The long and winding road
How to begin? Well, maybe the best way to begin a reflection on the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 is to confess that I haven’t a very clear understanding of what this parable means, other than to note that it has some rather odd and disturbing messages buried within its narrative. Most disturbing is that it begins with the words: the kingdom of heaven is like.
To begin with, what’s a talent? Take note, we use this word in English to indicate either innate (naturally occurring without effort or design) or carefully cultivated (developed with intention through effort) abilities and qualities. Matthew uses the term to denote a monetary value. Apparently, it’s a huge value somewhere in the region of a million dollars. The parable envisages amounts of 6, 3, and 1 million dollars respectively.
This parable concerns a man preparing to set out on a long journey, where and for how long we don’t know. We will refer to him as the man. Who is the man? Is he God? If so, this parable presents a pretty problematic image of God. The first two slaves are commended for their financial acumen and their trustworthiness. They have clearly done what the man considers a good thing. But his response to the third slave is a little troubling. The third slave fears the man, believing him to be a harsh man who exploits the power his wealth accords him. The man does not argue with this slave’s assessment of him. In fact, he demonstrates why his slave has good reason to fear him.
I’ve seen that road before
Traditionally, this parable has been interpreted as a parable of commendation for trustworthiness. This interpretation hinges on understanding the talents entrusted to the slaves as referring to personal qualities rather than monetary amounts. The message lies in seeing the slaves as stand-ins for you and me. Here, the man is God who commends us when we develop our skills and abilities and put them to good use – good use defined as producing an increasing benefit to God.
As a story of commendation, the traditional interpretation plays on the Star Trek blessing Live long and prosper, paraphrasing it as Work hard and prosper.
The Protestant work ethic seems to be a value of the kingdom. Consequently, when we live in conformity with the Protestant work ethic we are to be commended by God for the fruitful increase that the effective development and employment of our talents produce. It’s very easy for us to see ourselves being commended for measuring up well against the standards of good, persevering, trustworthy producers. Well done good and faithful servants, we hear! The third slave in this parable represents a cautionary counterpoint, showing us what laziness and untrustworthiness look like.
Another time-honored interpretation understands this to be a parable about timeliness and the need to be ever watchful for the Lord’s return. In this way, it follows on from last week’s parable about the wise and foolish virgins. The man’s going away is probably a Matthean detail, referring to the early Christians’ experience of the interim time between the ascension and Jesus’ imminent return in the glory of his second coming. So the message is, be ready! And in the meantime, make hay while the sun shines. Are we not also those who through thoughtful prudence and careful preparation with an eye to the future will be found ready when the Lord returns?
Why leave me standing here?
Despite the traditional interpretations, aspects of this story remain troubling.
- If we look more deeply at the third slave, viewing his function in Jesus’ story as more than the counterpoint to the qualities of trustworthiness and hard work, what can we discern? He has a jaundiced view of the man but it’s made clear that even the man himself shares his slave’s assessment of himself as the very worst example of a first-century robber baron, who shamelessly confesses: I reap where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter.
- What are we to make of the parable’s apparent endorsement of usury – the practice of lending at interest? Charging interest on a loan was strictly condemned in Jewish law. The Torah allowed the practice only when the loan was made to non-Jews. The Prophets prohibited the practice outright no matter the circumstance. Therefore it seems unlikely that Jesus, himself standing in the strict line of the Prophets would have endorsed the practice. The Church continued the thrust of prophetic teaching about usury, prohibiting it outright. This together with the Torah allowance of charging interest on loans to non-Jews paved the way for the Jews to become the lenders of choice in medieval Europe.
- What is the purpose of the line: For to all who have, more will be given, and they will have abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away? This line describes a very common experience for the poor in Jesus’ time. Needing to take loans for basic necessities, they incurring an exponential ballooning of debt, leaving them in the end with less than they began with. This practice led to the widespread indenturing of whole communities, something Jesus would have been intimately familiar with. The practice continues unmodified today throughout the Two-Thirds World, and a variation of this age-old practice of unscrupulous lending also describes the experience of many living on the economic margins in First World societies. Driven by necessity and hampered by poor creditworthiness the poor are forced to take payday loans only to find themselves in the same predicament of ballooning debt. Are we to take it that God commends such things?
Let me know the way
We hear this parable from within our culture where banking and financial investment are pillars of our economic system.
