Turning It All Upside-down and Inside-out! – Parable of the Talents

Black lives matter. Indigenous lives matter. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, questioning, queer, pansexual, two-spirited androgynous and asexual lives matter. Asian lives matter. The lives of the poor matter. The lives of the oppressed matter. Now, I’m making a deliberate choice here not to include the phrase, “white lives matter” or the phrase, “All lives matter.”  Yes, I know, if you are white, if you are wealthy, if you are successful, if you are heterosexual, your life matters. But I believe that there are moments in time when it is vital that we stand in solidarity with particular lives which are being devalued in particular ways. During these days, when those of us who have benefited all our lives from white privilege, we are beginning to learn the true cost brought to bear on so many lives by systems which by design ensure that some lives in particular matter more than other lives. White, heterosexual, and dare I say it, male lives, for generations have benefited from systems created to preserve their place in the “matters more” column of the way things are, simply because that’s the way it’s always been.

This week two stories collided in my being, leaving me to grapple with my own white privilege. As a preacher, the first story is to be expected. Every three years, the story known as the Parable of the Talents rolls around and I must do my level best to sort through generations of interpretations which often fail to sound anything like Gospel to me. According to the Parable, a slave-master gave talents, which represent a huge amount of money, to his slaves; that’s right we are talking about a slave master and his slaves. This particular slave-master has a reputation for being both harsh and greedy.

Now, at the time, making money at the expense of others was frowned upon, so slaves were often used to extort money on behalf of their masters. The first two slaves managed to more than double the master’s investment and the third slave managed to keep the master’s initial investment intact but couldn’t quite manage to earn any interest at all.

Let’s do the math. A talent represents about 15 years of a good salary. Scholars suggest we use a figure of $50,000 per year, times 15, that’s $750,000.00 per talent; three quarters of a million dollars per talent. So, to the first slave the master gave 5 talents, that would be about three million seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. To the second slave, the master gave two talents, that’s about a million and a half dollars today. To the third slave, the master gave, one talent. Remember that’s about $750,000.00; three quarters of a million dollars. When all was said and done, the first two slaves managed to give back to the slave-master an additional 7 talents, that’s a whopping great profit of about five and a quarter million dollars. The slave-master doesn’t seem to care just what kind of methods his two slaves needed to employ in order to make a 75% profit on his initial investment.

He complements each of the profit-making slaves with a, “Well don good and faithful slave!” and moves them up on the ladder of success in his carefully crafted system. As for the third slave, who refused to play the masters game and hid the talent for safekeeping and then returned it without having used it to earn further profits for the master, well he might as well have thrown a monkey wrench into the master’s system. True to form the slave-master condemns the third slave, calling him, “evil and lazy slave”, some translations read, “lazy and worthless slave.” Just in case there is any doubt the slave-master declares how the system works: “take the talent from the lazy worthless slave and give it to the ones who know how to work the system. For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough.  But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” Ain’t that the truth? But wait there’s more. The slave-master orders his slaves to dish out the consequences the system demands, “throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

As I sifted through interpretation after interpretation of this text, I began to see exactly how for generations this parable has been used to perpetuate the very system, I believe, Jesus was calling out, as corrupt. I can’t tell you how many theologians and preachers were quick to insist that good and faithful “servants” ought to use their talents in the service of the church, or in service to Jesus, or in service to God. They simply swapped out the slave-master and substituted Jesus or God, and suddenly slaves become servants, and ipso facto, work hard, put your talents to good use, don’t worry that it seems like the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, just give some of the profits to the church and the master, whether it be Jesus, or God, will be well pleased and you will earn your reward in heaven.  Well done good and faithful servant!  You worked the system.

I said that two stories collided in my life this week. I say collided, because it felt like two atoms coming together, or being forced together, life-forces, if you will, were smashed together to create an explosion which will continue to reverberate in my being forever. The second story blows the traditional interpretations of the Parable of the Talents into smithereens. It’s an all-too-common Canadian story which plays itself out in various different ways all over the world. It is the story of those who have very little and even the little they do have is taken away from them. All too often, this is done to benefit those who have more than enough. It is a story about the consequences of an economic system which is designed to profit those who have more than enough, folks who don’t have to get their hands dirty in order to make a profit.

