My regular Sunday morning harangue evoked more feedback than usual. It involved a reversal of role for the third servant in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30. Consider your verdict!
Perhaps the parable of the talents has had a lot of airplay lately. I doubt anyone has missed the huge advertising campaign by the Australian Government on the recently enacted Industrial Relations legislation.
You do well if you are a large employer – you will have the opportunity to increase greatly what you have. Your five talents will grow now that anachronistic industrial award restrictions from a bygone era are stripped away.
You will do well if you are a small employer – your two talents possibilities for growth are now enhanced as the proposed changes dissolve constricting legislation.
And if you are the supplier of labour, don’t worry; the one talent that you bring will also grow, if you negotiate wisely and within the parameters of the new provisions. You never had it better, so don’t throw away your chance.
What we don’t see in the ads, however, is the sub-text that is very clear in Jesus’ parable:
For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance;
but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
Now some would say that in thus applying this morning’s text, I am being unnecessarily mischievous, subversive, provocative and even irresponsible.
I submit that I am using the parable in much the same way as Jesus might have – simply pointing out the reality and the result of a particular world view that contrasts with that of the kingdom of God.
The reality is that the dominant world view of western civilization is not Christian, as much as we would like to claim that it is. Most decisions today find their under-pinning not in the words of the Sermon on the Mount, but textbooks of economic rationalism based on the utilitarian philosophy shifts of the late 18th century.The fundamental drive to building the kind of society we live in is not informed by Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us, but to the question of the most effective way to build an anemic parody of what is supposed to be an economy – an economy that finds expression only through figures on a balance sheet devoid of human interest.
Against such minimization of human potential and fulfillment the kingdom of God always wages war.
So it is important that we consider a setting in which it is likely that Matthew’s audience first heard this parable.
It is a part of a series of three parables that are urging alertness and readiness for being held to account as Christians.
“Be ready for the arrival of the bridegroom,” the ten virgins are told. “Don’t let what you need run dry. Keep your supply of oil ready, or you’ll miss out.”
And you need it all the time – even right now. “You might not know it, but when you care for someone in need, you care for me,” says the Risen Christ in the story of the sheep and the goats (more about that next week).
The parable in between, the one about the talents, is much clearer when we consider its neighbours. Without its companion parables, it may not make sense.
First, it doesn’t begin with the familiar words, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” It says instead, “For it is as if a man, going on a journey…” What is like a man going on a journey? The familiar form of parables prompts us to conclude “the kingdom of heaven” – but the grammatical syntax suggests rather the preceding verse from the parable of the ten bridesmaids – “keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
We are thus released from the urge to seek parallels with kingdom values in this parable and invited to ponder whether this is more like one of Rudyard Kipling’s “just so” stories that awakens us to what the world we live in is really like – what we have to be ready to take into account as we go about the kingdom’s business.
Consider this from the point of view of a member of Matthew’s faith household – perhaps gathered with others on the outskirts of a little town in Syria. As Jewish Christians they are pariahs to the synagogue established by Pharisaic leaders now in exile following the sacking of Jerusalem. They have cast the followers of Jesus out, not only of the synagogue, but all Jewish community life. If they are tradesmen or merchants, the Christians can no longer ply their trade – they have to take up menial laboring tasks wherever they can to help their families survive.
They are acutely aware of how the system works.
So they hear, not what we came to hear later as the “parable of the talents,” but the parable of what one writer [at http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/A/33-a/A-33-a.html ] calls the “parable of the extortionist and his three henchmen.”
Contemporaries of Jesus believed all the wealth of the world was limited and the
distribution of riches was preordained. In addition, the economic systems of the
ancient world existed for many generations and had grown rigid over time. While
someone could quickly amass a fortune, the general populace suspected that
person of theft, bribery, or extortion.
In a culture wary of change, only the devious and immoral could rise up the economic latter.
When Jesus began the parable, he created additional suspicions. The rich man most likely lived abroad (i.e., he was a foreigner).
