Historical Cultural Context
The Peasant View
This parable explaining how the rich get richer follows quite naturally upon the rewards of being a clever teenage participant in a wedding celebration (Mt 25:1-1). But note well that the parable does not begin with the usual: “The reign of God is like ... ” As we review the text, ask yourself if this indeed is how you would like God to behave toward human beings.
The Problems of Wealth
A very rich person about to set off on a journey entrusted very large sums of wealth to three slaves, each according to his personal ability. In no time at all, the first two slaves doubled their trust. The third slave buried his trust in the ground.
On the day of accounting, the master applauds and rewards the two clever slaves but punishes the third slave whom he calls “wicked and slothful” (Mt 25:26). He takes the third slave’s trust and gives it to the first slave.
This parable is a favorite with American capitalists (interested in profit) and fundamentalist guidance counselors (focusing on the unintended and textually unsupported meaning of the word talent). Jesus’ listeners, of course, were neither capitalists nor committed to self-improvement. They were peasants. Would these interpretations bring good news to a peasant?
In first-century Mediterranean culture people believed that all goods already exist and are already distributed. There is no more where this came from, and the only way to get more is to defraud another. Anyone who suddenly acquired something “more” was automatically judged to be a thief.
Wealthy people were especially under suspicion. How could they honorably increase their wealth? They commissioned slaves to handle their affairs. Everyone knew slaves were shameless, and dishonorable behavior was all one could expect from them.
A Greedy Master
The very rich man in this story sounds like an honorable person at the outset. It is only at the conclusion that we learn that he is dishonorable. As the third slave states, the very rich master is “a hard man,” reaping what he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter seed (Mt 25:24). Putting a good face on his behavior, we modern Westerners would call him a clever, industrious, and enterprising entrepreneur.
Others, like our Middle Eastern ancestors in the faith, would call him arrogant, opportunistic, greedy, and rapacious. The master agrees with the slave’s description of him (!); (see Mt 25:26) and confirms it by saying the slave should at least have put his money in the bank at usury.
Now we understand that the first two slaves did not simply serve their rich master; they imitated him. Why not? If you can’t beat the system, join it. Any human being can be as greedy as the next, and joining forces with a ruthless and unconscionable but successful master gives one a leg up on others like that pitiful third slave.
Actually, the third slave did what the rabbis would later commend as the safest and therefore most honorable course of action for a freeman. But was it proper behavior for a slave?
A peasant audience hearing Jesus’ parable and reflecting on their own life wouldn’t find this good news at all. The rich get richer, and we continue to be abused (see Mt 25:29). If God behaves no better than the rich master, who needs God?
The church historian Eusebius saw the problem in Matthew’s text quite clearly and reported a different version of this same parable familiar to him in the Gospel of the Nazoreans (now lost). In this version, the master throws the first slave into prison, scolds the second slave, but welcomes the honorable third slave with joy. Was this the version Jesus told?
Matthew’s version offers advice to his community around the year 80 CE about how to behave in the period after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension while they await his imminent second coming. They should not be lazy and worthless but rather should imitate the cleverness but not the greed of their masters. In other words, when it comes to the kingdom, the risk of cleverness is preferable to the numbing security of doing the proper and honorable thing, or “playing it safe.” Jesus’ own life manifested similar risky choices.
Believers who can suspend their view of this parable as presenting strategies for fund raising or developing personal abilities and adopt instead the peasant view will have much to think about.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University