Formations 10.28.2018: Reward

Matthew 25:14-30

A woodcut showing the Parable of the Talents

When Jesus tells a story about masters and slaves, we hope that its promises about God’s kingdom will add up within us. But I’ve noticed more conflict than promise in this story. There is the punishment faced by the last slave. There are the unfair beginnings offered by the master. The parable itself describes conflict between the two most active characters. In this, facts confirm the judgments of both master and slave.

Compared to the other two, the last slave might be worthless (v. 30). He has neither invested the entrusted sum nor has earned any profit. If there can be righteous masters, then the outer darkness might be justified torture. But this act in fact confirms the slave’s charge of harshness. The master has reaped without sowing. He has gathered without scattering seed (v. 26, see v. 14).

Their competing claims arise while Jesus teaches, not simply about the kingdom’s coming, but more completely about whether we’ll see it. He has told a story about ten bridesmaids. Some of these come to knock on the door, only to hear the bridegroom say, “I do not know you” (v. 12). He will momentarily describe a scene where all nations are separated according to who has and hasn’t served him (vv. 34-36). When they all ask when they clothed, fed, or visited Jesus, he answers, as you saw to the least of these, you saw to me (v. 40).

Jesus seems to ask who we’ll believe. Is it the master or the last slave? In the story, the master judges that a slave might be trustworthy or worthless. He judges the last slave to be lazy, but the last slave claims to be boycotting a harsh, unjust economic arrangement.

What do we do with such distinctions in the parable, and what do we do with similar judgments in our communities? This is the power of Jesus’ parables, not to tell us that the kingdom will come, but to ask if we’ll have the wisdom to welcome those with whom it comes.

Discussion

• How do the expectations and examples of financial stewardship compare and contrast between the master and the last slave?
• How do our experiences with wealth and power shape our hearing of this parable? How do they form our understanding of stewardship?
• How might the lessons these characters teach us about stewardship inform our participation in our communities’ arrangements of wealth?

Reference Shelf

Wisdom

As we embark on a discussion of the final three parables (or better said, two parables and a parabolic prophecy) in Matthew’s Gospel, what we must notice about these parables from the outset is that not only are they in sapiential form, but they focus on two of what are the major themes of most sapiential literature—how to live wisely and the consequences of doing or not doing so. Once the exile happened to Judean Jews, the nature of Wisdom literature, like the nature of prophecy, by and large changed, reflecting this shock to the system of God’s people. Prophecy morphed into apocalyptic prophecy, which began to raise increasing issues about the other world and the afterlife, and Wisdom literature increasingly dealt with issues of why bad things happen to God’s people, even if they are godly (e.g., Job, Ecclesiastes). Not surprisingly, in the teaching of an apocalyptic sage like Jesus, who lived after the cross-fertilization of these various traditions, there would be an emphasis on eschatological rectification of things rather than on earlier notions that if one lives a pious life, one will be healthy, wealthy, and wise in this lifetime. It is no accident that the climactic parable of the final discourse in this teaching Gospel is all about a king (notice 25:34) who like wise Solomon is able to separate the sheep from the goats, the pretenders from the contenders (cf. 1 Kgs 3:16-28; 4:29-34).

Throughout this Gospel we have seen the stress on Jesus as both sage and Wisdom come in the flesh, and in the final parable we will hear about Wisdom who has returned once more to earth to take the final reckoning and render final justice. It is this image that is meant to be etched in the hearer and reader’s mind as he or she works through the Passion Narrative, which thus turns out to be a story of regicide, the killing of the King of the Jews, who was not only their king but in fact was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel and offered only them wisdom and knowledge and healing and help.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 458.

Parable

At the outset, the literary form of the parables must be considered. Though in the original instance the actual parable of Jesus was an oral event presented courageously by Jesus as a public storyteller, the modern reader receives each parable as a literary form in a literary gospel. The etymology of the Gk. word for parable (παραβολη) is telling for both instances. The word derives from a preposition (παρα) meaning “beside” or “alongside”; and a verb (βαλλω) meaning “to throw.” Hence a parable by derivation indicates the function of throwing alongside, one thing juxtaposed to another in comparison.

[…]

Biblical parable should be distinguished but not divorced from allegory. An allegory is a series of pictures or cryptograms in a story symbolizing a series of truths in another sphere. Each detail in the allegory functions as a separate metaphor. Madelein Boucher (The Parables) defines allegory broadly as “an extended metaphor in narrator form.” For each detail of the story there is a hidden meaning. Distinguished literary allegories include John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub. The parable on the other hand as one main point. Ian T. Ramsey (Christian Discourse) characterizes parable as leading to a “disclosure point,” while allegory correlates to areas of a discourse. Dan Via (The Parables) points to the greater internal coherence of the parable. The primary distinction between parable and allegory turns upon the singular internal juxtaposition characteristic of the parable.

Peter Rhea Jones, “Parables,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 643.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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