As he prepared for his journey home, he delegated his underlings to invest his fortune. While the eight silver talents described in 25:15 had a current value of $3 million, such wealth seemed uncountable to the impoverished contemporaries of Jesus. [25:14-16]
Two of the man’s employees doubled the money they were given. How could they do this?
Since the story assumed the rich man and his employees were non-Jews, they could lend money at exorbitant rates (30% to 50%) and enforce repayment with the threat of prison. If someone could not repay, he was jailed until his family
could repay the loan (this was actually a ransom). The populace hated such
lenders for their power and their wealth. They drained the poor people, taking
an unfair share of a harvest or grain production as repayment…reaping where they did not sow}[25:24-25]
What would a cautious, honorable employee do? Bilking money from the poor was immoral. Without government controls or insurance, no investment was truly safe. So the honorable man would bury his master’s money.
Hidden away far from one’s dwelling, no thief could find a man’s gold or silver. And, since inflation in the ancient economic order was unimaginable, money maintained constant buying power from generation to generation. Even Jewish rabbis insisted that anyone who buried his master’s money was not liable for it, since this was the most prudent course of action. [25:18]
So could it be that, according to Jewish tradition, the third man, the one with only one talent, is the hero of the story?
He was prudent, had an honest assessment of the business dealings of his master, and refused to compromise allegiance to a way of conducting business that was consistent with his faith tradition. He is prepared for the consequences. Harsh treatment from the world, isolation, and “casting into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth?”
After all that’s where many of Jesus’ and Mathew’s hearers existed. We might see them nodding sagely when hearing this parable, and saying “yes, it is thus so. When the Son of Man comes, he will find us ready – alert and waiting, even though we now find ourselves in the outer darkness.”
But perhaps we prefer to hear the parable as we usually have. It’s imperative to use the natural abilities we have or we might lose them.
Fair enough – except it’s a no-brainer – its common sense – and I don’t know if Jesus would have wasted a good parable on a morality tale that would seem more at home with Aesop than with Jesus. But it does fit in well with our Protestant work ethic, we might protest. Except that didn’t come from Jesus either!
Maybe we should just acknowledge that Jesus’ parables are annoying, irritating, and frustrating, particularly when they get under our guard.
But it’s then that they exercise the capacity to release us into the embrace of the kingdom with new awareness and readiness – even a fresh explosion of powerful motivation to serve the crucified and risen one.
For a long time this parable burdened me – I had always identified with the one talent servant, questioning whether I was working hard enough to grow the talent I had been given and often, even questioning what it was! The legacy of my contemplation was always … a heavy feeling of guilt – I could never match the 5 talent or 2 talent servant – even in ministry.
My memory recently took me back, however, to my early days of employment, when I was a sales assistant in a department store. It seems I was a one talent servant there as well. We were required to turn in our sales figures each day and I was consistently at the bottom of the heap. I preferred to spend more time with customers, not put pressure on them – where as the preferred method was to clinch the sale as quickly as possible and compete for big ticket items. I sometimes found the sight of my fellow sales assistants stalking and competing for the attention of customers somewhat unseemly.
But the master required returns, and there was the day I found myself on the carpet hearing that my returns were not good enough and that I would be consigned to the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. I was to be given complete responsibility for the small electrical goods repairs and warranty department!
It was a chaotic section where no-one had lasted more than a week. Who wants to deal all day with irritated and angry customers with their unrealistic demands? But I enjoyed working with customers to find solutions to the problems they had with the articles they had bought. Over two years, I was able to organize and systematize the department to work more efficiently and thus create happier customers. The place of wailing and gnashing of teeth turned out to be the very place where I discovered and found confidence in my capacity to apply to be trained for ministry.
When I read this parable now, I see that the outer darkness, beyond the perimeter, is often where we are called to be…with the outcast, with the oppressed ones, with those who don’t fit in…because that’s where Christ walks.
It is another aspect of “being prepared” – “being ready.” May we continue to work at “being ready” to go be in those places where Christ is already at work.