Parable of the Talents Zeph 1:7, 12 – 18, 1 Thes 5: 1- 11, Mt 25: 14 – 30, Sunday 19th November 2017
Yesterday I wandered round the friary seeing what talents we have. I found fence makers nailing wire. Richard was power washing. Administrators were administrating, shopkeepers were selling, and various cooks had been in action in the morning. In the craft room I found thread pulling, iris folding, peg weaving. I heard tell of cat whispering. Our youth camp here every August held Hilfield’s Got Talent one year. Between us there are many skills we can do, and we are always teaching each other new ones.
So when we hear this morning’ reading called the Parable of the Talents we carry on thinking of these skills. When we hear the traditional meaning, we hear the rich man, the master represents Jesus. He has 3 slaves. He gives 5 talents to 1, 2 to another and 1 to the last. He goes on a journey. The first 2 double the talents and the 3rd hides his. When the master comes home he rewards the first and is angry with the 3rd. You may well have heard the traditional meaning of this story in Sunday school. We were told that the talents are our skills. We should work hard and use them. We shouldn’t sit on them.
We can make Jesus happy by using our talents to help others, to build the church, or whatever good thing we are being asked to do.
But the Greek word talanton – talent – that the master gives to the servants, doesn’t mean skill, it means something quite different – it means a large amount of money- much more than the denarius that Jesus told the Pharisees to render to Caesar. Yet we never use the word in this sense in everyday English. Talent has so changed its meaning that we ought not to use it for money at all, unless we are studying Greek or ancient history. It’s a real shame that the NRSV calls the story the Parable of the talents – its really unhelpful and confusing.
Some translations are better. The New English Bible uses bags of gold. The Message Bible uses the phrase talents of money. Other Bibles use particular currencies. Some translations say the master gave out 5000 dollars. But in Britain I’m afraid this parable has become hopelessly confused.
So when I read the story knowing what talent really means, I’m confused that we are exhorted to use our gifts. And every time I’ve heard it I’ve felt uneasy about the traditional interpretation. I was taught the master is Jesus – then why is he so nasty? He rewards the risk-takers who double their money and is violent with the prudent safe person. In fact, is the master God at all?
I don’t think he’s god but a baddie. He’s more like the Roman Emperor. He’s like an arrogant corrupt company director.
When I hear of the 2 servants doubling their money while the master is away I think of tax havens, pyramid selling, company directors who earn inflated salaries, the 8 people who own half the world’s wealth. I think of Mr Mugabe in his palace. Care workers, Uber drivers and zero hours contract workers earn less than the minimum wage, while their bosses earn astronomical amounts, talents of money offshore. For to all those who have more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away – this seems as true today as it was then.
Here’s a new version of the story. The man is not God but an absentee landlord. He reaps where he hasn’t sown – and that’s not just agriculture but also vulture capitalism. Think of the man who bought H & M for £1 and left all the workers with no pensions. The 2 servants who are given 5 and 2 talents respectively – huge sums of money, manage to double them while the landlord is away. Perhaps they buy shares in coal, or sold arms to Saudi Arabia, or betting companies who have those machines in our poorest cities where you can lose £100 a go.
They may have been slaves but they were quite happy to collude and go along with the business. The third doesn’t do anything wrong or selfish. He buries the money. He doesn’t steal t or squander it. Perhaps this is his way of saying he’s not happy to collude with the master. The master actually punishes him for speaking the truth, and not for failing to make a profit. We could call him a whistle-blower.
I spent all of yesterday thinking about this way of understanding the story – then Luke showed me this recent Franciscan. In it, Symon Hill wrote Centuries of establishment teaching have made us familiar with interpretations of Jesus that favour the status quo. Thus the parable of the talents is presented as a story about using our gifts wisely. I found a very different response when I was researching my last book – The upside down Bible – what Jesus really said about money sex and violence. I showed Jesus’ teachings to non-Christians who were unfamiliar with them. Without exception they read the parable as an attack on the rich man. By this reading the servant who refuses to cooperate is the hero of the story.
If the master, isn’t Jesus, suppose the 3rd servant is. Suppose Jesus is the one who got in trouble for not colluding with his boss. Suppose he was a sort of whistle-blower.
Suppose we should copy Jesus in refusing to go along with injustice wherever we can. In Advent to wait for the Lord to return. We should be ready. But suppose the unjust masters who control our lives also turn up unexpectedly. How should we respond when confronting social, political, and economic injustices?
There’s nothing wrong with embroidery or paper folding – there’s nothing wrong with making that pudding for lunch – all crafts and skills are great – and there are plenty of places in the Bible that encourage us to develop and use them. But this passage is different.
But as we approach Advent, the time of waiting, we learn from our second reading, the letter to the Thessalonians. We must be prepared. We must be ready for the Parousia – the coming – and Jesus can come in so many unexpected ways. It could be on clouds of Glory. But it could also be in a challenge – perhaps some sort of situation, some sort of crisis, perhaps a financial challenge – to our comfortable lives.