07 December 2020

The Talents Story.

Matthew 25.13-30.

Nowadays when we say talent we mean a special ability; something one can do which most others can’t. The word evolved to mean that, but in ancient Greek a τάλαντον/tálanton meant either a moneychanger’s scale, or the maximum weight you put on that scale. Usually of silver. Sometimes gold… but if the text doesn’t say which metal they’re weighing, just assume it’s silver.

Talents varied from nation to nation, province to province. When Jesus spoke of talents, he meant the Babylonian talent (Hebrew כִּכָּר/khikhár, which literally means “loaf,” i.e. a big slab of silver). That’d be 30.2 kilograms, or 66.56 pounds. Jews actually had two talents: A “light talent,” the usual talent; and a “heavy talent” or “royal talent” which weighed twice as much. But again: Unless the text says it’s the heavy talent, assume it’s the light one. And of course the Greeks and Romans had their own talents: The Roman was 32.3 kilos and the Greek was 26.

Using 2020 silver rates, a Babylonian talent is $30,200. So yeah, it’s a lot of money. Especially considering you could get away with paying the poor a denarius (worth $3.51) per day. Mt 20.2

When Jesus shared parables about his second coming, he told this story about a master with three slaves, each of whom was given a big bag of silver to supervise. And Jesus compared their experience to what our Master kinda expects of his followers once he returns.

Matthew 25.13-30 KWL
13 “So wake up!—you don’t know the day nor hour.
14 For it’s like a person going abroad:
He calls his slaves to himself, and hands them his belongings.
15 He gives one five talents [$151,000]
and one two [$60,400] and one one [$30,200]
—each according to their own ability. He went abroad.
16 The slave who got five talents went to work on them, and made another five.
17 Likewise the slave with two talents made another two.
18 The slave who got one talent burrowed in the ground
and hid his master’s silver.
19 After a long time, the master came to these slaves
to have a word with them.
20 At the master’s coming, the slave who got five talents
brought another five talents,
saying, ‘Master, you entrusted five talents to me.
Look! I made another five talents.’
21 His master told him, ‘Great! My good, trustworthy slave,
you’re trustworthy over a little, and I will put you in charge of much.
Come into your master’s joy.’
22 At the master’s coming, the slave who got two talents
said, ‘Master, you entrusted two talents to me.
Look! I made another two talents.’
23 His master told him, ‘Great! My good, trustworthy slave,
you’re trustworthy over a little, and I will put you in charge of much.
Come into your master’s joy.’
24 At the master’s coming, the slave who got one talent
said, ‘Master, I’ve come to know you as a hard person,
harvesting where you don’t plant, gathering from where you don’t scatter.
25 Fearfully going away, I hid your talent in the ground.
Look! You have what’s yours.’
26 In reply his master told him, ‘My useless, lazy slave,
you figured I harvest where I don’t plant and gather from where I don’t scatter?
27 Therefore you needed to put my silver with the loan sharks!
At my coming I would receive what was mine, with interest!
28 So take the talent away from him.
Give it to the slave who has the 10 talents.
29 For to one who has everything, more will be given, and more will abound.
And to one who hasn’t anything, whatever one does have will be taken away from them.
30 The useless slave? Throw him into the darkness outside.
There, there’ll be weeping and teeth gnashing in rage.’ ”

The word δοῦλος/dúlos tends to get translated “servant” (as the KJV did), but nope; it means slave. Hebrew slavery didn’t treat slaves as permanent property, but as people contractually bound to their master till the next Sabbath year. American slaves would rarely, if ever, be entrusted with as much authority as Hebrews did their slaves. Whole different mindset.

No, this isn’t about meriting heaven.

Capitalists and legalists tend to utterly miss the point of this parable. They fixate on the two moneymakers: They doubled their money! Hey, Christians, we gotta double our money!—or make a significant return on whatever other talents God gives us.