This week members of the Neskantaga First Nation came out in the midst of a pandemic to protest. For 25 years their community, which is 400 kilometres north of Thunder Bay has been under a boil water order. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a couple of months ago the source of the water they were boiling before it was safe to use developed an oily sheen, forcing the powers that be to evacuate the Neskantaga Frist Nation’s most vulnerable residents out of their community. To those who have so very little, even that was taken away from them as the elderly, infants, chronically ill, and school age children were forced from their homes. I cannot express the kind of wailing and gnashing of teeth, which I heard in their cries.

But one little boy can. Please watch and listen to young Lyndon Sakanee. (cut to the video) “Children deliver their own message. ‘We’re not animals. We’re not things. We’re human, just like you guys. We, we need your help.'”

Lindon, you and your neighbours are not animals, you are not things, you are human. Your lives matter.

The consequences of systems driven by greed and the hunger for profits are all too often taken for granted by far too many of us who participate in the system and benefit from the system. I do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth, whose life and death bear witness to the cries of the oppressed, the poor, the persecuted and the suffering, told this parable so that we could use it to encourage people to work the system. I believe that Jesus told this story to help us understand the kind of courage it takes to refuse to participate in a system as evil as slavery, a system where greed and profits are more important that people’s lives. I believe that Jesus told this parable to encourage his followers to be as courageous as the third slave, the one who refused to participate in the system to please the powers that be, the one who was prepared to be condemned as lazy, and worthless, who was willing to run the risk of being cast out into the darkness. I believe that it is in the darkness where we will meet Christ amongst those who are wailing, tending those who have been judged worthless. I believe that the third slave, like Jesus, like young Lindon, who is challenging us to examine our own participation in corrupt and abusive economic systems which fail to honour the dignity of human life.

Yes, refusing to participate in systemic injustice, may bring down the judgement of the powers that be.But there are other stories to tell; stories about light, stories about joy, stories about feasts and celebrations; Jesus didn’t earn a reputation as a glutton and drunkard for nothing. Lord knows the Neskantaga Nation longs for the day when they can join the celebrations. But in order for the light to shine in the darkness, we must follow Christ to tend the wounds of those whose lives have been tossed aside for they are not worthless. Their lives matter. Lindon’s life matters. Indigenous lives matter.

We all know there are others who are wailing and many who are gnashing their teeth. Black lives matter. Indigenous lives matter. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, questioning, queer, pansexual, two-spirited androgynous and asexual lives matter. Asian lives matter. The lives of the poor matter. The lives of the oppressed matter. Yes, your life matters. Our privilege comes at great cost.

The thing about parables is that they are designed to turn our perceptions upside down and inside out. Do we have the courage to turn our privilege upside down and inside out? Do we have the courage to refuse to participate in systemic corruption? Do we have the courage to be judged, to be cast out, to venture into the darkness where we will hear the cries of lives which matter? Do we have the courage to make our own lives matter, to embody the LOVE which the world so desperately needs? The thing about courage is that it is born out of vulnerability. May the LOVE which is the DIVNE MYSTERY open us all so that we might be vulnerable to the cries of those whose lives matter.  Let it be so, dear ones, let it be so.

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1 thought on “Turning It All Upside-down and Inside-out! – Parable of the Talents