Lending at interest is normal and valued by most of us because we benefit hugely when we have enough financial resource to participate in the investment economy. We see nothing wrong when enterprises borrow the necessary capital to manufacture goods and services and in return guarantee a dividend to the lenders. So for us, the actions of the first two slaves are absolutely prudent. I wonder if they received a warning that because markets go up they also can come down?
If we read modern intentions into the attitude and action of the third slave, we note a very risk averse approach to investment. His fear of and loathing for the man causes him to take the safest route to ensure no loss of capital. It’s the equivalent to keeping it under the mattress or in a current savings account.
At one level it’s complex to read into Matthew and other pre-modern texts our modern and post-modern norms and assumptions. Yet, this is the very task that scholars call the hermeneutical (interpretive) process and which Judaism refers to as Midrash. We read our own contextual values into Matthew’s account of Jesus’s parable, how can we do otherwise?
We live in troubling times. Whether we fear the consequences of unrestricted global capitalism or we fear society’s regression to more tribal and insular nationalism, the fact remains that we are all living daily with unprecedented levels of fear heightened by the information chaos of social media created echo chambers.
The traditional interpretations of the parable of the talents as a story of divine commendation for hard work and prudent risk-taking no longer seem convincing to many today. More and more, contemporary interpretations view this parable with the interpretation of suspicion. The interpretation of suspicion interrogates the text. Can Jesus really be endorsing the practice of usury as the modus operandi in the kingdom of heaven? Is he really suggesting that the man is a suitable representation of God? It notes how elsewhere Jesus is very strong on the need to see the world as it is. Nearly all his parables that touch on money and economics, which are the majority, stress the importance of seeing the world as it is. A picture emerges of Jesus asking his hearers to open their eyes and confront in themselves their unwitting collusion in the maintenance of an unjust status quo.
The third slave recognizes with whom he is dealing. He recognizes how the man enriches himself, enjoying not simply reasonable wealth but an obscene level of wealth that can only result through his power to exploit others.
Now, a new interpretation is emerging in which the kingdom of heaven is likened to the third slave’s resistance to participating in a system that promotes inequalities in the balance of wealth and power in this world.
The tension between faith and culture shapes our engagement with Biblical texts. We regard Biblical texts as sacred, by which I mean that we approach these texts believing them to be vehicles through which God continues to speak to us. We also engage Biblical text as people shaped by living in a particular culture at a certain time and place.
It’s no help to us to stick with ways of interpreting texts that made sense to our fathers and grandmothers.
They lived in very different worlds from us. Each generation must come afresh to its own engagement with Tradition. We come to our engagement shaped by the lives we actually live.
And still, they lead me back
In our Anglican Tradition, although individuals are free to interpret a text from Scripture, authoritative interpretation – the generally accepted meaning of the text as currently understood – emerges only from the common mind of the community of believers listening together. So let me pose two questions:
- Who do we identify with in this parable? We easily see ourselves in the responses of the first two slaves whose actions of prudent risk-taking strike us as familiar, playing the equivalent of the ancient world’s stock market. Yet, can we see ourselves in relation to the third slave who challenges the socio-economic assumptions that result when one person – to use the agrarian images of the text itself – can reap where he did not sow and gather where he has not scattered with impunity – simply because they occupy a place of privilege as a member of what today we refer to as the 1%?
- If we believe this is a sacred text capable of speaking directly to us as a community, do we hear it commending or disturbing us?
So take your pick. As individuals while we hear different voices and messages in our engagement with a religious text the danger we all need to be aware of is hearing only that which suits us. When our engagement with a gospel text leaves us unchallenged, undisturbed, it’s an indication that we have only heard what fits within our set of prior assumptions.
God is a god of surprises, not a figure of predictability. We miss this quality of the divine when we find in sacred scripture only what we are already looking for. The parable of the talents is both a confirming and troubling text and as with all the parables of Jesus, it is carefully constructed to ambush us.
My takeaway on the parable of the talents is that the kingdom of heaven is a paradoxical place. At one level the kingdom’s values commend trustworthiness and hard work. At the same time, the kingdom’s values challenge us to see things as they are but seeing things as they are is not the same as naïvely accepting things as they are. In the parable of the talents, the kingdom of heaven commends trustworthiness while simultaneously challenging our collusion with the status quo of economic injustice.