Matthean Apocalypse and the Parable of the Talents
S. Joel Garver
For it will be like when a man going on a journey called his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five more talents. So also, he who had the two talents made two more talents. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money
Now after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.”
His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful slave; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”
And he who had the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two more talents.”
His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful slave; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”
He who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew you to be a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
But his master answered him, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not scattered? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For everyone who has, will be given more, and he will have abundance; but from him who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The Context of Matthew’s Gospel
I have chosen to examine this parable because I think it provides a site from which the larger issues of Matthew’s Gospel may be addressed. After all, any exegesis of a Matthean pericope will have to begin by situating it within the overall context of that Gospel—its author, setting, purposes, structure, themes, and so on. In the case of Matthew (as with any of the Gospels), that is a project fraught with peril given the kinds of disagreements that exist regarding such matters. Moreover, given the intent and limitations of this exegetical essay, I cannot possibly examine the full range of opinion. Thus, I have had to make choices without always giving the kind of argumentation necessary to sustain them.
Date, Place, and Author
Those who are honest admit that we do not know who wrote Matthew, when or where. Still, much can be surmised. For instance, Matthew has impressed many as the most “Jewish” of the Gospels in its content, typology (e.g., Jesus as a new Moses), idiom (e.g., “the heavens”), citation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and preoccupation with the Pharisees. That does not in itself, however, decisively position the author in relation to the Judaisms of his day. Nevertheless, Anthony Saldarini makes some provocative, and to my mind cogent, suggestions in this regard (1991, 1994).
According to Saldarini, the Matthean community is (predominantly) one of “deviant” Jews who, while believers in Jesus, still consider themselves thoroughly Jewish. Nevertheless, they have been stigmatized and ostracized by the leaders of the dominant Jewish (and likely, I think, Pharasaic) communities. This hypothesis explains the assertive “Jewishness” of Matthew’s Gospel and the peculiar contours of his anti-Pharisee polemics. For Saldarini, it also places the Matthean community within the debates and struggles of post-AD 70 Judaism as it attempted to retain its identity without its temple and many of its institutions. These debates are also reflected in Josephus, the earliest strata of the Mishnah, and certain first-century apocalyptic works. The geographical context of Matthew, then, is also likely Palestinian.
Still, while I am swayed by his notion of “deviance”, I remain unconvinced by Saldarini’s dating of Matthew to the AD 80-90s or, indeed, to after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70. My doubts stem from several considerations:
 The period between AD 30 and 70 appears to be one that is characterized by ongoing struggles between the emerging Christian community as a Jewish movement and the wider Jewish community, especially in certain of its more Pharisaic expressions. It seems likely, in fact, that while the earliest Christian movement encompassed believers from various strands of Judaism, Pharisaic and sympathizing Jews accounted for a large part. There is ample evidence for these assertions:
[a] Jesus’ repeated interactions with the Pharisees are a prominent feature of the accounts of all four Gospels, bearing witness to a particular interest in Jesus among Pharisaic Jews in his own lifetime.
[b] Several prominent figures in the early church are identifiable as Pharisaic in outlook or background (Jn 3:1-15; 7:50-52; 19:39; Acts 15:13-21; 21:17-25; 22:3; 23:6; 26:5; Gal 1:14; Phil 3:5-6; also see, e.g., Josephus, Antiquities 20:200-2).
[c] The struggles of the early church regarding the terms under which Gentiles were to be included give evidence for the persisting influence of Pharasaic sympathies in the early church (Acts 11:2; 15:1-5; 21:20; Gal 2:12; Eph 2:11; Phil 3:2-6).
Thus, a context of “deviance” is characteristic of the early church’s struggles for identity during the entire period from AD 30 – 70, even in the Pauline diaspora churches. Such a struggle would, it seems, be all the more acute in a Palestinian context, among believers who are predominantly Jewish. Paul’s interaction with James in Acts 21 and the subsequent events bear some further testimony to this, as well as to the impossibility of isolating events in a Palestinian context from those that affected the church in the diaspora (cf., e.g., Acts 21:27; also recall Paul’s collections for the churches of Palestine).
 This ongoing struggle would likely have intensified as the Jerusalem temple was completed and, in the early to mid-60s, as conflicts with the Roman authorities became more grave. Even if few Pharisees held important office and they no longer held the sway they once had under the later Hasmoneans, certain Pharisaic leaders and sympathizers most likely played a crucial role in the unfolding of the Jewish war (e.g., Simon ben Gamaliel, Ananias ben Sadok, and possibly John of Gischala; see Josephus, War 2.451; 4.159; Life 74-6, 189-98, 290).
Moreover, growing (but likely long-standing) divisions between Pharisaic groups seem to have fallen along roughly Shammaite and Hillelite lines, with the Shammaites likely taking a more “zealous” approach. Such division seems evident already in the Gospels and Acts with those Pharisees who are more open to Jesus’ ministry (Lk 7:36-50; 13:31; Jn 3:1-15; 7:50-52; 19:39; Acts 5:33-40, Gamaliel being a Hillelite; 23:9). Paul, on the other hand, identifies himself as having been within the more “zealous” party (Acts 22:3; Phil 3:6).
