Historical anthropologists tell us that the parable of the talents had a very different set of nuances at the time of Jesus than it has for us today. In the Mediterranean world of antiquity the economic pie was pretty much fixed in size. Consequently, the behavior of the rich in becoming richer was viewed pejoratively, because the enlargement of one person’s slice of the economic pie was predicated on someone else’s slice shrinking. It’s a story as old as time. The rich enrich themselves at the expense of the poor. As Jesus sums it up at the end of the parable:
to those who have, even more will be given, but to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.
The rich person, as the man in this story entrusts the management of his wealth to his slaves, some of whom occupied a privileged place as stewards. The parable of the talents as seen within its antiquarian context, is a tale of the complex relationship between the owning class and the stewards they entrusted with the dirty business of growing their wealth. Given Jesus’s strong message on justice, heralding the Kingdom of God, it seems unlikely that he would have approved of wealth creation at the expense of the poor.
From our perspective in the culture of the 1st world of the 21st Century, we hear this parable as a tale of prudent wealth management. We identify with the master’s praise of his stewards who are able, through a combination of calculated risk and skill in the money market, to bring him a handsome return on his original investment. We frown on the steward who buried the talent in the ground because we think this is not a skilful way to manage money. It’s akin to putting it in the bank at 0.1% and leaving it there.
In our world the economic pie expands and shrinks according to the patterns of investment. Consequently, our view of investment in bonds and stocks is a morally acceptable activity. In fact, within the economic values system of Venture Capitalism, it is a praise-worthy activity.
Culturally, I speak as a New Zealander who between the ages of 22 and 53, spent the whole of his formative years as an adult, in the UK. In both Britain and New Zealand there has been a long held belief in the role of government as an agent for economic redistribution, in the pursuit of social equity. I have been conditioned to value this as an important role for government. Yet, my first-hand experience is of the limited success, indeed of the positive drawbacks of this political approach to economics. It’s a great ideal, but experience shows that perhaps government is not the best agent for ensuring broad economic equity in society. By economic equity, I mean the recognition that no-one makes money on their own. I believe the challenge of our age is to find more effective mechanisms for ensuring a balance in economic interests across the whole of society. I refer to this because, for me, this is as much a spiritual challenge as it is an economic or political one.
Christian attitudes to wealth creation
Christian teaching on the ethics of economic production is most clearly articulated in the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a pity that most of this sound teaching goes unheeded because the noise of the Church’s lamentable preoccupation on sexual matters grabs all the limelight.
Christian social teaching understands that wealth generation has two parts to it. It needs entrepreneurs and risk takers, supported by investors on the one hand. It also needs workers on the other. Workers and entrepreneurial inspired investment are both the necessary participants in wealth generation. A Christian vision is of a society where the contribution of workers as part of the generation of profit is fairly rewarded in terms of respect for the dignity of work, and a fair economic return on labor. A fair reward should not be limited to the minimum wage. I note that from the workers side, this might not be such a universally popular idea. It’s great to share in the profit, but not so good when you have to share in the risk. In the pursuit of wealth generation profits can go down as well as up. Yet, it is only when profit as well as risk is shared that everyone has an investment in ensuring that economic endeavors are profitable and for the benefit of the whole of society.
I find Jesus’ parable of the talents challenging, provocative, comforting, and disturbing, all in equal measure. From my 21st Century perspective it appears to validate the emphasis of our prevailing economic culture. Yet, Jesus didn’t live in our world. He shows little regard for material success. He stands in the Hebrew prophetic tradition of decrying the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful. Following this tradition, until the Renaissance it was forbidden by the Church for a Christian to charge interest on a loan; hence the important role that Jews, who could charge interest, played in medieval banking. So given all of this, what might Jesus’ intended meaning for this tale be?
Matthew locates the parable after the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. So he seems to be extolling in both parables the virtues of responsible and prudent behavior; of the need to be prepared for all future possibilities. Yet, Matthew follows with parable of the sheep and the goats, which seems to be turning the tables on what appears to common sense as wise and prudent behavior in favor of compassionate behavior. The message here seems to be that compassionate behavior conflicts with what seems prudent common sense.
Bringing the parable home
Sunday November 16th is a big day in the life of St Martin’s community. At 4pm we will celebrate my installation as the 12th Rector and at the same time rededicate ourselves to the memory of our patron saint, Martin, Bishop of Tours, and Patron of France. November 16th is also Ingathering Sunday, marking the end point of our month-long Annual Renewal Campaign (ARC).
Despite the ambivalence and enigmatic meaning of the parable of the talents, this tale fits well with our theme of month-long celebration, a celebration of gratitude and a strengthening of our commitment to live more generous lives.
In my commentary on October 15 lunching our ARC I said:
While there is a practical connection between our annual renewal and next year’s budget, there is no spiritual connection between the two.
The annual renewal process is not about how much money we need for the budget. If needed, that’s a conversation for 2015, but not now. Annual renewal invites us to conduct a spiritual inventory on our attitudes to giving. Our pledge is an expression of gratitude to God, not an offering towards keeping the lights on.
The extent of our gratitude, expressed monetarily, is an important element in our celebration of a feeling of gratitude that brings us to our knees in thankfulness for our experience of God’s generosity.
When viewed from this deeper and richer perspective, the parable of the talents is not about wise financial investment. It’s about the investment of ourselves in the greater life of the community, as the most fruitful expression of thankfulness to God.
It is only when our giving flows generously from our encounter with the sources of our gratitude to God, that it is capable of being for us, an experience of fruitfulness .
We are the talents
I believe the experience of being fruitful is something we are all so longing for. This quality of fruitfulness has nothing to do with how much or how little we have. Through energy and a willingness to risk, we invest ourselves so that we bear fruit? Through our collective energy we forge a community that makes a difference in the world. Or are we like the talent buried in the ground, keeping ourselves safe and secure, keeping the risks low, and consequently, limiting our ability to bear fruit?
At the end of the parable Jesus says something that seems so out of character:
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.
What if this is a comment, not about material possessions, which would seem to be of little importance to Jesus? What if we read these words as a comment about gratitude? What if it’s a reference to the importance in life of taking risks in pursuit of our passions? We can live safely buried in our own concerns and insulated within our own self-protections. Or we can unearth, as in dig-up our talents, our gifts, our energies, and let our passion motivate us to invest ourselves.
Investment is always about risk. Risk, in spiritual terms is courage. We need courage to trust enough to move beyond the safe and sure, so to embrace generosity as the adequate return on our life’s investment.
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