Our opening collect today admonishes us to “inwardly digest” the scriptures. Trying to digest this parable can give you heartburn! The “Parable of the Talents,” as it is popularly known, is difficult to digest and easy to misunderstand. A venerable tradition of interpretation encourages us to see the “talents” as faith, gifts of the Holy Spirit, or our God-given natural abilities. Every one has a particular gift to offer for the benefit of the world. On this reading, the parable is a cautionary tale about the failure to actively use our gifts, thereby bringing judgment on our selves. The moral is that blessings multiply when we are willing to make good use of the gifts God has given us. Don’t bury your talents, put them to work!
This reading plays into many of our cultural memes: “God helps those who help themselves,” “be the best you can be,” and “reward follows risk.” In an age that venerates the entrepreneur and equates success with the accumulation of wealth and conspicuous consumption, this parable seems the perfect capitalist apologetic. It is the gospel of Ayn Rand in miniature: blessed are the job creators, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And everybody else can literally go to hell.
Even most liberal interpretations are captive to the idea that God is the master in this parable, and that some measure of success – even if spiritual, rather than economic – is the criteria for divine favor. Fail to measure up, and you’ll be weeping and gnashing your teeth in outer darkness with the “wicked and lazy” slave, who merely held on to what he was given rather than increasing it. Whether in terms of spiritual gifts or material goods, if you aren’t moving forward, you are going backwards. Increase or die. If you are losing ground, it is your own fault. Is this the kingdom of heaven of which Jesus speaks?
It seems a little at odds with the Jesus who challenged a rich young man to sell everything and give it to the poor; who said, “You can not serve God and wealth.” Remember that parables are stories that take familiar, ordinary experiences and give them a surprising twist. They begin with something easily relatable, and then turn it into something quite disorienting to our normal understanding so that a deeper insight into the truth can emerge.
Our challenge is to enter into the world of the parable’s first hearers to imagine what was familiar and what was surprising to them about this story, and then to explore how it might help us to discover how God is at work in surprising ways in our own ordinary experience.
A few words about translation may help to clarify what is going on in this story. The word translated as “talents” here originally meant “scale” or “weight.” It referred to the large measure of weight of gold or silver that came in bars, and it was the largest monetary unit in the time of Jesus. One “talent” was equivalent to 6,000 denarii, and one denarius was the standard day’s wage for a common laborer. A better translation for “talent” would probably be “bar of gold.” Jesus isn’t talking about skills. He is talking about money.
This is underscored by the fact that the slaves are each given a number of bars of gold according to their dynamis. Our translation of this word is “ability,” but a more literal rendering is “power.” What is notable about these slaves is not their spiritual gifts or natural abilities, but the power or authority they are given to act on behalf of their master. Note the correlation between wealth and power in the parable. This is not accidental.
So, we have three slaves, who each have a certain amount of power to manage their master’s wealth while the master is away. Two of them leverage that power and wealth to double the master’s money. They realize a 100% return on investment. None of this would have surprised Jesus’ first hearers.
They lived in a world in which 2% of the population were large landowners who controlled the means of production, investment and banking, and consumed about 50% of agricultural produce. These absentee landlords were served by a small retainer class, many of whom were slaves, who managed their wealth and acted as intermediaries between the owners and the 90% of the population who lived below or at subsistence levels of existence. They invested in agricultural loans to the peasants at interest rates of 20% or more, and confiscated foreclosed properties when loans or taxes could not be paid.
The system was exploitative and driven by greed, leaving an increasingly large class of peasants who had been dispossessed of their ancestral lands. It was these same peasants who listened to Jesus’ parable. Imagine their reaction when the master praises the first two slaves for being “trustworthy in a few things” – this “little” amount to the master being more money than these peasants could earn in a lifetime!
The joy of the master promised to the faithful slaves comes at the expense of the landless poor. When they hear Jesus repeating the words of the master, “For to all 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,” they are nodding their heads thinking, “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Well, what they don’t know about is this third slave, who buries his one bar of gold, having only what he was given to show when the master returns from his long journey. This is totally unexpected behavior. How is this slave going to skim a little off the top for himself if he isn’t playing the game? What is truly surprising is the courage of this “wicked and lazy” slave. He basically tells the master, “Look, I know you are greedy thief, living off the labor of others. I know that God is just and has compassion for the poor. My ultimate loyalty is to God. Here, you can have your money back. I’m keeping my integrity.”