As just one example of this divide, the enforcement of the “18 Decrees” (mShabb. 1.4; tShabb. 1.16-20; etc.) came in AD 65 or 66 at the instigation of the Shammaites over the objections of the Hillelites (Hengel 1989:200-6). The decrees’ more exacting separation between Jews and Gentiles would have proven quite problematic for Palestinian Jewish believers in Jesus who, whatever else they may have required, did not require the circumcision of Gentile converts.
 This history can be read in tandem with wider conflicts we see reflected in the New Testament:
[a] the heightened tensions between Paul and certain Jews, including some Pharisees, at the end of Acts (in the late AD 50s; Acts 21:17- 16:32)
[b] the ongoing struggle of Paul against Christians, evidently both Jewish and Gentile, who vied for what seems a more Pharasaic interpretation of Christian piety, as reflected in his prison epistles (likely written from Rome in early 60s; esp. Phil 3:1-6; Col 2:9-17)
[c] the repeated exhortations of the author of Hebrews to his Jewish (and likely Palestinian) audience to hold fast to the Gospel in the midst of tensions with mainstream Judaism (almost certainly prior to AD 70, given the present tense in reference to the temple-rites and priesthood, but with an eye toward impending disaster; see esp. Heb 8:13; 10:23-25; 12:26-29; 13:12-14).
Given this overall picture of the emergence of churches from within Judaism, given the apparent escalation of tensions between Christian and non-Christian Jews throughout the period from AD 30 – 70, and given the growing tensions with mainstream Judaism in the AD 60s, it seems to me that the 60s are as likely a time for the composition of Matthew as the years following the fall of Jerusalem.
Relation to Mark and Luke
The synoptic problem is as intractable as ever and notoriously complex. I do not believe, however, that the synoptic problem must be solved in order to do profitable exegesis of the Gospels. Each of the Gospels can be taken on its own terms and as having its own theology quite apart from determining how, for example, Matthew supposedly edited Mark when he employed it as a source. After all, the question of the interrelations between the Gospels would, I think, be better constructed from within a larger hypothesis about the historical Jesus and the earliest church that attempts to take account of all the available data. And such a hypothesis as that will always have to employ some preliminary conclusions that have already been drawn from the Gospels taken as a whole and taken individually.
That being said, I do find the arguments for Markan priority to be more persuasive than the Augustinian alternative (though Wenham 1992 gives the latter theory a winsome defense; of course, some still maintain there is no essential interdependence among the Synoptics; see Linnemann 1992). I am unpersuaded, however, by the Q hypothesis and am inclined towards the suggestion that Luke had both Matthew and Mark at his disposal along with other materials (see Sanders and Davies 1989; Goulder 1978; Drury 1985). In the following exegesis these issues will be mostly peripheral except for a brief treatment of the relation of our pericope to the parable of the minas in Luke 19:11- 27.
Themes and Literary Structure
Having considered some broader concerns, let us now turn to the specific interests of Matthew’s Gospel and its literary structure. In terms of overall literary structure and motifs, it is likely that in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus as Messiah and son of David is being presented in the guise of a new Moses (for extensive elaboration of this typology, see Allison 1993). Matthew introduces Jesus as the one who will “save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21), but given his opening genealogy, this has, from the start, a very specific connotation (Powell 1992 notes how this statement in Mt 1:21 is programmatic for the entire Gospel; see also Kingsbury 1988).
By dividing the genealogy of Jesus into three sets of fourteen generations, Matthew calls attention to three decisive moments in the history of Israel: the call of Abraham, the reign of David, and the exile (Mt 1:1, 17). The allusions to Abraham and David invoke significant promises in regard to the land (Ge 12:1-3; 15:18-21; 17:1-8) and to the Messianic king (2 Sa 7:1-17; Ps 2; 110; Eze 34:32-24; etc.), promises that are rendered problematic given that Matthew’s third set of generations appears to leave Israel in exile (Mt 1:11-12, 17). In addition, since three sets of fourteen are also six sets of seven, he intimates that with the birth of Jesus as Messiah, something new, final, and climactic is about to emerge—a seventh generational set, evoking and anticipating the completion of Israel’s history. Thus, if this Messiah will indeed “save his people from their sins,” he will do so particularly as someone who leads them out of their exile, that is, as a new Moses leading a new exodus.
This Mosaic theme is carried throughout the rest of the Gospel in many ways (e.g., mountain locations, Mt 4:8; 5:1; 14:23; 15:29; etc.; the forty days and nights of Mt 4:2; cf. Ex 34:28). It is also the case that Matthew begins where the books of Moses begin: “an account of the genealogy” (Mt 1:1; Gk: biblios geneseos), as easily translated, “the book of Genesis” or “the book of the generation” (cf. Ge 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; etc.). Moreover, toward the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry we find him expounding the Torah with authority upon a mountain (Mt 5- 7), just as YHWH had given the law from Sinai in Exodus (Ex 19-23). At the end of Jesus’ ministry we again find him upon a mountain, now blessing his disciples and exhorting them to disciple the nations (Mt 28:16-20), just as Moses had blessed and exhorted Israel to conquer the land before climbing Nebo at the end of Deuteronomy (Dt 32:48-34:8).
