The Parable of the Talents Redux

Tim Gallant, whose work on paedocommunion and the Apostle Paul I have greatly appreciated (and would commend to all), has graciously replied to my first post on the subject of the parable of the talents. He brings ten counterpoints to my reading, and while I can’t really respond in depth to them here, I would like to make a few observations.

First, the key to understanding my reading lies in the last few paragraphs of that earlier piece, concerning the context of the the parable. That is, the parable is dealing with eschatological judgment just like the others, and for this reason it does bear a similarity of style to the other parables Gallant notes, speaking of “entering into your master’s joy” and of the “outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But similarity of language does not an argument make, because the context and details tell us how the author is using his language and how we are to understand what is being said. I am contesting that the parable depicts a judgment as Israel would expect it, according to her unrighteous messianic expectation. This reading is based upon a close reading of the character of the “hard man,” and which would suggest that Jesus’ use of these eschatological phrases is subversive. If Gallant wants to read the parable the way the others have been, he must do so on grounds other than those contested phrases. To do anything else is to simply assume what he wants to prove, which will get us nowhere.

Understanding that my reading does not eliminate the dimension of eschatological judgment eases his objections substantially, because I am saying that this parable is a picture of how Israel expects the messianic judgment to go. So to unrighteous Israel, God is the “nobleman,” and the last servant is indeed “unrighteous.” They expected those who have done much with their master’s wealth to be rewarded, just as the first servants are, by being appointed to rule over the world in the same way that the Gentiles currently ruled it. Of course, they saw themselves as those who had done much with what they had been given. But the parable exposes the true foundation beneath their expectation: they are actually robbing from others (continuing Jesus’ non-stop accusations that the Israelite leadership and the Pharisees are oppressing and robbing from God’s faithful). The nobleman’s response to the last servant is what Israel expected God’s response to be to those who had in one way or another “compromised” their faith. Jesus then corrects their expectation by saying that it is those who refuse the trappings of power and identify with the poor that will be vindicated in the judgment.

This eases his objections because a number of them assume I am ignoring this dimension of eschatological judgment (by my count, no. 2, 3. 4. 5. and 8 do this). He says that the servants depicted elsewhere are servants of God not of the wicked (correctly), but has missed my main point, which is that Jesus is presenting the judgment as Israel expects it. So to Israel, the “nobleman” is God an the servants are Israel. Gallant’s point is true, but does nothing to address the central issue at hand. All of his observations in these places are true, but they are true according to both our readings. The misunderstanding here is probably my fault; I don’t think I quite made this nuanced point until the end of my post and understressed it in my intention to emphasize the unrighteousness of the “nobleman.”

Second, my case is built on a close reading of the character of the “nobleman” in the parable, and it is this point which Gallant has not addressed. To maintain that the “nobleman” is Jesus, we seem to have two choices. 1) we can shrug our shoulders and say that Jesus was okay with usury (which a number of people have done) or 2) we can say that the parable isn’t really about money after all. Gallant has taken this second choice. He writes,

it assumes that the parable really is directly about money, whereas very few (if any) of Jesus’ parables are that direct regarding their subject matter. If that assumption is wrong, it falsifies everything, for several reasons, including the subversion of Jesus’ point about “gaining money at interest,” and equally the supposedly unjust character of the “nobleman” in view.

As I have learned from a number of men, including James Jordan, Peter Leithart, Douglas Wilson and many others (not that they are responsible for my reading of this passage), we cannot dismiss the details, and the surface level and symbolic level have to match one another. I note that Gallant is here accusing me of the same thing which these men have been accused by others. Their covenantal reading of John 15 (the vine and the branches) has been accused of delving too close to the details or of taking a metaphor too seriously (Gallant agrees with their reading in Feed My Lambs, p. 139). Yet a number of disagreeing scholars accused them of reading too much into the details of that passage, despite the fact that their reading was correct. The typical reading has the patriarchs of Genesis as vile sinners, but a close reading demonstrates they are righteous (Jordan, Primeval Saints).

If the details lend themselves in one direction, and in order to maintain our reading we must invert the surface and “spiritual” meaning, warning bells ought to be going off in our heads. If the point of the parable is about our “gifts” or “covenant keeping” or an such other things, why does Jesus use the image of money? If His point has nothing to do with economics, why does He bring economics up? If what the nobleman (Jesus) wants is good (spiritual increase, etc.), why does he choose to portray it as usury? Many of the other parables are always based on some kind of material observation that grounds the spiritual interpretation. The parable of the sower is based upon agricultural observation, as is the wheat and the tares, and the symbolic or deeper level of meaning depends upon the surface layer for its structure. But the surface and deeper meaning are at odds in the traditional reading of this parable. Just as a usurer brings an increase of his own fortunes, so too is it with the Kingdom of God? Or: God is like a man who gives care of his property to servants who he expects to increase it by usurious lending? If anything is a tin-eared reading of the passage, it is this. It rings awkwardly against what we know of Jesus and of God. Is it not more likely that Jesus’ point here is that Israel’s understanding of God is faulty, thinking that He will reward them for not just sitting on His property but making more of it? Yet their gains are ill-gotten, and instead He will come to judge them for not caring for the least of these, but actively stealing from them. The last servant’s comment is important here: “Take what is yours.” By implication, he is saying that the interest collected is not his, it has been stolen from others. This is the general attitude toward usury by Jesus, and continued in the Church Fathers.

 

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