We often hear sermons on this parable during stewardship campaigns. It’s the perfect capitalist parable. Blessed are the investors for they will gain greatly, but woe to you who shun banks, stuff a mattress with your money and don’t invest—for you will lose out in the long run.
The fact that the scripture uses the word talents, is also fodder for many a sermon on the use of spiritual gifts. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. If you don’t use your talents for God’s work, then you are really missing out. It makes for good sermons that have the right balance of hyperbole, supposed laziness and utter familiarity to get the masses involved, invested or at least guilt-tripped.
But does this sound like the Jesus we know from Scripture? Let’s look at it again with fresh eyes.
A man going on a journey entrusts his property to certain servants. The property is in the form of talents. Now, a talent was up to 15 year’s wages for a peasant. In Luke’s version of the parable, he uses pounds instead of talents. A pound is one 60th of a talent or about 3 months wages for a peasant. The man going on a journey is part of the 1% who owns a lot of property—capital in form of pounds, talents. He entrusts the property, the wealth, in the care of three people. I hope he remembered all of their names. One he gave 5 talents, or 75 years wages of a peasant. Another he gave 2 talents, or 30 years of wages. The third he gave only one talent, 15 years of wages. They were like characters on the Apprentice, except the Donald Trump character didn’t tell the people what to do with the talents. He just “entrusted” them with the talents.
Maybe he was being indicted and needed to launder his money.
Maybe he was trying to hide his assets.
Maybe he was trying to test the apprentice contestants to see who would make the greatest return on the investment.
We don’t know.
We do know that the first two did the predictable thing.
They “traded” and got more talents. Now, trading talents was not something that happened the way we trade stocks these days. No, trading talents meant acquiring land from people. It meant calling in people’s debts. It meant foreclosing on land. It meant transferring farmland from peasants to a rich landowner. The first two make money by whatever means necessary. No one ever questions this practice in stewardship sermons on the parable of the talents, but there it is.
After the master comes back from his “journey”, he sees how his investments have been doing. The first two say that they have doubled their talents. They may well have done a lot more than that, but “double” is what they reported to the man. The master rewarded them by putting them in charge of divisions within his empire, saying, “well done, good and faithful servant.”
It’s the third person that messes everything up. The third person buries his one talent in the ground. The master derides him for his laziness and his lack of ingenuity. The master tells him that he should have invested the money in the bank and earned some interest for the man. Because of his laziness, his talent is given to the richest of the servants and he is sent out into the utter darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. The stewardship sermon says, don’t squander your gifts, but use them to God’s glory, otherwise, you’ll burn in hell. Pass the offering plate and the peace of the Lord be with you.
But I have always gotten hung up on this conclusion. And it is because the third person seems to me to be the most noble of them all. He obediently protects the talent entrusted to him. He could have spent it on himself, fed his family, heck an entire village. He could have fled. But he buried the talent in the ground according to rabbinic law. He was being obedient to the Jewish dictum that burying money is the most responsible way to protect it, especially in a desert environment. I’m sure he protected it from thieves and covetous ones. He does not abuse the money entrusted to him. He engages in no risky behavior or corrupt behavior, and yet he is punished by the master. Now, where people get hung up in this scripture is that they think the rich man is God. But does the rich man sound like God to you? Does God send you to hell for not using a bank?
Listen to how the servant describes the rich man. The third servant says, “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed. I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, have what is yours.” The third servant had a lot of guts and like the child who said “the emperor has no clothes on”, he told the truth about the master. He said, “you are a harsh man,” meaning you are mean and nasty and that people are afraid of you, so no one wants to tell you the truth. We often make the mistake of thinking God is like the master. But does this sound like God to you? Are we so intimidated by God-figures that we can’t tell the truth?
He then says, “you reap where you do not sow and gather where you do not plant,” meaning “you are a thief. You are harvesting someone else’s crop. You let them pay the money for the seed and tend the crops and then you come in, and take the fruit of their labors.” That’s what happens when the others trade their talents. They take land and crops from the farmers—crops they didn’t plant. It’s like exercising imminent domain and saying that my needs are more important than your needs. It’s like taking land and putting your family on a reservation, like the US did to the Native American population or the Israelis did to the Palestinian people, or like the City of New Orleans did to the people who were flooded out of their homes. It’s the same as cutting taxes on the rich now so that our poor children and grandchildren will be left with the bill for our greed.