In fact, Deuteronomy may lie behind Matthew in other ways as well. The blessings that stand at the head of Jesus’ message to Israel are matched by the “woes” that mark the end (compare Mt 5:3-11 with 23:13-33). Actually, the overall structure of Matthew, alternating between narratives and discourses, forms one large chiasm in which the blessings and woes are in parallel (Lohr 1961:427). The prominent place of this particular feature recalls the climax of Moses’ great Deuteronomic message, the proclamation of covenant sanctions to Israel: blessings if they obey, and curses if they do not (Dt 27-30).
This also recalls the initial theme of exile (and restoration) since exile is the fullness of the curses that Moses announces for violation of the covenant. Nevertheless, Moses also promises that, even when Israel is exiled, if they “return to YHWH,” then he will gather them once again and return them to their land (Dt 30:1-5). In a number of ways, then, Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses leading his people to return to their God.
But Matthew’s Jesus is not merely a new Moses. He also embodies the story of Israel in his own person and ministry, experiencing and accomplishing in himself what the nation itself needs in order to receive the blessings of the covenant. This, in part, explains Matthew’s otherwise cavalier use texts from the Hebrew scriptures, texts which appear to refer to Israel, but are applied instead to Jesus (e.g., Mt 1:23 quoting Isa 7:14; Mt 2:15 quoting Hos 11:1; etc.). Given this typology, Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem, the events of the passion, his death, and his resurrection, seem to be understood by Matthew in terms of exile and restoration as the focal point of Israel’s own story, at least in part (see Wright 1992:387-389).
These Mosaic themes and the typology of exile and restoration culminate in Jesus’ final words to his disciples. As followers of Jesus (significantly, Greek for “Joshua”) his disciples will forever take possession of the promised land, no longer confined to only Palestine, but encompassing all nations. In this context, Jesus’ promise to his disciples, “I am with you always” (Mt 28:19), echoes God’s word to Israel before crossing the Jordan,
YHWH your God himself will cross before you. He will destroy these nations before you and you shall dispossess them. Joshua will also cross over before you, as YHWH promised…Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them because it is YHWH your God who goes with you. (Dt 31:3, 6)
As Joshua (Mt 1:21) and Immanuel (“God with us,” Mt 1:22), Matthew’s Jesus fulfills both aspects of the typology.
With this general configuration of Matthew’s Gospel in mind, then, let us turn to the specifics of the parable of the talents.
The Parable of the Talents
As I remarked above, the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30) is part of the final lengthy section of discourse in Matthew’s Gospel, a section that lies in parallel with the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed, like the Sermon, beginning with Mt 24:3, Jesus’ final great speech continues upon a mountain, in this case the Mount of Olives (and thus the traditional appellation: “The Olivet Discourse”). And as I noted, these parallel sections begin similarly, with blessing (The Beatitudes of Mt 5:3-12) and woe (Mt 23:13-36). The similarities, however, do not stop there.
Several turns of phrase that appeared in the Sermon on the Mount, recur only in the final discourse: God as the Father in heaven (Mt 6:9 and 23:9); gifts at the altar (Mt 5:23-24 and 23:18-19); oathtaking (Mt 5:33-37 and 23:16-22); hypocrisy (Mt 6:2, 16; 7:5 and Mt 23:13, 15, 23, etc.); acting in order to be seen by others (Mt 6:5 and 23:5); the persecution of the prophets and the righteous (Mt 5:10-11 and Mt 23:34-35); and so on.
Likewise, the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), with its implied warnings and ending parables, anticipates Matthew’s final discourse (Mt 23-25) of judgment against the scribes and Pharisees, against Jerusalem and the temple, and against those who are unprepared for judgment, culminating in a set of parables. Jesus begins his Sermon by outlining covenantal and eschatological blessings that will come to those who obey God and are restored from exile, blessings that will only come, he warns, after persecution because of Jesus (Mt 5:2-12). Jesus’ Olivet Discourse later predicts that the accursed Pharisees and scribes (“woe to you!”) will be among these persecutors (Mt 23:29-37). He continued his Sermon by warning that though Jerusalem is a city on a hill, a light among the nations and the salt of the earth, she has hidden her light and lost her saltiness, and thus will be trampled underfoot (Mt 5:13-14; cf. Isa 42:6; 49:6: 60:3; 2 Ki 2:19-22). Likewise, Jesus’ later Discourse anticipates that Jerusalem will be left desolate, with not one stone left upon another (Mt 23:15, 38; 24:2).
Toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his disciples to enter by the narrow gate and keep to the narrow road that leads to life, for the gate is wide and the road is broad that lead to destruction, and many enter through there (Mt 7:13-14). Likewise, Jesus later predicts, in his Olivet Discourse, that when destruction is near, many will be led astray, but only those who persevere to the end will be delivered (Mt 24:3-5, 11-13). Jesus’ Sermon continues with the teaching that a tree will be known by its fruit and through their bad fruit, false prophets will be recognized, to be cut down and thrown into the fire (Mt 7:15-20). Similarly, the Olivet Discourse continues with another lesson from a tree: when the fig leaves appear, summer approaches; and so when the signs Jesus gives have come to pass, destruction is near (Mt 24:32-33; a leafy, but fruitless fig tree has already served as a sign of coming disaster, Mt 21:18-21).