  1. There is another interpretation more in line with your theme.
    This is part of a discourse that occurs just a few days before Jesus’ suffering and death, so not surprisingly, the focus is on “the end times”, and on being prepared for Jesus’ return. Jesus has told a series of parables, including last week’s gospel passage about the wise and foolish bridesmaids, with a clear message: Be prepared! Next week the focus will be on what we should actually be doing in order to be ready for Jesus’ glorious return and the subsequent day of judgment. In today’s passage, there are elements of both these themes, that is, the need to be ready for the Master’s return, and also the need to live productively in the meantime. That seems to be its clear message.
    Or is it? It’s always difficult deciphering parables because, as we all know, parables are by their nature enigmatic, and added to that, in modern times we have such a different mindset from the one that was prevalent in Jesus’ time and place. There are elements in this parable of the talents that make it particularly open to misunderstandings. For one thing, there’s the word “talent” itself. Scholars tell us the talent was not just a mere coin, it was an amount of silver worth about as much as an average worker would earn in fifteen (or more) years! Our English word is ultimately derived from the ancient Greek word “talanton”, but of course in modern English, the word usually refers to a special gift or ability that we have. Hence, we’re more inclined than we otherwise would be to interpret this parable as meaning that we should not waste our God-given gifts – our talents – but put them to good use in the service of God.
    To complicate matters even further, to people immersed in a modern capitalist economy, this parable can seem very favourable to capitalism and to the values that go along with it. In the story, those who invest money cleverly and successfully are praised, but the one who lacks any entrepreneurial spirit, and who hides his money out of fear, comes to a nasty end. I feel sure that, over the last few centuries, this parable has been used to encourage good capitalist values, especially in young people. Not being very fond of the capitalist system myself, I find it rather depressing to think that this could be what Jesus is getting at.
    I was delighted to come across a radically different interpretation of this parable, put forward by American New Testament scholar, Sr Barbara E. Reid. She is a Dominican Sister, a past President of the Catholic Biblical Association (2014-2015). She was inducted into Aquinas College Hall of Fame in 2016 and has received the Yves Congar Award for Theological Excellence from Barry University (2017). She points out that in Jesus’ world, they did not have our concept of wealth as being something that you could (and should) create ad infinitum. They assumed that there was a finite amount of wealth in existence, so if anyone kept on getting wealthier, then they were taking the extra wealth away from someone else, and hence, making the poor even poorer. Thus, in Sr Reid’s view, it is the third servant – the one who sees the master for what he is – who is the “good guy” in the story. In parables like this, we might expect that the master represents God, or Jesus himself – the one who will return, and for whom we must be prepared. But that is clearly not the case here. Here Jesus is not just warning his disciples to stay awake. He is impressing on them that while they are waiting for him to return, they will come up against those who live by worldly values rather than God’s values, so his disciples need to be careful that they don’t get sidetracked by the promise of earthly rewards – even if this choice leads to suffering.
    If we accept this interpretation as being correct, or at least possible, then this parable certainly does not support what we would call capitalist values. On the contrary, you could say that it is positively Marxist! The third servant’s criticism of his master rather neatly sums up as to put it simply, the workers do the work, but the bosses skim off the profits. They reap where they don’t sow!
    But of course Jesus was not discussing economic theory. What do we make of this parable if we examine it in its own terms, as part of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples before he left them? How does it fit in with the series of parables that I referred to earlier?
    I think it could go like this: Jesus tells some parables with the theme of living in a state of readiness for his return. It seems that this will be yet another parable with the same theme – but then comes the shock, the twist in the narrative that really makes the listener pay attention!
    For most of the story, the master comes across as a just and reasonable man, and very trusting. He entrusts an enormous amount of money to each of his servants! He seems to be especially considerate in that he does not expect too much of any of his servants, but distributes the talents “according to each one’s ability” (strangely, this also sounds very Marxist, although of course it leaves off half of Marx’s famous saying: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need). On his return, the master enthusiastically praises and rewards the servants who have pleased him.
    Then he comes to the third man, who has not only failed to make a profit for his master, but accuses him of being harsh, greedy and exploitative. Now here comes the big shock: it turns out to be true! The master admits it! So is the third servant’s horrible fate just an exaggerated punishment because he let down his master? Or is it because he has seen through the master’s respectable façade, and recognised him for what he is? The master is keen to get rid of him before he can spread his insight into the truth to the other servants!
    So, through a series of parables Jesus instructs and encourages his disciples so that they will be prepared for life after he has left them. They need to be vigilant, not just because Jesus will return at an hour they do not expect, but they also need to be able to distinguish between what is of God and what is of this world. The shocking revelation well into the story, the revelation about the master’s true nature, seems to vividly echo Jesus’ warnings in other places, about not falling for false prophets or wolves in sheep’s clothing. Then, following this parable, we have the one about judgment day, which dramatically shows us what is really pleasing to our true Master – and that may not be what people would normally expect either!

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