Final Judgment and the Business of Faith

The Parable of the Talents—finally, an “easy” parable to write about. I preached on it many times during my parochial ministry, and I’m happy to say that my own interpretation through those years approximates Robert Capon’s, even though it antedates my reading of his book on the judgment parables by several years. As you read the parable, keep in mind (1) a denarius represented the typical servant’s wage for a full day’s work and (2) a talent was equivalent to 6,000 denarii (do the math). In other words, the householder is entrusting to his three servants a huge amount of wealth.

For just as a man leaving home on a journey summoned his own slaves and handed his possessions over to them, And gave five talents to one, and two to another, and one to another, to each according to his peculiar ability, and left home on his journey—Immediately, the one who received five talents employed them in trade and gained another five; Similarly, the one who had two gained another two; But the one who received one went away, dug into the ground, and hid his master’s silver. Then after a long time the master of those slaves comes and settles accounts with them. And, approaching, the one receiving the five talents brought the other five talents forward, saying, “Mas­ter, you handed over five talents to me; look, I gained another five talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave, you were trustworthy over a few things, I shall place you over many; enter into your master’s delight.” Also approaching, the one with two talents said, “Look, I gained another two talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave, you were trustworthy over a few things, I shall place you over many; enter into your master’s delight.” And, also approach­ing, the one who had received one talent said, “Master, I knew you, that you are a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering from where you did not scatter; And, being afraid, I went away and hid your talent in the earth; see, you have what is yours.” But in reply his master said to him, “You wicked and timorous slave, did you know that I reap where I did not sow and gather from where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have placed my silver pieces with the bankers, and when I came I would have recovered what was my own with interest. Therefore, take the talent away from him and give it to him who has ten talents; For to everyone who has, it shall be given and shall be more than is needed; but from him who does not have even what he has shall be taken away. And throw the useless slave into the darkness outside; there will be weeping and grinding of teeth there.” (Matt 25:14-31; par. Luke 19:11-27)

The first thing that needs to be said is that Jesus is not teaching a doctrine of justification by works, at least not in the sense to which the 16th century Protestant reformers would have objected. That becomes clear in v. 27, when the master rebukes the third servant for not entrusting the silver coins to an investment banker: at least then “when I came I would have recovered what was my own with interest.” Note that by normal standards the ser­vant hasn’t done anything objectively wrong. He is not guilty of transgressing the moral or criminal law; he is not guilty of violating Torah; he is not guilty of ignoring the explicit instructions of his master. On the contrary, he carefully takes steps to ensure that the silver coins would be returned to his master safe and sound. Why then does the house­holder condemn him? Because the servant acted, Capon answers, “not out of faith but out of prudence”—and not just out of any ordinary prudence but a prudence grounded in servile fear and terror. In the servant’s words:

Master, I knew you, that you are a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering from where you did not scatter; And, being afraid, I went away and hid your talent in the earth; see, you have what is yours.

Servant #3 judges his master to be a cruel, unfor­giv­ing, ruth­less man, someone to be feared, not to be trusted and certainly not loved. When given the responsibility of stewardship of the talent, all he can think to do is to hide it and hope that its return in full will earn his master’s approval. But servants 1 & 2 obviously see their master very differently and were therefore willing to adopt aggressive strategies in hope of generating a profitable return, trusting that he would not punish them if their financial decisions should turn sour. Investment always entails risk. There are no guaran­tees. The world is infinitely com­plex and ever-changing and the future unknown. The willingness of the two servants to risk the wealth entrusted to them demon­strates their faith and con­fi­dence in the good will of their master. It is precisely the absence of this confi­dence, leading to his failure to even attempt to generate greater wealth, for which the third servant is condemned.

Consider Capon’s colloquial translation of the exchange betweeen the householder and the third servant, whom he fondly names Arthur:

“Oh Sir,” he says , “here is your coin, which I have kept bright and shiny in a handkerchief in my bureau drawer. Because, you see, I was afraid. I know you. You are a hard (Matthew: skleros; Luke: austeros) man. I know you grab everything, even if it doesn’t belong to you. So I thought to myself, `Watch your step, Arthur; if he keeps track of every penny everywhere like that, even when it’s not his, just think how mad he could get if you should happen to lose something that was his.’ And so, Sir, here I am and here’s your money, in full and on time. Tell me I’m a good boy.”