The Sermon on the Mount concludes with a warning and a parable. The warning is to those who, with disobedient and unprepared presumption, cry “Lord, Lord” on “that day,” a day of reckoning, and will be told “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Mt 7:21-32). The parable tells of two houses: one wisely built upon the rock of obedience that will stand in the coming flood of judgment and one foolishly built upon sand of disobedience that will fall with a crash (Mt 7:24-27). Likewise, in the Olivet Discourse, after predicting the destruction and fall of the Jerusalem temple (the desolate house, Mt 23:38), Jesus compares those days to a flood like Noah’s, concluding with several parables of those who say, “Lord, Lord,” who disobey, who presume, and who are unprepared. In the day of reckoning, they will be told, “I never knew you” and sent away (Mt 24:37-25:46).
Clearly, then, there are significant and deep parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse. Both speak of impending judgment, focused particularly upon Jerusalem and the temple, if Israel does not live the Torah as a light to the nations, particularly as that Torah, with its promises of return and restoration (Lev 26:40-45; Dt 30), is being fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus as the new Moses. Those who resist Jesus, then, are like the hard-hearted Pharaoh of the exodus from Egypt or like the persecuting Babylonians and meddling Samaritans of a later exile and return. In this regard, Matthew’s focus seems to be particularly upon the Pharisees and scribes, though not to the exclusion of the temple officials—and therein fits the invective we find in Matthew 23. It is also fairly clear that such “apocalyptic” discourse is not at all foreign to what the Gospels otherwise give us of Jesus’ teaching and that, in fact, it is in keeping with Jewish restoration theology and interlaced with what are often regarded as more “sapiential” sayings materials.
The context of the parable of the talents has already been drawn in broad strokes. Now we may consider the details more carefully. Given what we have already seen, it seems to me that the entirety of Matthew 24:1-35 (and its parallels in Mk 13:1-31//Lk 21:5-33) is a prediction of the impending judgment that is going to come upon Jerusalem and her temple and its immediate effects and significance (cp. Mt 23:36 and 24:34). Such a prediction could have, quite plausibly, come from the lips of Jesus (Borg 1984:163-199). To my mind, there is nothing in this prophecy that suggests that Matthew knew of the details of the historical war of the AD 60s. In fact, some details suggest quite the opposite (e.g., fleeing to the mountains, Mt 24:16, would have been out of the question since they were teeming with Titus’ armies; Josephus, War 5.67-70). Were Matthew (or Mark) a witness to these events or had historical knowledge of them, we might expect that he would have more drastically revised Jesus’ words to fit what he knew of the situation.
Indeed, these predictions are less “history in advance” (or after the fact, vaticinium ex eventu) than they are literary reworkings and interweavings of the prophecies that fill the scrolls of the Hebrew prophets, fused into Jesus’ restoration theology (e.g., Isa 13-14; 52; Jer 50-51; Eze 32; Dan 9; Joel 2-3; Mic 7; Zech 14; etc.). In this regard, they are not so different from what seems to have been a central part of the eschatology of the Qumran community in the years prior to AD 70 (Sanders 1992). While this perspective has been recently and, to my mind, convincingly advanced by N.T. Wright (1996:333-368), such an interpretation is hardly a novelty and finds attestation from the ancient church (e.g., Chrysostom Homilies on Mt, 75-76; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III.5, 7; Lactantius, Divine Institutes IV.21) and quite often in more recent centuries (e.g., John Lightfoot 1658; Thomas Manton 1693; John Owen 1721; Thomas Newton 1754; Adam Clarke 1837; Moses Stuart 1845; James Stuart Russell 1887; Milton Terry 1898; Mauro 1921; Kik 1948; Campbell 1954; Caird 1963; 1965:20-22; France 1985; etc.).
We must also carefully note, however, the contrast we find Jesus making in Matthew 24:34-36 (compare Mark 13:30- 32):
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day and hour no one knows—neither the messengers of the heavens, nor the son, but only the Father.
On one hand, Jesus affirms here and elsewhere (e.g., Mt 10:23; 16:28; 23:36; Mk 9:1; Lk 9:27) that this coming of the kingdom in power and the vindication of the son of man is imminent, something that will come to pass within a generation as a judgment of earthshaking proportions and as an outworking of his own ministry (including, of course, his resurrection). In fact, according to Matthew, Jesus tells Caiaphas, “From now on, you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 24:64). Furthermore, these are events for which there are discernible and unmistakable signs (Mt 24:32-33).
On the other hand, Jesus intimates that there are further events to unfold (“heaven and earth shall pass away”) of which even he (“the son”) has no idea when or how they will come to pass. In part, Jesus’ statement is simply an affirmation of the truth and security of his prophetic word (in line with the imagery of Isa 40:8; 51:6; Jer 31:36; etc.). But it also seems to envisage a time in which the entire cosmic order will, at the very least, be radically transformed. Of that time uniquely, Jesus claims to know virtually nothing. As a first century Jew whose views were largely consonant with the prevailing restoration eschatology, Jesus would undoubtedly have trusted that YHWH would some day raise the dead, judge the nations, and set the creation aright (e.g., Mt 19:28; 22:29-32). It may well be the case that Jesus envisioned such a further transformation as continuous with his own vindication and the judgment upon Jerusalem. His primary focus, however, was upon events that were to occur within a generation.
