Thirty-Third Week in Ordinary Time: 16 Nov.—22 Nov.
Regarding the parable of the talents, you have heard preachers say that we must use the personal gifts God gave us (our talents) and develop them to increase their effectiveness. A parable with an obvious meaning!
Not so fast. A talent (Greek talanton) was originally a measure used to weigh heavy object—gold and silver. In this way it acquired the meaning of a large amount of money. In 2 Maccabees one talent was the price for ninety slaves.
In an earlier parable, Matthew tells of a debtor who owed 10,000 talents Such an outrageous amount tells everyone that this is exaggeration to make a point. One estimate is that it would take a day laborer about one thousand years to pay it back! By contrast, a denarius was usually one day’s wage. So the one hundred denarii that a fellow slave owes could probably be saved in a few years. In Sunday’s parable the slaves are given amounts of five, two, and one talent, far more money than they would otherwise ever hope to see. A talent —or two talents or five talents—is a big deal!
On Wednesday of this week, we hear Luke’s version of the same story line. Rather than talents, Luke speaks of the mina, a Semitic word adopted into business Greek, equal to one hundred drachmas (“gold coins”). Like the denarius, each drachma is roughly the equivalent to one day’s wage. Luke attempts to blend his version with another parable about a nobleman who imposes his rule on unwilling residents. The nobleman gives ten coins to ten slaves, but only three report back: one with ten more coins, one with five more, and another with just one.
Note that in both Matthew and Luke, the master/nobleman harvest where he did not plant and gather where he did not scatter, an admission of abuse of power. Luke’s character commands that those who did not want him to be king should be slain in his presence. This is not a God figure!
Moreover, we should question whether a God figure would willfully ignore the biblical injunction against charging interest on a loan. Both masters praise their slaves who have invested the money and gained more. Both condemn the slave who carefully guarded what was entrusted to him, lest it be lost. The Matthean master explicitly asks why this slave did not invest the money to earn interest with bankers, who were considered exploiters of the poor. There is a natural storytelling structure of three examples, with focus meant to be on the third. If the slave who made the most money did the right thing, why is he first and not last? If the first and second slaves, who invested at interest, are examples of doing right, then this is the only biblical passage that approves of charging interest, this on behalf of a man who admits he is unjust and rewards his slaves for further enriching him.
Not such a simple and obvious parable after all.*
*Adapted from the writings of Sister Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ
Professor of New Testament Emerita at Brite Divinity School.