“No!” roars the nobleman, twice as angry as anything Arthur ever imagined. “I will judge (krino) you out of your own mouth. You are not a good boy. You are not even a good weasel. If you knew (edeis) I was such a tough customer, why didn’t you at least put my money into a savings account? What? You thought I’d be mad at a measly 4 1/2 percent? You think I’m not madder at zero percent? But you know some thing? That’s not really what I’m mad about. Look, Arthur. I invited you into a fiduciary relationship with me. That’s fiduciary, f-i-d: as in fides in Latin—and as in pistis in Greek, which is the language this story will end up in—and as in faith, in plain English. I didn’t ask you to make money, I asked you to do business—that’s pragma­teuisasthai, remember?—to exercise a little pragmatic trust that I meant you well and that I wouldn’t mind if you took some risks with my gift of a lifetime. But what did you do? You decided you had to be more afraid of me than of the risks. You decided. You played it safe because of some imaginary fear. And so now, instead of having gotten yourself a nice new life as mayor of at least a small city, you have only the crummy little excuse for a life you started with. As a matter of fact, Arthur, you haven’t even got that, because you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to take what I gave you and just for fun [to show the outrageousness of grace, as in the Laborers in the Vineyard] I’m going to give it to that guy over there who already has more than he knows what to do with. And you know why I’m going to do that? First of all, to remind everybody that when I give you a gift [grace, for­giveness], I expect you to do business with it, to keep it moving [to forgive others as you are forgiven—see the Lord’s Prayer], not just to keep it to yourself in some damned napkin [some low-risk spiritual life in which you neither sin much nor love much—see Luke 7:36-50]. But second, I’m going to give him your gift to show everybody that I never really cared about results anyway [the Laborers in the Vineyard again—the gift of grace is not a reward for hard work or good behavior, it is a lark, a joke, a hilariously inequitable largesse: it is, in a word, a gift]. Don’t you see, Arthur? It’s all a game. All that matters is that you play at all, not that you play well or badly. You could have earned a million with the money I gave you, or you could have earned two cents. You could even have blown it on the horses for all I care: at least that way you would have been a gambler after my own heart. But when you crawl in here and insult me—me, Mr. Risk Himself [Jesus the vindicating judge]—by telling me you decided that I couldn’t be trusted enough for you to gamble on a two-bit loss, that I was some legalistic type who went only by the books [judgment by law instead of grace], well. . . .” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, pp. 421-422)

As with all the stories told by Jesus, Capon insists on reading the Parable of the Talents through the lens of grace and faith. All hinges on God’s true identity as absolute and unconditional love.  He is not a tyrant eager to punish. He is the benevolent Father, Philanthropolos Theos, who wills the good of each and every human being (1 Tim 2:3-4), and this salvific willing is measured by nothing less than the the gift of himself in his Son Jesus of Nazareth. To believe and live on the basis of God’s good willing is faith—not mere intellectual belief, not a dead, inactive faith, but, as the Apostle Paul puts it, “faithfulness made actual through love” (Gal 5:6). Genuine trust in Christ and his saving work is always fruitful; it is doing the business of faith. In the words of St Theophan the Recluse:

At the Judgment you will not be asked why you did not gain ten talents if you had only one, and you will not even be asked why you gained only one talent on your one, but you will be told that you gained a talent, half a talent or a tenth of its worth. And the reward will not be because you received the talents, but because you gained. There will be nothing with which to justify yourself—not with nobleness, nor poverty, nor lack of education. When this is not given, there will be no question about it. But you had hands and feet. You will be asked, what did you gain with them?

So far so very good. But Capon goes beyond Theophan in his interpretation of the divine love. What matters, he says, is to attempt faithfulness, even if it should fail:

It [the parable] is about the “one thing necessary” (see Luke 10:42): the response of trust, of faith in Jesus’ free acceptance of us by the grace of his death and resurrection. It is, in other words, about a faithful, Mary-like waiting upon Jesus himself as the embodiment of the mystery—and about the danger of substituting some prudent, fretful, Martha-like business of our own for that waiting. It is not at all about the rewarding of good works or the punishment of evil ones. The servants who gained varying amounts by their faithful trading gained them by the luck of the draw, not by (at least in Luke) the proportionate effectiveness of the original grant (it was the same in all cases), and probably not even by any proportionate exer­tions of their own (at any rate, we are told of none). And the servant who was cast out was not guilty of doing any substantive evil thing (the money he was given was returned in full). The parable, therefore, declares that the only thing that is to be examined at the judgment is faith, not good deeds; and it declares that the only thing that can deprive us of the favorable judgment already passed upon us by Jesus is our unfaith in his gracious passing of it. (p. 424)

We are saved by grace through faith and only by grace through faith. God is not a “book­keeper,” comments Capon, “looking for productive results. The only book­keeper in the parable is the servant who decided he had to fear a nonexistent audit and who there­fore hid his one talent in the ground” (p. 502). How else do we make sense of the household­er’s decision to take the single talent and give it to the servant already extrava­gantly rich with ten talents, accompanied by the cryptic saying “For to everyone who has, it shall be given and shall be more than is needed; but from him who does not have even what he has shall be taken away”?