Our consideration of the parable of the talents, then, will have to take account of this immediate context of judgment upon Jerusalem, the temple, and Israel. The parable appears among a collection of similar parables: the comparison to the days of Noah (if that is truly parabolic; Mt 24:37-42), the house owner (24:43-44), the faithful and wicked slaves (24:45-51), the wise and foolish virgins (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). These parables are attached to the earlier discourse concerning the imminent events surrounding AD 70 and so would appear intended by Matthew, at least, to be interpreted in that context.
In Mark 13, however, Jesus’ discourse is immediately followed by a parabolic warning that has no parallels (Mk 13:33-37), but is echoed in some ways by Matthew’s parable of the talents (25:14-30) and Luke’s parable of the minas (19:12-27). Otherwise, as far as Mark is concerned, Matthew’s parable collection is entirely absent. In Luke 21 Jesus’ discourse is immediately followed by a non- parabolic warning to stay alert, a warning that seems to have no direct parallels at all (Lk 21:34-36). As for Matthew’s collection of parables, they are arranged so differently in Luke, so it is an open question how these parables are to be interpreted there, found in other contexts, if at all.
Matthew’s parable of the days of Noah (Mt 24:37-42) is paralleled by Luke’s parable of the days of Noah and Lot (Lk 17:26-36) which is placed well before the arrival of Jesus and disciples in Jerusalem, but is also connected to materials that appear earlier in Matthew’s Olivet discourse (Lk 17:20-24//Mt 24:23-27; Lk 17:37//Mt 24:28). Moreover, Luke places the parable in the context of “this generation” (Lk 17:25).
Matthew’s parables of the house owner and of the faithful and wicked servants (Mt 24:43-51) also come as a pair in Luke (Lk 12:39-48) and in a much earlier context—though interestingly on the heels of woes against the Pharisees (Lk 11:37-54//Mt 23:4, 23-35) and materials that parallel the Sermon on the Mount (Lk 11:33-36//Mt 5:15; 6:22-23; Lk 12:6- 7, 22-29//Mt 6:25-24; Lk 12:33-34//Mt 6:19-21). Matthew’s parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Mt 25:1-13) has no direct parallel in Luke, though it does resonate in his account of the servants who keep their lamps burning until the bridegroom comes (Lk 12:35-38) and is placed immediately prior to Luke’s version of the parable of the house owner. The parallel between Matthew’s parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30) and Luke’s parable of the minas (Lk 19:11-27) has already been noted, though Luke’s version is given as Jesus nears Jerusalem, immediately before the triumphal entry. Thus the context, as well as the content of the parable concerns Jerusalem and the coming of her king.
Matthew’s final parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt 25:31-46) is entirely without parallel in the synoptics, thought there is a faint echo of its conclusion (Mt 25:46) in John’s Gospel (Jn 5:29).
What Matthew collects together in one place, Luke distributes and rearranges into several. Even so, Luke’s Gospel still seems to make similar connections to the imminent disaster that hangs over Israel and Jerusalem, at least insofar as the same materials are present in Luke in some form. Thus, it seems, that despite their otherwise notable differences, both Matthew and Luke saw a close connection between these parables and Jesus’ predictions of a judgment soon at hand. Whether this connection is to be accounted for by reference to a common source (that is, Q) or Luke’s reworking of Matthew, it seems reasonable to suppose that Luke had independent sources as well, given how and the extent to which the parallels vary. Thus, in light of this multiple attestation, it appears to me that Matthew’s linking of the parable collection with impending disaster entitles us to take it as a link that Jesus himself had made.
Given the preceding discussion, what then is the meaning of Jesus’ parable of the talents? In interpreting the parable, we may still do so from two different standpoints: [a] from that of Jesus’ own ministry and teaching and [b] from that of Matthew and his community. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
Within the Horizon of Jesus’ Ministry
From all we have seen, Jesus seems to have told this parable in relation to his other warnings of impending judgment. The point of the parables prior to that of the talents seems to be to keep watch and be ready. Despite the signs of coming judgment that Jesus has given—signs which show when the predicted events are “near, at the gate” (Mt 24:33)—those who hope to escape judgment must be diligent to watch for the signs and remain obedient, lest they be overtaken when the time comes.
The parable of the talents represents a shift in focus. The focus is less on keeping watch, than it is upon continued productivity and obedience, a theme that was not entirely absent up to this point (see Mt 24:45-46; 25:4), but now achieves prominence. The time of approaching judgment, according to the parable, is like a man going on a journey, entrusting property to his servants (Mt 25:14). Given the wider themes of exile and restoration, Jesus is suggesting that YHWH has withdrawn from Israel for a “long time” in her continued exile, but has left her with work to do. As he taught in the Sermon on the Mount, Israel was to be salt and light among the nations, seeking the kingdom and its treasures, bearing good fruit. YHWH, however, will soon be returning to Zion in order to “settle accounts” (Mt 25:19).
The question Jesus is posing to his disciples is, who will be ready for this return? Those who have heeded Jesus’ message will be prepared, since they have been “faithful in a few things,” putting their covenant privileges to work in order to bring greater blessing. They will have a share in their lord’s joy (Mt 25:16-17, 20-23).
