For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. — Matthew 13:12, ESV.
A friend brought up this verse recently and said it has been abused and interpreted to mean that it would be fair to redistribute resources from persons who have less to those who have more. Is Christ the Anti-Robin-Hood? Such an interpretation should be rejected, of course, with ease by any Christian, but a few questions remain:
1. What does Matthew 13:12 actually mean?
2. What can we do to prevent such abusive interpretations?
Statements similar to Matthew 13:12 occur in Luke 8:10, Mark 4:25, Matthew 25:29 and Luke 19:26 for a total of five places. The last two are the parable of the servants who got money to manage until their lord returned. Let’s look at them side by side!
|Matthew 25:14-30||Luke 19:12-27|
|Preceeding context: ten virgins with lamps, waiting for the bridegroom.||Zakeus gives to the poor.|
|“For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.||He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return.|
|To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.||Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’|
|He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.||—|
|So also he who had the two talents made two talents more.||—|
|But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.||—|
|—||But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’|
|Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.||When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business.|
|And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’||The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’|
|His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’||And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’|
|And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’||And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’|
|His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’||And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’|
|He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’||Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’|
|But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 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.||He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’|
|So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.||And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’|
|For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.||‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.|
|And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’||—|
|—||But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’”|
|Succeeding context: The son of man will seperate sheep from goats.||Jesus riding into Jerusalem on assback.|
Why are the two versions different?
A common mistake would be to try to find “spiritual equivalents” of the characters in the story. Please don’t try to do that or you will never understand its sense! A first observation could be that a person who reap where he hasn’t sown and who slaughters his political opponents can’t be worthy of immitation or an example for Christians. But that same person caused the wealthy servant to become wealthier and the relatively poor guy to lose everything.
Craig A Evans, in Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies points out that “it is hard to imagine how an agrarian audience, for the most part peasants, could have heard this parable and understood the master in a favorable sense.” He proceeds to show the similarities between Luke’s version of this parable and the case of Herod Archelaus (23 BC – ca 18 CE), who’s story was told by Flavius Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews XVII: 9-11:
Luke verse 14
But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’
At the same time also did Antipas, another of Herod’s sons, sail to Rome, in order to gain the government; being buoyed up by Salome with promises that he should take that government; and that he was a much honester and fitter man than Archelaus for that authority … And when he was come to Rome, all his relations revolted to him; not out of their good-will to him, but out of their hatred to Archelaus … Sabinus also, by letters, accused Archelaus to Caesar.
Luke verse 27
‘But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’
And what he most aggravated in his pleading was the slaughter of those about the temple, and the impiety of it, as done at the festival; and how they were slain like sacrifices themselves, some of whom were foreigners, and others of their own country, till the temple was full of dead bodies: and all this was done, not by an alien, but by one who pretended to the lawful title of a king …
(this paragraph is speculative)
Luke’s gospel is addressed to a Theofilus, and one possibility is that this Theofilus was a former or serving high priest. If so, this parable would be particularily effective in persuading him and the other priests to appreciate the relatively poor members of society who dared challenge oppressors when richer persons avoided conflict at a high cost, for they would remember the conflicts their predecessors had with Archelaus.
Matthew’s version is probably firmly rooted in the practises of contemporary society as well. It is still a fact that society gives more wealth to people who have but not to the have-nots. If you have several years without a job in your CV, you will probably not get a new job. If you are a man and don’t have a job, good luck getting a wife or girlfriend, and so on.
In Matthew’s version the servants were alotted different amounts of money. How about Luke? The Greek word used is μνα which is a loanword from Semitic languages. It can refer to a portion of money or a fixed sum — 100 drachmas (or 400). This means a talent was at least 15 minas but perhaps 60. From the way the word μνα is used in Luke verses 16 and 18 it seems it can’t mean portion but must represent a fixed weight of metal, but then the two versions contradict each other.
The ealiest textual evidence are from codices Vaticanus, Sinaiticus and the Sinaitic Palimpsest, thus bringing us back to ca 375 CE. We have reason to believe the parable was in Marcion’s version since Tertullian mentions it in Adversus Marcionem IV:37. An interesting detail however is that in the Gothic version, it translates μνα to skatts in the problematic verses 16 and 18, but to dails (plural dailos) in verses 13 and 25. Dails correspond to English dole, Swedish dēl and Scanian /dail/, so it is plain, for a speaker of a Germanic language, to see that the translater took μνα to sometimes mean portion/lot/dole, in spite of verses 16 and 18. Doesn’t it seem like we are very close to falsifying the contradiction but need perhaps one more clue?
Now, what does this mean in Matthew 13:12? At this point the meaning will be clear to us if we simply read from verse 10:
And His disciples came and asked Him, “Why do you speak to them in figurative language?” “Because,” He replied, “while to you it is granted to know the secrets of the Kingdom of the Heavens, to them it is not. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but whoever has not, from him even what he has shall be taken away. I speak to them in figurative language for this reason, that while looking they do not see, and while hearing they neither hear nor understand. — Matthew 13:10-14, Weymouth.
Unlike silver, certain insights are capable to reach good persons spontaneously. Once there, they will prepare a person’s heart and mind to both appreciate and understand the treasures of knowledge that Jesus wanted to share. On the other hand, if somebody’s motives are bad, why should such a person be taught Christianity? If the keys to heaven were handed out to theives, pretty soon the air would be gone. If they were handed to God’s enemies, when the angels woke up their wings would have been cut off. No, not really, but you get the point.
Give not that which is holy to the dogs, nor throw your pearls to the swine; otherwise they will trample them under their feet and then turn and attack you. — Matthew 7:6.
2. What can we do to prevent such abusive interpretations?
Not much, unfortunately, but one item is to follow our lord’s advice and not throw pearls to swines. We tend to expect that other people will react to the text in the same way that we do, for you know others as you know your self. But the more bad people who know what the bible teaches, the more they will abuse the text. To the contrary, the more knowledge good people have, the harder it becomes to abuse the authority of holy scripture.