Upending the Parable of the Talents

By David Harrison

When I looked at these readings last Monday, and in particular that Gospel reading, I was pretty sure I knew right away what sermon I would preach this morning. I was going to preach a stewardship sermon. When our local clergy meet for our monthly clericus meeting, as we did last Tuesday afternoon, we have the practice of discussing the readings for the coming Sunday.

Last Tuesday, after this gospel was read, the leader said: “Who is preaching a stewardship sermon this Sunday?” and almost every hand went up. This was going to be a sermon about how we used our God-given talents. How we are to use them for productivity and increase, rather than burying them (as it were) in the ground.

Over these past number of Sundays, we have been hearing a string of parables from St. Matthew’s gospel. Parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like — the kingdom of heaven is like this; the kingdom of heaven is like that. This kingdom of heaven is like a man, going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to their care. To the first slave he gave five talents. (That’s a lot of money.) To the second slave he gave two talents, and to the third slave he gave one talent. Each according to their ability. And he went away.

The slave who received five talents traded with those talents and made five more. The slave who received two talents did the same. But the slave who had received one talent dug a hole, and hid the talent — hid the money — in the ground.

After a long time the master came back, and he asked for an accounting of his money. The slave who had been given five showed, rather proudly, that he had made five more, and now had ten. And the master said, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave. You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in trust of more. Enter into the joy of your master.”

The second slave shows that he has made two more, and meets the same response.

The third slave, the one who received one talent, is ready to go with his excuse. “Master,” he said. “I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you do not sow, gathering where you do not scatter seed. I was afraid and so I hid the talent.” And the response from the master is brisk and stern. “You wicked and lazy slave. If you knew this you knew this you ought to have least invested it, and at least then I would have received my money with interest.”

And he takes the one talent from that slave, and he gives it to the one who has ten, who now has 11. And then he says, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

And so, the sermon that I would have preached this morning would have turned on that word talent. A talent originally was a weight of precious metal. It then became a unit of money. And we use the word talent because of this parable, because of its use in the King James Version of this parable. And that is how our English word talent came to mean “ability” or “skill.” And the basic point of the sermon which I would have preached would have been this: that God has entrusted each one of us with talents, with skills, with abilities, perhaps with different talents, skills and abilities, and we are called to use them, to multiply them.

Still, as I preached that sermon, there would have been in the back of my mind some difficulties. This parable does seem to be a defense of unbridled capitalism. We are supposed to use our money to make more money, trade our money to double our money. What’s more, this parable also says that “to those who have, more will be given. But to those who have nothing, even that will be taken away.”

And that hardly seems consistent with Jesus’ talk about those who are rich in other places in the gospels. Nor it is consistent with the Magnificat, with Mary’s song, when she exalts God for lifting up the lowly and sending the rich away empty. And then there is the question of this master. In every parable, or most parables, there is a figure whom we interpret as being the divine figure, the God figure, the Christ figure. And the traditional interpretation of this parable has that figure as being this master.

And yet we are told (and the master does not disagree) that he is a harsh and dishonest man. But it is the master who gives out his talents. It is the master who calls for this punishment on the third slave, who at least didn’t lose the money he was given. He didn’t gain any, but he didn’t lose it. And yet the outcome for him is surely out of proportion with his act. We are left with uneasiness.

And yet this has been the standard interpretation of this parable. William Barclay, the Scottish biblical commentator to whom I often go, calls this parable the “the Condemnation of the Buried Talent.” Barclay says “men” are not equal in talent, but men can be equal in effort.” He says the reward of work well done is still more work to do. He says the man who is punished is the man who will not try.

And Barclay says that, in this parable, Jesus tells us that there can be no religion without adventure, and that God will find no use for the shut mind. (Sounds a lot like the Protestant work ethic. We are called to work, and to work harder, and to work harder still.) A more contemporary commentator whom I like — William Willimon, an American Methodist Bishop — has a slightly gentler interpretation. Willimon says, “This life is ours to live, to develop, to enjoy, and to share. The faith is ours both as a harvest of salvation and as seed to be sown for the benefit of others.”

So that is how my stewardship sermon would have gone, a sermon I’m sure I’ve given before on this gospel reading, perhaps even from this pulpit. The kicker would have been this: that God gives us talents — time, treasure, talents, skills, and abilities — and God calls us not to bury them, but to use them for fruitfulness and for the multiplication of furthering the kingdom of heaven.

That is, until I began my reading and preparation to preach. I’ll just give you a bit of insight here on my homiletical preparation. It isn’t just a matter of reading the readings and sitting down and writing something. It is a process that takes time. Reading (perhaps different translations), and sometimes I go back to my very rusty Greek (I have no Hebrew, alas). Reading different commentaries, letting it sit, mulling it over, praying through it, and then (several days later) sitting down to write a homily.

So it was in that process that I came across a number of commentators taking a very different tack with this parable. In fact, turning the parable upside down. Turning it on its head. And their analysis starts with what the economic system was that lies behind this parable. This was a time of usurious interest rates.

Some would have made money at this time (perhaps one of these slaves would have made money) by offering loans at high and exorbitant interest rates to subsistence farmers, and then when these poor farmers defaulted on their loans (as they were bound to), their land would be taken away from them.

Some might have made money by offering a currency exchange service at the Temple. Pilgrims would come from all over with their own currency and the need to convert that to Jewish currency in order to make a sacrificial offering at the Temple. And interest rates and charges would be charged on those currency exchanges. (Remember that Jesus, in another part of the gospels, upends the tables of the money changers in the Temple.)

And some would have put money on deposit at the Temple, which was a strategy to avoid taxes. Money on deposit at the temple would have been immune from debt forgiveness at the time of jubilee forgiveness.

What’s more, a common practice for those with money would be to let their slaves do all the dirty work rather than to sully their hands with all this nasty business. So they had money managers. So this third slave, he hid his talent, he hid that money. He shielded it from this corrupt and unfair economic system. He refused to participate in this economy. Perhaps — just perhaps — he is the hero of this story, the one that refused to go along, the one who took the risk of taking a stand and saying “No.” “Enough.”

If this upside-down interpretation is the case, then what are we to think of this third slave’s fate? Being cast into outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Who is the divine figure in this parable? Maybe he, this third slave, is the divine figure in this parable. Maybe it is he we are intended to admire? Maybe the one from whom we are intended to have an insight into what the kingdom of heaven is really like. Maybe in this parable he is the Christ, who, yes, was also thrown into the outer darkness of the Cross. And who suffered death for us and for our transgressions.

A recent preacher here suggested to us that parables are intended to disrupt us. They are intended to make us think. To ponder. To consider anew. There are stewardship sermons to be preached about using what God has given us for the building up of the kingdom of God. And maybe —maybe — one of those things, one of those gifts, one of those talents that God has given us, is our sense of justice and fairness and belief and adherence to the values of the gospel.

And maybe that gift is the willingness for us, as individuals, as a parish, as a diocese, as a church — our willingness to stand up for those things and to stand against those who extort, and those who avoid taxes, and those who are unforgiving, and those who are harsh and duplicitous. Maybe it is by standing up and saying “no” — standing up for fairness, and justice, and truth — and equity.

Maybe that is how we truly enter into the joy of our master.


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