Why this bizarre enriching of the already rich, if not to show God’s aversion to any counting at all? The goodness of his grace does all that needs doing. Here, therefore, as in the Laborers in the Vineyard, it is only the book­keep­ing of unfaith that is condemned; the rest of the story is about the unac­count­able, even irresponsible joy of the Lord who just wants everybody to be joyful with him. (p. 503)

As the last sentence in the above quotation indicates, Capon refuses to be misled by the Lord’s fierce condemnation of Arthur. Underneath even this parable lies the ebullient joy of the Father and the utter prodigality of his grace:

It is the theme of the divine party again, the party that lurks beneath the surface of history and calls only for a recognition by faith. It is the fatted calf served up for a prodigal who did nothing but come home in faith. It is the free champagne and caviar for wedding guests who did nothing but trust the king’s insistence on providing fancy costumes and party hats. It is the full pay for next-to-no-work-at-all given to grape pickers who just said yes to a last-minute promise. The only reason that judgment comes into it at all is the sad fact that there will always be dummies who refuse to trust a good thing when it’s handed to them on a platter. (p. 503)

Yet we still still wonder: Is the expulsion of Arthur into the outer darkness just? His mortal sin is ultimately rooted in servile fear of God, but whence this fear and how is it overcome? And if the goodness of God’s grace “does all that needs doing,” why the failure to accomplish the servant’s regeneration into faith?

(Go to “Spear Wound of Christ”)

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3 Responses to Final Judgment and the Business of Faith

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I don’t think enough attention is paid to verse 15, where Jesus says that the money is distributed according to each servant’s ability – it’s difficult to see why the servants’ ability would be relevant if they weren’t understood to be expected to do something with the money. It’s also to my mind clear that the third servant has been given only 1 talent precisely because the master knows he lacks the skills and initiative of the other two.
    I am not therefore sure that the third servant is in fact being condemned for being afraid to risk the money. That is the servant’s *excuse*, certainly, but I would say that the real issue is that the master doesn’t believe him. The master’s point seems to be that if it were simply that the servant doubted his own ability and was afraid he would lose the money, that shouldn’t have stopped him at least investing it with the bankers on interest, where it would be safe but still earn a return. The servant, as I see it, is lying, and blaming his master’s alleged harshness for what is in fact the servant’s own laziness, which is what gets him condemned.
    The parables of the unfaithful slave, of the bridesmaids, this parable and that of the sheep and goats all seem to me to be of a piece and illustrating aspects of the same point, following on from 24:44 and the unexpected hour of Jesus’s return.
    The unfaithful slave does not expect his master’s return and acts as if he is not coming back. The foolish virgins assume they know when he is coming and it is certain, so they prepare only for the bridegroom returning when they expect him, so are unprepared when the bridegroom’s plans are not their plans. The slave in the parable of the talents apparently doesn’t think that it’s any of his business to serve his masters business or do his master’s work while awaiting his master’s return. In the parable of the sheep and goats, what putting oil in the lamps / investing the master’s money actually means is revealed as being caring for the poor, the sick, the homeless etc.
    It is also interesting that the unfaithful servant in the first parable is entrusted with the master’s whole household, so is a very trusted slave. His punishment is to be put with the “hypocrites” which really means “play actors” or “dissemblers” – he was only pretending to be trustworthy to gain advancement and had in reality no love for his master. The foolish virgins aren’t punished for having no lit lamps – they are rejected when instead of welcoming the bridegroom they, perhaps assuming he will be angry, head off in search of oil, and so turn up late to the feast. The servant burying the talent is also punished less for his shortcomings as a servant and more for blaming them on his master’s temperament.
    It’s interesting that in the final parable neither sheep nor goats recognise their master, but the sheep are let off because they have exercised their love towards their fellow men.

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Iain, thanks for sharing your reading of the parable. I appreciate you bringing up v. 15, where Jesus states that the householder has entrusted specific amounts to his servants according to their abilities. So he is engaged in risk-management himself: maximizing the possibility of profit versus the possibility of loss, which explains the difference in the amounts entrusted. This element is missing in Luke’s version of the parable. I went back to Capon’s analysis, and he does not refer to v. 15, perhaps because it is missing in Luke’s version.

    But I’m not persuaded by your interpretation because it depends on the supposition of the third servant’s dishonesty. I do not see any hint at all of this in the parable. So I believe we should take at face value the servant’s account of his reasons for burying the talents, just as the householder apparently does. He doesn’t accuse him of lying. Rather, he turns it back upon him in judgment. But are we to believe that he would have applauded the servant if he had turned the talents over to the bankers? Hmm.


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      I don’t think applaud exactly, but if we are to take the householder’s words at face value, he seems to be saying he would probably not have punished him but accepted the servant as acting within his limitations (which he understood on doling out the money in the first place). I think you are right that it overstates the case to say the servant is dishonest in his reply – more that the servant’s (genuine) timidity and fear of the householder doesn’t really explain or excuse the servant’s inaction in the way the servant seems to think it does.
      One way of looking at the parable to my mind is seeing ourselves in the third servant – even if we are too scared, ineffectual or mediocre to do anything big, this does not get us off the hook from doing what little our cautious, plodding, timid nature permits.


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