The one who has not heeded Jesus’ message, however, has kept his privilege for himself out of fear. He is like one who hides his lamp under a bowl or does not bear good fruit (Mt 5:15; 7:19). Or he is like one who refuses to enter the reign of the heavens or neglects the weightier matters of the law (Mt 23:13, 23). From such a person, what he has will be taken away and given to others; he himself will fall under judgment (Mt 25:24-30).
There are some parallels here with the parable of the wicked tenants (Mt 21:33-34). In both cases, the owner or master goes away on a journey. In both cases, there was a failure to produce, whether fruit or money. In both cases, what was once possessed, is taken away and given to others. And in both cases, the larger context is one of judgment against the Pharisees and the Jerusalem leadership (Mt 21:45; 23:1-24:2). Given these parallels, we may surmise that the point is essentially the same. Those to whom YHWH has given great advantage (many of the Pharisees, the Jerusalem hierarchy) have failed to produce more, preferring to keep it for themselves, especially evident in their reaction to Jesus’ own ministry. Accordingly, they will suffer in the impending judgment, and what was once theirs will be taken away and given to those who will be faithful. Jesus’ message in this parable, then, is perfectly consistent with his wider ministry as well as with the teachings collected together by Matthew into the Olivet Discourse. This raises the question, furthermore, of how this collection, and this parable in particular, might have functioned for Matthew and his community.
Within the Horizon of Matthew’s Gospel
As we saw toward the beginning, it is reasonable to suppose that Matthew’s community was one marked as “deviant”, his Gospel bearing witness to an attempt to (re)assert an identity as a Jewish community in the face of growing opposition and exclusion. If this is correct, then much of what we have already observed can be seen in that light.
Matthew’s arrangement of the Sermon on the Mount simultaneously provides a renewed understanding of what it means to fulfill Torah, a prediction of persecution for those who do, and a warning against those who fail to fulfill Torah. The later woes and the Olivet Discourse indict the leadership of Israel for their failures, fill out the shape that judgment will take, and provide further encouragement to be alert, obedient, and productive in light of the coming judgment.
It seems to me that for Matthew and his community, his Gospel calls them to persevere in following Jesus as a more authentic expression of their Jewishness and so that they may enjoy the blessings that he has promised. At the same time, the Gospel functions as an invitation to all those who may hear to join them in this renewed understanding of Torah in relation to Jesus. The warnings of judgment and the indictments of the leadership, work both to motivate community allegiance and to position the community as one that is to be vindicated by YHWH in the coming judgment. Understood in this way, it seems reasonable again to situate Gospel and its community in the years leading up to AD 70.
From this perspective, the parable of the talents can be seen as embodying the hope and struggles of the Matthean community to produce more with the blessings they already have, especially in light of impending judgment and vindication. When that time comes, however, those (either within or without the community) who have failed to produce, adopting instead the failings of the Jewish leadership, will be judged and their current privileges taken away. What once belonged to those who are judged, will be given to those who have been faithful in a few things, thereby vindicating their labors. In particular, perhaps, we should see an implication that Matthew’s community will replace the corrupt leadership of the Pharisees and the temple hierarchy (thus Saldarini 1994).
An unfortunate complicating feature of the Olivet Discourse has been set aside up to this point, a feature which, it seems, is more problematic for Matthew’s arrangement of materials than perhaps for Jesus’ own teaching. As I stressed above, from the point of view of Jesus’ ministry, the coming judgment was focused primarily upon Jerusalem, the temple, and the leadership, an event which would be a vindication of his own prophetic ministry and of his followers. While Jesus almost certainly looked forward to a greater renewal of all things, including the final resurrection from the dead, he claims no detailed knowledge of those events or their relationship to the impending judgment, though it is likely that he saw them as, in some way, connected.
Jesus’ belief in a final resurrection is clear from his discussion with the Sadducees in Matthew 22:29-32 and its parallels (Mk 12:24-27//Lk 20:34-38). Likewise, the resurrection is a prominent feature of the beliefs of the earliest church. For example (and not surprisingly as a former Pharisee), Paul holds a firm belief in the final resurrection (e.g., 1 Th 4:13-18; Ro 8:11-25; 1 Co 15) and, by the time he wrote 2 Corinthians at least, did not expect to remain alive until it happened (2 Co 1:8-9; 5:1-10).
Nevertheless, Paul is also aware of a more imminent judgment (1 Th 2:14-16; 2 Th 2:1-12) which, like the synoptic apocalypse, results from killing the prophets (1 Th 2:15; cf. Mt 23:33-38), is associated with the temple (2 Th 2:4), and is preceded by powerful false signs and wonders (2 Th 2:9-12; cf. Mt 24:24; see also D. Wenham 1984). This judgment, however, cannot be identified with the coming of Jesus at the resurrection of the dead (1 Th 4:13-18; 2 Th 1:3-12), not least because Paul supposes the imminent event to be something that might only be known by a letter or report (2 Th 2:2).
In a similar fashion, Luke also invites the twin expectations of a impending judgment upon Jerusalem (Lk 21, esp. 21:20, 24; Acts 6:11-7:1, 42-43, 48-52) and a more ultimate renewal of all things, including judgment and resurrection (Lk 20:27-40; Acts 1:6-11; 17:30-32; 24:15). Luke may have been writing after AD 70 (given some of his details, Lk 19:43; 21:20-24), but I find nothing in the Lukan Heilsgeschichte that is foreign to the basic oulook of the synoptic tradition.
