Today’s text: Matthew 25: 14-30
Last week, Jesus likened the Kingdom of God at the end times to the experience of 12 maidens awaiting a bridegroom. This week He offers the parable of a business owner and three employees (or a man and three servants). Let’s begin.
A business owner is about to travel abroad. Prior to leaving, he calls his employees into his office. Right away, the language lets us know something significant is happening. The common translation is: “he entrusted his possessions to them.” But the Greek phrasing here has a deeper undercurrent. We could also understand it as: “He transmitted or handed over to them that which belonged to him, that which existed in him, that which subsisted in him.” This is not the moment to pause and reflect on these word choices; it’s enough for now to say that this story is about more than a business owner and his money. We shall soon see.
In any event: this man, on going away, gives one of his servants five talents; to another he gives two; to a third, one; to each according to their capacity. This word “talent” is unfortunate because in English we think of “talent” as a skill. But in fact a “talent” in Jesus’ day was a unit of money. The word comes from talanton and denoted a large unit of money equal to about 6,000 denarii, the Roman coin at the time. A single talent weighed about 75 pounds and was equal, roughly, to 5,500 days’ wages. It’s a lot of money; for easy math, you could think of a talent as a million dollars.
Now two of the servants understand straightaway that their role is not merely to keep the money safe. This money has a purpose; its nature is to grow. These employees understand that they have been appointed as overseers of a dynamic of growth; they need to ensure that the man’s money keeps growing – just as it grew when he was present. So they set to work. The one who received five million engages in business, like his boss; he generates five more; the one who received two million, in like manner, generates two more.
The third employee takes a different approach: he digs a hole in the ground and buries his million.
A long time passes. The business owner returns. He calls his employees to his office to settle accounts. The man who had received 5 million lets his boss know he has made 5 more. The business owner commends him for being faithful in this “small” matter. He informs him he will now set him over greater matters and invites him to share in the joy of his master. The second employee comes forward with a similar story: his boss gave him two million dollars; and he has made two more. The business owner commends him in the same way as the first.
Now the final employee steps forward. He demonstrates a different understanding of the business owner. He sees him as harsh and demanding; harvesting where he does not sow. He is afraid of the responsibility, so he buries the million dollars he received. He gives it back, safe, but without growth.
The business owner becomes angry. Castigates the servant; says that, at the very least, he should have given his money to a bank where it would have generated interest. He takes the million dollars from the third servant and gives it to the man with ten million.
Then he delivers a puzzling summation: “To everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” He then says: “Throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Mt. 25:29-30)
What is the heart of this passage?
I’m curious: What does the business owner represent? What do the talents represent, these sums of millions of dollars? Are they purely a matter of economics? Or does the money represent something deeper? Remember: we are in the realm of metaphor and parable. So look deeper.
Let’s return to the Greek text: The Kingdom of God is like a man going abroad; he calls his servants and paredoken autois ta uparkonta autou (entrusts to them his belongings). Matthew’s word choice is telling. Paredoken is the word employed by Paul to denote the handing on, the passing on, the transmission of teaching, from Jesus, through his apostles, to the early Church (eg. 1 Cor 11:2; 1 Cor 15:3). It’s the transmission of the deposit of faith. Paredoken is a kind of sacred word, used of Mosaic teaching too; Matthew would have known it. So we might suspect that this businessman, who later context tells us represents Jesus, is transmitting to his employees (to us) something substantial, something holy; as though from master to disciple. But what is he transmitting?
Ta uparkonta autou (his belongings). Uparkonta is an even more particular word choice. Uparko is a verb; it means “to be, to exist, to come forth, to begin.” It can be used as a possessive participle, as it is here, to denote: “one’s possessions, belongings, property.” But one cannot fail to note the underlying depth to this phrase. It could be more literally translated as: “that which is of his, that which exists of his; and thus his being; his existing, his subsisting.” Or: his nature.
Matthew is making a point, I think. The initial layer of meaning is that this man is transmitting his economic nature to his employees. There is an expectation in this exchange. Just as a general might leave his soldiers on the battlefield with the expectation that, if there is an attack in his absence, they will fight and defend; so this businessman leaves his financial affairs in the hands of his servants. In his absence, they are to continue the growth of his economic affairs, just as though He were there. The absence of the man does not change the nature of the man.
And so to the deeper layer of meaning: as the businessman makes his employees participants in his economic nature, Jesus makes us participants in His divine nature. He calls us to act, in his absence, in accord with the nature He has transmitted to us.
God’s Nature Transmitted From Father to Child
This idea that God’s nature is transmitted to us is richly supported by other texts. In Jn 1:12-13, John tells us that when we receive Jesus we become a child of God, through a birth that is not of the flesh, but of God. In Jn 6:56, Jesus tells us that when we eat His body and blood, we dwell in Him and He in us. And in Jn 14:23, Jesus says that when we hold His word in our hearts, He and the Father come to us and make their dwelling in us. What are these texts saying other than that Jesus transmits to us a participation in his life, a share in his nature?
It’s the ultimate equity stake – which we are called to make fruitful.
How Can I Take this to Prayer?
“For it will be just as a man who was going on a journey; he called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability. Then he went away.” (Mt. 25: 14-15)
Lord Jesus Christ, you enable me to participate in your divine nature. Help me to recognize who you call me to be, that I might act in accord with your nature; in accord with your generosity; your mercy; your truth; in accord with your love. O let me not bury this gift of yours in my heart! Have mercy on me.