Q & R: Exegeting Matthew 25
Here's the Q:
I am exegeting Matthew's parable of the talents and would appreciate your insight on the tension within this parable (vs. 29-30). The talent is given disproportionately with more expected from where more is given. Yet the one who hides the talent (whom less would be expected) from fear of whom he views as an unjust master, hides the investment and fully returns the principle. I can picture Newbigin's explanation of election as being not one of privilege, but one of sacrifice and service. Yet I am stuck with the third servant being the one who has nothing, and even what he has will be taken away (vs. 29), and thrown "into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
In context, this is followed directly by Matthew's sheep and goats and the kingdom being for those that clothed, fed, and sheltered.
Why does Matthew use judgment as presented negatively for the one who was given the least? It would appear that therefore the least was expected leading to a result that was only focused on preserving the initial capital.
I like going to the tension in a text and wrestling with it, and have really been thankful with your insight. From you workshop in Iowa City, and your interpretation of the gospel esp. in Everything Must Change, what are we to view in this story as justice? As a community, how should we help this third servant who should take more risk rather than hiding the gift that has been given? I will look at Generous Orthodoxy and Secret Message of Jesus to review if you included this text (or Luke's) in any of your examples.
I am preaching on this text this next week, and am really wanting uncover more here rather than settling on traditional orthodoxy of election. I like Barth's universal hope of salvation, and Moltmann's encouragement of Christ's really dying for everyone, but struggle with how text does address a separation and expectation.
Here's the R;
First, let me say that I highly recommend these two extraordinary sites (among many other good ones) for resources on the Revised Common Lectionary:
Both sites come together in this beautiful reflection on the text:
(Thanks Paul Nuechterlein and Sarah Dylan Breuer!)
On Friday before preaching this text in 2005, I came across different readings that change my mind (repentance) about my previous readings of this parable. Actually, it's part of a journey that began with the struggle in interpreting the Parable of the King's Son's Wedding, Matt. 22:1-14 (Proper 23A). Marty Aiken's reading of that parable in a 2003 essay (link to "The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet") refrains from reading the king as God. Matthew's parables do not render for us the Kingdom of God but the "kingdom of heaven" -- and the crucial verse in Matthew, in my opinion, is Matthew 11:12: "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force." In the Matthew 22:1-14, Aiken argues, and I agree, that the kingdom of heaven is represented by the man without his wedding garment who is thrown into the outer darkness at the end. Is it the same for this parable? Should we refrain from reading the master as Christ or God? Should we view the third servant who suffers the violence of his master as representing the kingdom of heaven? If I am to be consistent in my reading of Matthew's Gospel, then I would argue "yes."
Three years ago I was not yet reading Matthew in this way. Much of what is offered below still abides by the previous strategy, a common one in girardian hermeneutics, namely, to read it as a story of self-judgment. The three servants get their due rewards according to how they view their master. The third servant sees his master harshly and so brings the judgment upon himself that accords his view. The reading of self-judgment is an important insight from mimetic theory, and so I leave it for the reader to consider.
But there is still the problem of reading the master as God or Christ: even if we say the third servant sees a harsh master and so gets what he expects, the master still plays along with it. He treats the servant harshly. Is this the God we see in Jesus Christ? Does God give us the treatment we expect and bring upon ourselves? Or do we find in Jesus Christ a more gracious God than that? In the fall of 2005, since Marty Aiken's paper on the King's Son's Wedding in 2003, I have been refraining from reading any major characters as God in all of the parables of the latter half of Matthew. See Proper 20A, Proper 22A, and Proper 23A. To be consistent, we would also refrain from reading the master as God in this parable. I was glad to see that approach corroborated in my research this week. Fellow proponents of mimetic theory, Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, refrain from reading the master as God in their reading of this parable.
But it is Sarah Dylan Breuer's reading (see her page for Proper 28A) that really convinces me, taking in more of the elements of the parable and the context. She points out that the master's comment in vs. 29 might be better translated with something more like the common contemporary phrase: "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." This may be how it is in the real world of human economics, but it cannot be something Jesus is commending in this parable? Breuer writes:
Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that God would commend, let alone imitate? Is this kind of behavior what Jesus expects of God's people? Heck no! If you've got any doubts of that, read what comes immediately after this story: read the prophesy (it isn't a parable) of the sheep and the goats, which tells us that when the Son of Man comes, judgment will not be on the basis of how much money we made, or for that matter on how religious we were or whether we said a "sinner's prayer," but rather on whether we saw that the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family, whether in or out of prison, had food, clothing, and health care. [In short,] ...its message is much closer to "care for those whom the world would leave destitute." Reading the parable in the context in which it appears in Matthew tells us how Jesus finishes that thought: We shouldn't be like the master in the parable because the world in which people like that come out on top is passing away.
So, like Paul and Dylan, my leaning these days is to refrain from reading violent kings or masters in parables as referring to God. My bias is to associate the kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven with that which is rejected, persecuted, killed, banished, tortured ... as Jesus was.
In Matthew 25, then, Jesus and his followers are associated with
a) the servant who refused to play the game of the master's exploitive "Wall Street" economy, and
b) the imprisoned, naked, homeless ...
That doesn't solve all interpretive problems (in fact, it creates some new ones), but it seems to resonate most with the whole tenor of Jesus' life, mission, and message.