“I was afraid”, says the man. But he doesn’t say that he was afraid of the master. He was afraid of what? Of the others who might trump up charges against him? Of the secret police who like their system the way it is thank you very much and do not like it one bit when someone points it out? Or maybe he was afraid of God?
Next week, we’ll look at the therefore end of the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which show that God is always on the side of the poor, the outcast, the hungry and the naked. We ought to be afraid of God if we do not care for the poor, says then end of Matthew 25.
The third slave is the hero of the story. He tells the truth about the master. He says, in effect, even if you are part of the 1% who own and control most of the world, you don’t control my soul. You don’t control my action. You don’t control my people’s faithful response. We are the 99% and we will make our case known in creative ways until such a time when the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and the fatling with the calf together. Nation shall not rise up sword against another and neither shall they study war anymore.
The third servant, the hero of the story, didn’t cooperate with the banks, with the 1%. He was a conscientious objector to the system. As Richard Rohrbough says, the traditional interpretation of the scripture is “nothing less than a praise for a homespun capitalism on the lips of Jesus.” Jesus was always looking out for the poor and the outcast. Like Amos said, God is on the side of the helpless, those whom the system inevitably victimizes.
American Baptist theologian and biblical scholar, Bill Herzog wonders aloud “What if the parables of Jesus were neither theological nor moral stories, but political and economic ones? What if the concern of the parables was not the reign of God but the reigning systems of oppression that dominated Palestine in the time of Jesus? What if the scenes they presented were not stories about how God works in the world, but…about how exploitation worked in Palestine?” (Herzog, 1994:7) The servant who buried the talent and told the truth is punished and the rich get richer. The buried talent is given to the first servant who is now part of the 1%.
It’s Herzog’s thesis that in order to explain Jesus’ execution by Rome as an insurrectionist (that’s what crucifixion was reserved for), then he must have done something a whole lot more threatening than tell a few allegorical tales about getting along with one another. As Herzog puts it, “If he had been the kind of teacher popularly portrayed in the North American church, a master of the inner life, teaching the importance of spirituality and a private relationship with God, he would have been supported by the Romans a part of their rural pacification program”(Herzog, 1994:27).
The master in this parable says to the first two servants, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” But the third servant is thrown into utter darkness where there is weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. If the master is a thief who reaps where he doesn’t sow. If he’s harsh and can’t be trusted, then ought we be looking for praise from him or should we be looking for praise from someone else?
Is God interested in us getting money by any means necessary? Or is God interested in us being loyal and responsible? Is God interested in us ripping other people off, or is God interested in us caring for all people—welcoming the poor and the outcasts to the table, feeding 5000 with a couple of loaves and fishes, risking uncleanliness by hanging out with lepers and demoniacs? Of course, God is looking for us to not do like they do in the world, but to rise above it. Like the third servant, tell the inconvenient truth even when a simple lie would be easier. Be a voice for truth, a witness for peace. Then God will say, “well done.” And that’s what we want.
There is another narrative. It’s a narrative of equality, of care, compassion, mercy and love. That’s the narrative of God that the parable hyperbolically advocates.
Warren found his way to Dolores Street Baptist Church with his husband Bill. Like so many people of his generation, he had grown up in church, but had left when the judgments became too hypocritical. He fled like so many to San Francisco and found freedom and acceptance he longed for in Oz, as they called it. And like many of their generation, he contracted HIV. As their friends were dying around them, he realized there was something missing in his life. Both of them sought out a spiritual community that would love and care for them and point them in a direction of God’s liberating narrative. On the Sunday they both joined the church, they gave their testimonies about how God had delivered them and had been active in their lives. Warren then said, “What I really want to do is to live like this song my momma used to sing to me.” And he sang:
If when you give the best of your service,
Telling the world that the Savior is come;
Be not dismayed when folk don’t believe you;
God understands and says “Well done.”
Oh, when I come to the end of my journey,
Weary of life and the battle is won;
Carrying the staff and cross of redemption,
God understands and says “Well done.”
If when this life of labor is ended,
And the reward of the race you have run;
Oh! the sweet rest prepared for the faithful
Will be thy blest and final “Well done.”
The one who says, “follow me” and “I will not leave you comfortless;” The one who promises, “I will travel with you on the highways and byways of this life until we all reach the Promised Land where God smiles down on all of her children, longs to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.” May it be so for all of us. May we work and witness God say to us, because of our faithfulness, like the third servant, “Well Done.”
Citations: Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, by William R. Herzog II. Westminster/John Knox Press 1994