parables

Making the most of our talents

My heart sank when I looked up the lectionary reading today – the Parable of the Talents. The story is so familiar, how on earth could I think up anything novel to say about it. It’s so familiar that an English word has derived its meaning from it. The message is clear,  unmistakeable and above all simple – what can I say. I normally have some ideas of a direction to take a sermon but I was flawed on this one and turned to the Internet for inspiration. Most of the material followed the traditional understanding of this story but a couple of threads stimulated me to read further. Maybe the parable isn’t as simple as it first seems.

One of the first things you are taught as a trainee preacher is that it can be dangerous to preach from short isolated Biblical texts. If you do you run the risk of missing the context in whigh they are set and of delivering a message that fits the text but not the wider gospel message. Here, some people would suggest, is a whole parable that doesn’t fit that wider context.

Let’s start off with the conclusion that

for to every person who has something, even more will be given, and he will have more than enough; but the person who has nothing, even the little that he has will be taken away from him.

On the one hand this sounds obvious enough, indeed it is an obvious reflection of the economic environment in first century Palestine and 21st century Britain. Those who already have wealth generate more wealth, whilst those who are poor have it taken away. But how does this square with the wider gospel? In four weeks time one of the lectionary readings will be the Magnificat with those wonderful lines,

He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away with empty hands.

The early focus of Matthew’s own gospel is the Sermon on the Mount which contains the Beatitudes amongst which we find:

Happy are those who are humble;
    they will receive what God has promised!

and

Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires;
    the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!

The apparent message of the parable simply doesn’t fit with the core message in the wider gospel. What is going on?

There are also problems with the style of the parable. Jesus is reported as having told a number of parables to explain the Kingdom of Heaven and many of these take pride of place in Matthew’s gospel. In most of these the Kingdom of Heaven is envisaged as being radically different from any Kingdom on Earth. There is generally a twist in the parable. It is thus the Samaritan who is the good neighbour. It is the son who wastes his money and repents who is welcomed home effusively by his father. Workers will get the same pay regardless of the hours they work. As commented above, in the Parable of the Talents, the Kingdom of Heaven appears essentially similar to most Kingdoms on Earth. The expected twist never arrives.

A more general issue is in how we all tell stories. In most stories with three characters it is the final character to be intoduced who is the hero. The Good Samaritan is the third person to pass the beaten man, in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins we read how the foolish virgins acted first and then how the wise virgins acted. In wider literature Bassanio is the third person to choose a casket in the Merchant of Venice, Cordelia is the last daughter to be asked her opinion of King Lear. Even in the Three Little Pigs it is the third pig who builds his house of brick. This is simply the way we tell storied. Yet in the Parable of the Talents it is the first and second characters who are the heroes and the third is cast out into the darkness to cry and gnash his teeth.

Another problem is the advocacy of lending money for interest.Jews are expressly forbidden to expect interest when they lend to fellow Jews in several places in the Old Testament.  Just one example is in Exodus (22:25)

If you lend money to any of my people who are poor, do not act like a moneylender and require him to pay interest.

The master is thus acting unlawfully in accepting interest from the first two servants. His reaction to the third servant that

Well, then, you should have deposited my money in the bank, and I would have received it all back with interest when I returned.

is demanding that he contravene Jewish law.

A historian called Duncan Derret (Quoted in Herzog, page 160) who has studied various legal codes operating in the Middle East in the first century suggests that the system described by Jesus is very similar to the one outlined in the Babylonian Law of Hammurabi. Long term loans would be given in the expectation of 100% interest accruing but above this the lender could keep any proceeds for himself. Why would Jesus be teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of a Bablylonian lending system that was contrary to Jewish law? Perhaps he is doing this intentionally to indicate to his Jewish listeners that the point of the parable is not that the first two servants have successfully served their master.

It’s not only Jews who outlawed lending for interest. Through most of Christian history it has been illegal for Christians to charge interest either. The main reason why Jews, like Shylock, became involved in money-lending in late mediaeval Europe was because Christians, who were barred from charging interest, were reluctant to lend money. Jews, who were permitted to charge interest on loans to non-Jews, were much more willing to do so. Yet this story, as we read it today, seems to be a ringing endoresement of interest bearing loans. If the mediaeval papacy, with its strong, and often corrupt, links to the great financiers of Northern Italy, had read the parable in this way, surely they would have used it to reverse the Jewish teaching and allow the use of interest. Maybe there is a way of telling this parable, which gives it a different meaning, but which we have lost in the church today?

The final problem I want to draw your attention to is the proclamation that the third servant makes in front of his master (vs 24 and 25):

Sir, I know you are a hard man; you reap harvests where you did not plant, and you gather crops where you did not scatter seed.  I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground. 

Why on earth, given the understanding of the parable with which we are all familiar, would the third servant say this? He must be expecting to be punished and we might expet him to be apologetic to ameleiorate that punishment, but no, he is defiant and even accuses his master of wrongdoing. This is despite the point of the story appearing to depend on the master and the first two servants being taken as examples of how we are required to behave. The sentence simply doesn’t fit.

The parable isn’t as simple as I’d first assumed is it. It’s almost as if we are missing something – that we are perhaps telling the story in the wrong way. Is there another way of telling this story in a way that does make sense? Well my browsing led me to some references  (Parables of Sunversive Speech, W.R Herzog) to the interpretation placed on this story by a group of poor Latin American farmers when they were first told this story. They recognised, from their own experience, that returns of 100% can only be made if someone has been exploited and they were used to being exploited. They rebellled at the idea that God would give to those already have. They wresteld with the same issues that I’ve been wrestling with and came up with a radically different interpretation.