The complicating feature of the Olivet Discourse is not the bare possibility that Jesus and the early church may have countenanced both an impending judgment and vindication as well as a more ultimate one. The complication lies in the fact that Matthew closes the Olivet Discourse with a parable (the sheep and goats, Mt 25:31-46) that appears to refer to that more ultimate end. While it is perhaps possible to read this parable in light of the destruction of Jerusalem (as some have, e.g. Terry 1898:249-252), it is an unlikely interpretation. The parable opens not in the context of Israel, but of all the nations (Mt 25:32). Moreover, the initial image is one in which “the son of man comes…[to] sit on his throne in heavenly glory” (Mt 25:31), an image that Jesus himself associates with “the renewal of all things” and, thus, final judgment (Mt 19:28). Likewise, the parable ends with a phrase (Mt 25:46) that in John’s Gospel seems to be echoed in a reference to the final resurrection (Jn 5:29). And yet this parable is collected with other parables and a wider discourse that seem to have reference to a judgment upon Jerusalem that will come within that generation.
We need not suppose that Jesus himself had made the connection so closely. After all, he may have told these parables on many occasions, in varying forms, and with diverse contexts. Nevertheless, Matthew has gathered them together in one place, perhaps in light of their common themes. In doing so, however, he sets the sheep and goats upon the heels of the parable of the talents, and thereby casts suspicion upon our earlier discussion of how he might have taken that parable.
I do not have a neat solution to this difficulty. Nevertheless, I do have a suggestion. It seems to me that Matthew is happy to allow for multiple modes of fulfillment when it comes to the genre of prophecy (which, as we have seen, is not to be sharply distinguished from parable; indeed, a number of the Hebrew prophets give us prophetic parables of judgment). We have already encountered the possibility of multiple fulfillment within the Olivet Discourse’s own employment of prophetic typology: the “desolating sacrilege” (Mt 24:15 and Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11), times of unparalleled suffering (Mt 24:21 and Dan 12:1; Joel 2:2), cosmic metaphors (Mt 24:29 and Isa 13:10; 34:4; Eze 32:7; Joel 2:10-11), the “son of man coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 24:30; 26:64 and Dan 7:13); etc. Thus, we cannot preclude the Olivet Discourse itself, even in the mouth of Jesus, from being subject to multiple fulfillment (Gundry 1994:490-491; contra, e.g., Terry 1890:493-499).
Moreover, we can witness Matthew’s own use of the Hebrew prophets in his various fulfillment formulae: the virginal conception of Immanuel (Mt 1:23 and Isa 7:14), YHWH calling his son from Egypt (Mt 2:15 and Hos 11:1), Rachel’s weeping (Mt 2:18 and Jer 40:1), the light in darkness (Mt 4:15-16 and Isa 9:1-2), etc. In most of these cases the original intent of the prophecy is so perspicuous that it is implausible to suggest that Matthew saw them as fulfilled only in Jesus. Rather, it seems that Matthew sees Jesus as further and ultimately fulfilling these prophecies as the one in whom all of God’s purposes were finding their culmination. If this, however, represents Matthew’s more general approach to prophecy, then once again we cannot rule out the possibility that Matthew’s collection of apocalyptic materials may possess a multivalent range of fulfillment. This prospect is all the more likely if we allow that Matthew, as a Pharasaic-aligned Jew, looked forward to an ultimate renewal of all things (Mt 19:28), a general resurrection of the dead (Mt 22:23-33), and a final judgment of all nations (Mt 25:32; 28:19 in contrast to 10:6, 23) that went beyond any kind of disaster befalling Judea and Jerusalem.
Taking account of these complications, we can reconsider the collection of parables that Matthew places together after Jesus’ prediction of near judgment. From this perspective the parables can be seen as describing final judgment as well, an event that will take place in conjunction with the resurrection of the dead and the final renewal of all things. We can interpret them then in ways that are likely more in keeping with how they are conventionally understood. So, in reference to the parable of the talents, the slaves represent God’s covenant people among all the nations throughout the period from Jesus’ ascension (the lord’s “going on a journey”) to the final judgment (his return “after a long time” in order to “settle accounts”). Those who have been “good and faithful” servants—by producing more with what blessings they have been given—will be rewarded and enter into eternal life (the master’s “joy”). Those who prove “wicked,” “lazy,” and “worthless” servants—by doing nothing with what blessings they have been given—will lose whatever they have and will go away into eternal punishment (“outer darkness”).