Say what? No he didn’t! Yes, he did!
The slave told the boss man right to his face that he was no longer willing to participate in the exploitation of his fellow human beings. The house slave wasn’t willing to live on the backs of the field slaves anymore. Now, this would have been a very surprising twist to the story. The master’s slave unmasked the lie that the injustice of everyday life is justified by God, is simply reality, the way things are. He refused to enter into the master’s joy. He found his joy somewhere else. I suspect that this “somewhere else” is where we find the kingdom of God in this parable: the parable of the whistle-blower.
The kingdom of God is like the slave who refused to enter into the master’s joy – even if it cost him his life. Wow. But I suspect the parable was even more challenging than this to its first hearers. It presents a slave, part of the system of exploitation, as capable of conversion. The kingdom of God comes when enemies undergo conversion. There is a radical understanding of social change at work here. It isn’t just about changing the polarities, such that those on “top” are now on the “bottom” and vice-versa. It is about telling the truth in public so that everyone can be converted to the common good.
This “lazy and worthless” slave understood that true joy cannot be bought. He realized that internalizing “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” vision of the world is an invitation to competition, anxiety, indifference, brutality, and finally – loneliness, utter loneliness. This vision closes us off from our sisters and brothers and it leads us to greedily consume the very bases on which all life depends. We can’t survive much more of the master’s joy. The planet can’t survive much more of the master’s joy. We’ve got to find our joy somewhere else.
The parable of the whistle blower is a challenge to wake-up to the reality of the exploitative and self-destructive culture we are living in and stop hiding the truth: first and foremost, from ourselves. It is also an invitation to imagine another way to live, one that opens us to the experience of true joy, one that really is worthy of our best efforts and priceless spiritual gifts.
True joy, it seems to me, comes from the very act of imagining and living into the vision of a new world, what St. Paul called a new creation, what Jesus calls the kingdom of God. It takes faith to live into such a vision, to even begin to trust that another kind of world is possible. It requires hope to entrust ourselves to a process of transformation that began long before us and will come to its fulfillment long after we are gone. And only love – genuine love, not sentimentality – can generate the compassion, courage, and community necessary to realize the vision.
The vision isn’t new: it is as old as the prophets of Israel, as old as Jesus. One can even imagine that it is timeless: God’s eternal desire for the fulfillment of the creation. It is the vision of the hungry being fed, the naked clothed, the stranger welcomed, the sick healed, and even the oceans and fields entering into the Sabbath rest of God; respecting the natural cycles of renewal that are the basis for social justice and peace on earth.
How will we realize this vision in our time? For many of us, it will mean renouncing the master’s joy for the joy of greater simplicity, deeper community, and more generous sharing of our resources. We need to work less and consume less so that we can engage more with the common good and contribute more to the common wealth – those goods that are our shared birthright: clean air, clean water, land to grow food, art, music, dance, ritual, healing and learning. We need to take back our time and energy from the master so that we can devote them to the work of reconnecting with the wonder and mystery of God, rebuilding resilient, sustainable communities, and renewing the earth.
The joy of this vision can only be realized through intentional multicultural and interfaith collaboration. The Church can no longer position itself as the triumphant bearer of the vision, but rather must be its humble servant. The Source of the vision transcends the Church, and includes many other expressions of the human hope for the earth community. We have much to learn from one another and much good work to do together. It is creative work, it is holy work, it is joyful work.
Our children will be blessed, if, like the whistle-blower in the parable, we can simply pass along intact to them what we have received – a planet upon which human life and human community is possible. There is no “more” to be had. Joy is not to be found racing toward some ever-receding horizon, just beyond our grasp. It is right here and now. When we realize this, the master’s joy loses its allure and we discover the courage to embrace the true joy that is the birthright of every creature that God has made.