Then I found a sermon by an Australian Baptist pastor called Alison Sampson which retold this imaginatively in a contemporary context. I’ve chosen to re-tell it differently, using my own words, but acknolwedge my debt to her. I’ve also chosen to add a little extra section at the end which goes beyond a direct interpretation of the parable but which reminds us that Matthew groups this with several other parables and sayings which Jesus shares with his disciples in Jerusalem in Holy Weeek and concludes with predicting that in two days time he will be handed over to be crucified (Matthew 26:1-2).

I’ve actually publiushed my version as a separate post so that people can read it without the preamble, you can read it at this link.

 

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The parable of the talents reimagined

The reason for suggesting a contemporary re-imagination of the extremely familiar Parable of the Talents is outlined in the sermon you can read at this link. It is heavily influenced by an earlier sermon published by Alison Sampson in Melbourne which you can read at this link.

Once upon a time there was a very rich man. Like many self-made men he had got where he was by focussing closely on his own interests. If costs or corners needed to be cut he would cut them, regardless of the consequences to anyone else. His ruthless exploitation led him to amass a considerable fortune which he stashed in a number of different tax havens. Most of this, he was amazed to find out from his lawyers, was entirely legal but, not satisfied, he’d started in dabbling in schemes that were borderline, to say the least. The tax authorities in his own country were catching up with him and it was provident to spend a few years abroad to ensure that he no longer qualified as resident for tax purposes.

He still had considerable business interests so called in his three closets advisors. To his most trusted advisor he allocated 5 million pounds and to the next he allocated 2 million. There had always been something he considered a little strange about the third, so he only allocated him 1 million. He then left for somewhere sunny.

The first advisor was delighted at the freedom this gave him. He set up a small venture capital company which bought up start-up companies who had demonstrated early profitability from making new and more devastating weapons. He stripped them of their assets and relocated production to parts of Africa where he could pay rock bottom wages. He used his network of business contacts across the Middle East selling to a number of dictators who were often fighting each other and occasional needed to silence minority groups of one sort of another in their own countries. He made money hand ver fist and in no time at all had doubled his master’s stake. He considered that enough to give back and secreted the rest in the same tax havens his master had used so that he could keep it for himself.

The second advisor only(!) had 2 million pounds so had to be more modest. He took over a boutique fast food restaurant that specialised in locally sourced organic burgers. He soon realised that he could buy much cheaper meat from factory farms on  the international market. They fed their cattle on cheap soya from farms in what had once been the Amazon rain forest. The advisor only ever employed 16 and 17 year olds in his restaurant as the legal minimum wage for them  was considerably lower than for anyone older. He outsourced his deliveries to “sub-contractors” which meant he didn’t even need to pay them that much. Again the money rolled in. He doubled the original stake even given the huge salary that he paid to himself.

The final advisor was different, he’d never liked his master’s business methods. He’d been disgusted by them but, coming from a poor background, had little choice but to carry on to keep his employment. Had he once given a hint to his master of what he truly felt he would have been dismissed immediately. Here was an opportunity. He was his own man while his master was away. He’d earned well over recent years and could actually afford to do nothing for a while if he didn’t want to.

What should he do with the money while he took his break? He’d read that even the paltry interest that the local banks offered was often derived from exploiting workers in different parts of the world and indirectly to climate change. He didn’t want to be dishonest, so he chose to just bury the money. It felt like a weight of his back. He went into the surrounding country and got together a small group of friends. They wandered around telling people of the wonders of God and the immanence of his Kingdom. They cast out demons, healed the sick and even gave sight to the blind.

Eventually the very rich man’s tax consultants thought it was safe for him to return and he summoned his advisors to give an account of their activities. He was delighted with the first advisor, his prodigy, a real chip off the old block. He slapped him heartily on the back, “Well done, I’m going to appoint you to an even more senior position than you have already, but first join me tonight for a feast, where there’ll be rich food and fine wine and loose women.”

He was no less delighted with the second advisor who he thought had done equally well. He slapped him heartily on the back, “Well done, you’re going to get a top job as well, but first join me tonight for a feast, where there’ll be rich food and fine wine and loose women.”

When it came to the third advisor he looked with disdain on his original million pounds which was presented back to him. “I always thought there was something wrong with you … “he started to rant. But the third advisor stood his ground, he’d had enough. “I’ve always hated working for you”, he said, “the way your bully and intimidate your managers and exploit your workers. You reap where you don’t sow and gather where you have scattered no seed”.

It was no surprise that this incensed the very rich man even more. He summoned his security guards and ordered them to escort the third advisor off the premises immediately. He took the final million pounds and handed it to the first advisor to manage, “more productively”.

.. but the story doesn’t end there. The rulers of the country had been watching the third advisor. They were alarmed that he was encouraging people to turn from accumulating needless wealth for themselves and instead to spend time giving thanks for the gifts with which God had already endowed them. They saw him encouraging people to think of each other and work collectively to oppose oppression.  They saw him teaching people to think for themselves and challenge authority. The rulers recognised that if this went much further the whole economic and political system would collapse. They foresaw that they would lose their power and status. What would happen to the wealth and luxury to which they were accustomed?

They sent a small cohort of soldiers to arrest the man. They convicted him at a sham trial held at night. Then they stripped him, mocked him, bound him and whipped him. Eventually they led him to a hill outside the city and nailed him to a tree. They left him there to die.