Saturday, October 22, 2011

The parable of the talents

When I spoke at Tribe L.A. I mentioned that I believed this parable was very misunderstood by most of modern traditional christian teaching. Ched Myers introduced me to a different way to read this passage, and I will develop the reasons why I believe it is correct as we go. It is found in the 25th chapter of Matthew, and also in Luke but we will look at the Matthew passage today.

Matthew 25
The Parable of the Talents
14 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. 15 And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. 16 Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. 17 And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. 18 But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. 19 After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
20 “So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ 21 His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ 22 He also who had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.’ 23 His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’
24 “Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’
26 “But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. 27 So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents.
29 ‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Now the standard reading of this passage goes like this:  God gives you gifts whether they be speaking, or music, or sowing, or making money.  You are to use these gifts to the best of your ability... for God, and if you don't, God will throw you out into outer darkness.  Of course these points must be nuanced, and danced around, especially the idea of you will be judged by what you do, as modern Christianity has tended to adopt an almost gnostic love of what you believe or know, rather than what you do here on earth.  In these dances we say... well what that means is each person is given a certain amount of faith, but if you don't use that faith blah blah blah.

Now, I am already getting negative. Please bear with me.  Though I agree with the idea that we should make the most of what we are given... I do not believe that is the point of the teaching.  And if it was, it would not be a parable.  You see a parable is not a children's story to teach us morals using quaint images.  A parable is a device used to violently yank us out of our cultural stupor, or powerfully confront our positions of power, by slipping through our defenses.  Like Nathan saying to David, "Thou art the man" parables are supposed to confront either power, or culture.  A traditional reading of this does neither. It reinforces the culture we live in.  In fact, it does so in a very diabolical way if we look beyond the surface.

In this parable we see that people are judged on their ability to make a profit... for an absentee landlord.  We see that those that make a profit get an ever larger share, to make a profit for the landlord but never actually share in the profit, thought they do get to "share in the joy of their master". They stay slaves, they are never freed, and are always judged by their ability to make more and more for their master.  This holds up the status quo, it continues a system and structure that is there.  How is this a parable of good news? of liberation? of the kingdom of God?

But if we look a bit further, we will see that this is indeed a parable.  Our problem is we get the roles turned around.  Specifically the role of the master.  We have been conditioned to believe that the master is always God, but there are many masters in this world, including Satan, the domination spirit that rules the entire world.  Lets look at the parable closer:

The slave who is cast out says some things that are confirmed by the master, the master is...

mean, or hard

he reaps where he does not sow (which we call theft)

he gathers where he did not sow seed (which we also call theft, or occupation)

in addition we see a couple of other things

these other slaves were praised for using money to make a hundred percent profit?  even in this day that would be considered unsavory, but how did they do it back in the day this was written?  the only way was by lending and foreclosing on properties and then selling them at profit,  A practice that basically made all of judea either abjectly poor, or extremely wealthy

the master says that the slave could have put the money in a bank for interest.  But the Jewish people were commanded not to take interest from each other.  So how does this Jewish God say to take interest?

And finally, how does this story fit the life of Jesus? 

So what does this story really say?  It says this in my opinion.  That the lords and masters of this world, the corporations, the governments, the banks ect. expect those under them to work hard, to maximize profits for them.  Though they steal, and defraud, and do whatever it takes to make themselves fat and happy, the best they can offer you is that you will be a slave that can "party with" the boss once and a while if you make some good profit for them.  But if you decide not to play that game, to take this money of empire and plant it in the ground and see what organically comes from it, if you only give back what is given to you.  You will be called wicked, and lazy, and cast out into darkness.  Which is what happens to Jesus.  He faces all of that darkness on Golgotha.  Which is what we are called to, when He says pick up your cross and follow me.  We are called to stand against fraudulent, thieving, mean masters, seeking only their own profit.  We are called to concern ourselves with a different agenda than propping up their empire, (as we read in the very next parable, we are to care for those others that are not "profitable to empire").  And we are called to stand against the fear that grips us, as we await our ostracizing.  We are called to pick up our cross, and follow Jesus



Jon Philpott said...

Thanks for posting this, I had typically only interpreted this parable in the way you described in the beginning, but when you begin to point out the elements your description makes a lot of sense. Awesome.

laduke13 said...

I Want to read it this way, but now I'm having issues. Either with this parable or the parables around it.

Two parables before is the Faithful or Unfaithful Slave and the master here is God. The master comes back at an unexpected hour and puts the someone "with the hypocrites, where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth"

Then comes the one about ten bridesmaids is about watchfulness, the groom coming at an unexpected time. The groom is Jesus. It starts with "The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this." The irresponsible bridesmaids get locked out of the party.

Then the Talents one starts with "For it is as if a man..." ("it" referring to Kingdom of God... Other translations actually say "Kingdom of God".)
But this time God is not the master...?
This one ends with "weeping and gnashing of teeth" too.

After that is the sheep and the goats, and this is the end of the section. This one is relatively straight-forward. It ends with the goats going away to eternal punishment.

I'm don't want to make any arguments one way or the other (yet?). Just... thinking

john jensen said...

well if it helps at all, the initial phrase "the kingdom of heaven is like" is not in the original text. Those translations that have it say it is implied.

I would also have you look at other passages in Matthew where Jesus sandwiches one parable in between two others that have the effect of making us look at them different.

and, we must remember both what the hearers would have heard, and struggle with the issues of the master in this parable being very inconsistent with what we know of the Father.

I am still intrigued like you with the idea that maybe I am still not seeing the parable of the ten bridesmaids correctly.

And finally, there are some other wonderful interpretations of this that have the people in the traditional places, but give us a less than traditional view, one in particular is Stanley Haurvas

Jon Philpott said...

I think the part of the parable about how the master leaves and then comes back to reap what he did not sew seems incompatible with other things have Jesus said, such as:

John 15:15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 17This is my command: Love each other.

Then again, maybe this is compatible, maybe the talents are the fruit of his love in us? and if there is no fruit then maybe we didn't know him? Like when Jesus tells the story that ends with "‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’"

I was also thinking about the verses in John 17:

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

"May they also be in us" and "I in them and you in me", doesn't sound like master that leaves us and expects us to bear a profit from his gifts.

Just thinkin' out aloud... :)

David said...

Maybe Jesus was not the full quid. Lights on but not always home.

I'd be careful about following a nutter.

Just because it's in the Bible, don't make it so. Recall that some people believe the same way about the Koran, and we all know they're wrong.

simon said...

I think there is still alot of mystery in the parables of Jesus. Perhaps some of them have many meanings. Jesus often uses ambiguity to make a point. Thats where I learned it from hehe.

David said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Neil Innes said...

You have certainly made me think John. I'm from Darwin, Australia - named after Charles, because he came here on the Beagle - he thought the Aboriginals were the missing links! OOPS! The world thinks a certain way and the Aboriginals i work with are blessed to hear that they are made in the image of God. Perhaps a satanic trinity is sin, mammon & death and we know that Jesus has defeated all of them. Peace & power to you big John!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the different incite. Will ponder and pray as I work on Sunday's message. I will also sign up for you blog and add you to my prayers.

Larry Wolcott said...

Miss the blogs Rev.