Since this is a short story, there’s kind of this assumption the slaves only had a short time in which to do this. So that’s pretty impressive; double your money in a month or two. But trips abroad in the Roman Empire would commonly take years. (Hence the need to entrust one’s property to one’s slaves, instead of burying it in the backyard yourself.) So they didn’t have that short a time. But the trip took less than seven years; otherwise the master’s slaves would be freed while he was gone, and not have to answer to him… and maybe even take off with his money. Which is kinda how Jesus’s servants tend to think of him because of his long absence… but that’s a whole other rant.

Hence Christians fixate on the idea of being profitable servants. We need to do vast, tremendous things for God’s kingdom! Evangelize thousands! Do tons of good works! Straighten out all our doctrines, and out-argue heretics, and take over the Congress and persecute prosecute ’em! Believe really, really hard! And that’ll merit God’s favor—which is an oxymoron, ’cause we don’t merit grace.

Because the only thing we are saved by, is God’s grace. We trust Jesus to save us, and so he generously does. That’s it.

So what is the point of this parable? It’s a lot simpler than that. Two slaves made an effort to follow their master’s will. One didn’t. Don’t be one who doesn’t.

The productive slaves doubled this master’s money. Y’know, he’d’ve been happy if they only earned one talent more, or half a talent more. He expected some profit, if they were doing their jobs right. And sometimes recessions happen, and you can’t help that, so if they broke even, or even lost money, he’d be upset, but at least respect the effort. The point is, they made an effort. In this story it paid off, and the master was very happy with them. “Good, trustworthy slave” he calls them both.

The third guy? Did nothing. In the entire time his master was gone, he did nothing. Didn’t buy, didn’t sell, didn’t work. Goldbricked the entire time, with 30 grand buried in a hole.

When the master came back, he justified his lousy behavior by ripping on his master. “I’ve come to know you as a hard person,” he said. The verb ἔγνων/énnon, “come to know,” is aorist tense, which means it’s neither past nor present; it’s timeless, and suggests who the slave thinks his master has always been. Most bibles translate it as past tense—“knew”—but I think this misses the idea that the slave deduced this attitude in his master.

How’d he come to this conclusion? Meh; projection. The slave is the one who harvests where he doesn’t plant, and gathers from where he doesn’t scatter. He sat on his arse for years, did nothing for his master, and figured all would be well if he simply gave the talent back.

And y’know, this is exactly the way many faithless people understand God to be: He doesn’t do jack for them, yet he demands their worship. So they shrug and worship him anyway, figuring they’ll take Pascal’s wager: There’s probably a God, and if they suck up to him adequately, they’ll likely go to heaven when they die.

Yeah, it’s a totally inaccurate, kinda rotten way to look at God. But tons of people do it. Including tons of self-identified Christians. Who imagine God as not doing anything for them, ’cause he turned off the miracles ages ago. He abandoned ’em with nothing but a bible and best wishes. So when they imagine Jesus returning, they expect he’s gonna ask them, “Why should I let you into my kingdom?” and they’re gonna respond, “You said, ‘Whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,’ Jn 3.16 KJV and I’m a ‘whosoever.’ ” They believed as hard as they could. Didn’t do anything more, though. Didn’t obey Jesus’s commands, nor follow the Spirit, nor grow good fruit, nor anything other than lean back on cheap grace.

The master’s response was to rightly call him useless and lazy.

If the master really was a hard man, who exploited his workers as the slave described, then the master concluded, “Therefore you needed to put my silver with the loan sharks!” I went with “loan sharks” instead of “bankers” or “moneylenders” because interest back then was totally exploitative. We’re not talking 4 or 5 percent; think 50. Hence God forbade charging interest in the Law, Ex 22.25 unless the Hebrews dealt with gentiles. Dt 23.20 If the master was such a person, shouldn’t it make sense to adopt similar hard tactics, and turn an immoral type of profit instead of simply burying the money?

Not that Jesus is saying anything goes. Simply that any effort is better than none. An enthusiastic follower who seriously screws up, is better than an apathetic follower who does nothing.

That said, Jesus’s kingdom has no place for non-followers. So out this slave went, into the darkness outside, where people wail and rage because they want the kingdom’s comforts, but want nothing to do with the King.

Thankfully, humanity will have a millennium after Jesus returns to decide if that’s what they really want.