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 clearly reflects the economic environment both 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!
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 introduced 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 stories. 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 endorsement 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 Subversive 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 rebelled at the idea that God would give to those already have. They wrestled 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 acknowledge 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 Week and concludes with predicting that in two days time he will be handed over to be crucified (Matthew 26:1-2).
I’ve actually published my version as a separate post so that people can read it without the preamble, you can read it at this link.