast to the work of the wise slaves, the foolish slave responds in fear. His only work during the master’s long absence, that we are aware of, is the act of burying the master’s silver in the earth. While the wise slaves continue to sow and scatter, reap and gather for their master, the only thing this slave plants is the money itself. This slave’s icy words which accuse the master of benefiting from the work of those in his household and quick return the master’s possession from its place where it laid fruitless in the earth indicate the unwise posture of this slave. In contrast to the ‘good and faithful’ slaves who worked with the talents entrusted to them, this slave is ‘evil[6] and lazy.’ In contrast to the valorous woman of Proverbs 31 (see the previous section) this slave does eat ‘the bread of sloth’ in this time while the master is away. He avoids even the minimal option of investing the silver with the moneychangers or bankers which would not involve physical labor but would have returned some gain to the master’s household. Like the foolish bridesmaids this ‘evil and lazy’ slave finds himself on the outside of the celebration of the master’s return in the outer darkness.

Unfortunately, the best known line from this parable is the penultimate one, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. Taken out of context this has often been read as a statement of the reality that the poor become poorer and the rich become richer, but this is not a proverb which can be extracted faithfully from this parable. Although the parable uses the metaphor of economics to talk about the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God as we will see in our final parable, is a place where the hungry, thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner are all places the master is met in the world. It also forms a contrast from the reality of most of Jesus’ early followers who were not the wealthy of the world. It is important to understand that the language of the parable is the language of metaphor which creates a word comparison to highlight an aspect of the kingdom.  The kingdom of heaven is certainly not an acceptance of the status quo of the power structures at work in the world, but Jesus’ parables use the experiences that his hearers would understand to point beyond themselves to a different type of household or kingdom.

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who build his house on a rock.” (7:24) and now these slaves of the master who await the master’s return must settle their action (or lack of action) on these words. The foolish may proclaim, in the words of José A. Pagola:

Here is your gospel, your project of the reign of God, your message of love for those who suffer. We have kept it faithfully. We haven’t used it to transform our life or to introduce your kingdom to the world. We didn’t want to take chances. But here it is, undamaged. (Pagola 2012, 39)

The darkness of the earth that enclosed the entrusted silver of the master granted to do the work of the household are now matched by the outer darkness which forms the life separated from the master’s joy. The foolish in these parables are foils to those who wisely work in hopeful expectation of their master’s return. These ‘faithful and wise slaves’ that the master places over the household to work on its behalf and who are at work when their master arrives (24:45-47) are the ones who await the return of the Son of Man with persistent hope and joyful expectation.

[1] Greek suvairei logon is literally settling words and although most translations smooth this to settling accounts, the older language points to the importance of words spoken and written in agreements.

[2] Greek dunamis is a common word meaning power. Ability has nuances in English of skill or intelligence that power does not.

[3] Most translations link the action of the first two slave to the minimum option given to the final slave of ‘investing it with the moneychanger/bankers, but the word here is not trading or investing in a modern sense of financial markets but instead ‘to work.’ (Greek ergazomai) This probably is invested in the household of the master for future harvests in a primarily agricultural world rather than trading in merchandise and stock. There is an active sense that these two wise slaves’ continued work gains the additional talents.

[4] Greek kerdaivo. In English the idea of receiving has the connotation of payment for a job, but here the ‘gain’ is not held by the slaves except to return to the master’s estate.

[5] Greek pistos has been used to talk about faith throughout the gospel. While there is an element of trust in this term, to translate it ‘trustworthy’ here obscures the linkage with faith throughout Matthew.

[6] Greek ponere

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