The Lukan Parallel
One final matter to be considered is the Lukan parallel to the parable of the talents: the parable of the minas (Lk 19:11-27). Despite similarities, the differences are quite apparent:
[a] a context of what the coming of the kingdom will be like (Mt 25:1, 14) rather than whether it will come immediately (Lk 19:11)
[b] three servants (Mt 25:15) rather than ten (Lk 19:13)
[c] a distribution of five, two, and one talents (Mt 25:15) rather than one mina apiece (Lk 19:13)
[d] the lord simply leaves (Mt 25:15) rather than first giving orders to trade (Lk 19:13)
[e] the servants at once start trading (Mt 25:16- 17) rather than the citizens rejecting the lord’s reign (Lk 19:14)
[f] the lord returns after a long time (Mt 25:19) rather than shortly after receiving his kingdom (Lk 19:15)
[g] the faithful slaves are set “over much” (Mt 25:21, 23) rather than being set over as many cities as minas earned (Lk 19:17, 19)
[h] the unfaithful servant hid his talent in the ground (Mt 25:18, 25) rather than hiding his mina in a napkin (Lk 19:20)
[i] the worthless servant is cast away into outer darkness (Mt 25:30) rather than the enemy citizens being put to death in front of the lord (Lk 19:27)
The more difficult task is to explain these differences. Some have suggested that Luke’s version of the parable, due to its more difficult readings, is more likely to convey what Jesus actually said (e.g., Overman 1996). It is the case that Luke’s version contains difficulties, most notably, the seemingly incidental events of the citizens rejecting the lord’s rule and their later execution (Lk 19:14, 27).
Nevertheless, Luke’s parable also suggests knowledge of Matthew’s version, in particular, that there are only three servants (and not ten). Thus Luke only specifically mentions the fate of three of the servants to whom he refers as “the first” (Lk 19:16), “the second” (Lk 19:18), and surprisingly enough, “the other” (Gk: o eteros, Lk 19:20). This may well be an example of redactional “fatigue”, where a writer makes changes at the beginning of copying a source, but fails to sustain those changes throughout (Goodacre 1998). In that case Luke likely knew Matthew’s Gospel or at least his version of the parable (perhaps from Q). Given the otherwise extensive changes, however, it is also presumably the case that Luke had another version of the parable available, a fact that would not be in the least astonishing if we suppose that Jesus may have told the parable on numerous occasions and with variations.
As for the difficulty of the citizens rejecting the lord’s rule, that can be explained by the context in which Luke places the parable: Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem, immediately prior to his triumphal entry as king, a kingship which, in Luke, is only recognized by Jesus’ disciples (Lk 19:28-40). The triumphal entry, in turn, is followed by a vivid and explicit prediction of Jerusalem’s destruction for her failure to recognize the time of her “visitation”, presumably by Jesus as king (Lk 19:41-44; the details here suggest Luke may have been writing after the events of the Jewish War; then again, they may simply be Luke’s way of filling in what he expected the impending disaster obviously to look like). This prediction of destruction is further focused by Jesus upon the temple through his dramatic and parabolic enactment of judgment (Lk 19:45-46; see Sanders 1985:61-76).
In light of this context, Luke’s insertion of the details regarding the citizens’ rejection of their lord’s rule makes some sense and, at the very least, gives us some idea of the meaning of the parable as Luke saw it. As Luke has it, Jesus tells the parable to deflect his disciples’ assumption that the “kingdom of God was to appear immediately” when they arrived at Jerusalem (Lk 19:11). When then would the kingdom appear? Only after the lord (that is, Jesus) first went away to a “far country” to receive a kingdom (in Luke, no doubt a reference to the ascension, Lk 9:51; 24:51; Acts 2:32- 36). While away, the leading citizens of Jesus’ kingdom will reject his kingship (Lk 19:14), a rejection that is proleptically shown in the Pharisees’ reaction to the disciples’ proclamation of that kingship during the triumphal entry (Lk 19:38-39).
After receiving the kingdom, however, Jesus would shortly return to see how his servants had produced (note the absence of Matthew’s “after a long time”). Those who had been faithful and produced more with what they had been given, will be rewarded (Lk 19:15-19). In contrast, those enemies of his who rejected his kingship (and who, we must presume, are also represented by the wicked servant), will have their privileges given to others and will be put to death (Lk 19:20-27). In light of Jesus’ subsequent prediction, it is clear that Luke understands this transfer of privileges and judgment to be the impending judgment on Jerusalem and the temple which, therefore, must also be the manifestation and vindication of Jesus’ rule as Lord.
Luke’s overall framework, nevertheless, is somewhat different than Matthew’s. While for Matthew it seems that the lord in the parable is first YHWH, though also Jesus as YHWH‘s representative, for Luke, the lord is simply Jesus. Likewise, while the lord’s journey in Matthew is either the time of Israel’s exile or the time awaiting the final judgment, in Luke it is simply the time between Jesus’ ascension as king and when his rule is made manifest and vindicated in the events of AD 70.
Still, the convergence between our interpretations of Matthew and Luke’s versions of the parable is noteworthy since, in both cases, the primary referent of the parable is evidently a judgment upon the leadership of Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple that was to occur within a generation. Still, given the nature and details of the divergence between Matthew and Luke’s placement and shaping of the parable, it is unlikely that the parable represents a transparent understanding by their respective communities of Jesus’ own teaching. Nonetheless, Matthew and Luke’s individual interpretations of the parable(s) fit both into what we know of Jewish restoration theology and give it an unexpected twist in how that theology is seen to devolve upon Jesus.
Taken together, these factors lend support to the basic interpretation I have given. And this interpretation concerns not only Matthew’s theology and his understanding of the parable, but also works to attribute the parable to Jesus himself and indicates how he would have understood it.
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