I have heard this parable maybe a hundred times, and never really been bothered by it. The meaning seemed pretty self-evident and uncontroversial. Talents are meant to be used, we should use them, and not be scared. Yay Master, boo Third Slave. (I generally don’t have a problem getting behind a message of “Fear Not!”)
But occasionally, the cold fish of context slaps you right in your face. As it did this week.
Because I read the parable, and thought “No way am I standing up in a pulpit and preaching verse 29. I will not countenance Jesus’ about-face in church. Nope, nope, nope.” I had a complete and total Bartelby-the-Scrivener moment. This is not the time to preach around economic issues, or to cover up the fact of slavery in a parable. Suddenly, I really, really hated this parable.
And I wasn’t the only one. Twitter and Facebook erupted with fellow clergy questioning what on earth to do with this parable, which posed such a problem in our newly economic-conscious time.
Here’s what I came up with.
November 13, 2011
Proper 28, Ordinary Time
In the movie “Doubt”, the young nun Sr. James, a teacher at a Catholic
parish school in the 1960s Bronx, begins to wonder about the local parish
priest, and his relationship with one of the boys at her school. She takes
her suspicions to her superior, Sr. Aloysius (Meryl Streep!), who
immediately tries to investigate.
But, this is the early 1960s, and this is the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic
Church, in the Bronx, and everything is more complicated than it would
seem. As the movie unfolds, it becomes clearer and clearer just who holds
the power at every moment and who does not– the older, conservative, Sr.
Aloysuis who chastises the naive Sr James for being too upbeat and
enthusiastic about teaching history (gives the children ideas!), and then Fr
Flynn, the suspected priest, threatening Sr. Aloysius with excommunication
for daring to check up at his last parish. In their scene together, he rails at
Sr. Aloysuis– you had no right to act on your own…you have taken vows,
obedience being one. You answer to us! You have no right to step outside
the Church!” he says.
The nun shoots back, “I will step outside the church if that’s what needs to
be done, though the door should shut behind me. I will do what needs to
be done, Father, if it means I’m damned to Hell.”
Throw me out into the outer darkness, but I know that I’m right. I’m not
going to tell you what happens in the end– the movie’s on Netflix, and is
totally worth it. But it’s that last scene, between Sr Aloysuis and Fr Flynn
that has stuck with me.
This parable in the gospel for today is a doozy. If any of you were awaiting
a cautionary tale about allegorizing the parables to find meaning, this would
be the one. That’s a good strategy most of the time, but sometimes, the
wheels come right off the wagon.
Because there are some problems with this parable, if we want to make
God (or Jesus) the master.
Let’s first set aside the unfortunate bit where the master is owning slaves,
and proceed right to the bit where the absentee master is doling out this
money. Because talents are money. Not a newly-discovered ability to sing
arias or soft shoe. (in fact, the English word Talent, meaning special ability,
came into use because of this transliteration in the KJV but the word for
ability is different.) A single talent would amount to about 15 years’ wages
for a day laborer– he’s handing them a fortune each, several fortunes
each. Actually. based on his assessment of their worth. With no
instructions! Just, “here’s tons of money, I’m leaving, have fun.”
So what do the slaves do? The first two slaves head off to the market and
“invest” the money, and make a profit. That may not sound strange to us,
but as a reminder: this parable was written in an agrarian subsistence
economy. There was no stock market.
In fact, lending money at interest was forbidden under Jewish law. It’s
usury. It’s exploitative of the poor. Everyone’s working on a farm to feed
themselves- they can’t come up with additional payment to repay a loan.
They’ll starve. Jewish law says a lot of things, but one of the things it’s
really clear on is that you take care of the poor, and the widow and the
So the third slave’s complaint that the master is harsh? That he reaps
where he doesn’t sow, all that? That part where he hides the talent in the
ground? He’s not being overly cautious– he’s being moral. He’s right. The
only way you get 6 talents worth of money in those days was a lot of illegal
lending at interest. A lot of exploitation. And he wasn’t going to do it.
And in repayment for his noble stand, he gets stripped of his money, and
thrown into the outer darkness, destitute, alone, and defenseless. To the
one who has much, more will be given, and the one who has nothing, will
The heck kind of parable is Jesus telling here?
This story falls in kind of a strange place. We’re in the middle of Holy Week–
Jesus has been talking about the second coming, and how to recognize it–
the parable before this one is the one with the 10 bridesmaids–5 with oil
and 5 without. Everyone has to be ready! Everyone has to be prepared,
and waiting! Then he launches right into this. For it is like…
For it is like. For this is like what our world is like. This one right now. Not
the fulfilled Kingdom of God, mind you, but this weird, in between thing that
we currently live in. Those who have lots get more, frequently, and those
who have less, lose it. Have we not seen this over and over again in the recession?
And while this whole situation might strike us as unfair, might strike us as
not quite right, we also see that choosing to voice this concern has
drawbacks. In the here and now Sometimes, you get thrown into the outer
darkness. Sometimes, you lose all that nice economic security that you
liked so much you buried it for safekeeping.
But the very next verse– the VERY next verse that we don’t see in our blip
of a lectionary today, is the dawn of God’s realized kingdom. “Now, when
the Son of Man comes, in all his glory, he will gather the nations before him
and he will separate the sheep from the goats.”. And when that happens, it
won’t be based on ability, or worthiness, or how much money you made in
the market. It’s based on precisely the inverse of the talents. It’s based on
how well you took care of those who had nothing. On how well you took in
those cast into the outer darkness.
We just aren’t there yet. We’re in between. Somewhere in between the
world of the harsh and scary master who wants us to join him in exploiting
people and keeping quiet about it, and the new world of God’s justice,
where that’s just not an option.
And so what do we do? Which do we pick?
As people of faith, we are called to point the way to God’s future, to the
reign of God where the the first shall be last, the last shall be first, the lame
leap for joy, the sick are healed, and the poor have good news preached to
them. We’re called to live now like that’s a future that makes sense!
There’s no promise that this will work the way we want it to, that it will save
the world, or create paradise on earth. The third slave got booted out, all
worst suspicions confirmed. But it’s not our job to save the world.
Thank God. We’d totally botch it. That job is done. Our job is to bear living
witness to that fact, and to watch for the completion of God’s world-saving
Because when the Son of Man comes, in all his glory, we know how the
story ends. Time to live like we do.
*** Blog post title is Arabic, meaning “Context of revelation”. It’s a phrase from Islamic legal thought and theology, basically referring to the idea that the text of scripture is well and good, but equal attention must be paid to the context in which it was received, (and the context in which it is being read, currently) in order for proper interpretation to occur. The More You Know!