The Parable of the Talents

Proper 33, November 14, 2014

Matthew 25:14-30

How we hear the Bible depends on where we stand.  I think we often tend to assume that any given Bible passage has one meaning, an intended lesson that may be a bit hidden sometimes, but we just have to uncover it and Bob’s your uncle.  The fact is, the Bible gets interpreted over and over again in different ways over the centuries and around the world.

This is not to say that there aren’t wrong ways of reading a Bible passage.  There most definitely are.  But there may be many different right ways.  After our readings, we often say: “hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church”.  But the Spirit does not always say exactly the same thing to everyone. The Spirit speaks to us where we are, in the context of our lives.  That will determine what we notice in a passage, what is important to us, what jumps off the page and comes to life and actually has something to say to us.  It all has to do with our context.

That brings us to a second assumption that we North Americans especially sometimes have: that context is what other people have.
Other people, in other countries with other cultures and other situations, have specific contexts, specific perspectives from which they look at life and the bible.  Their vision is somehow skewed.
But not us, because we’re just ordinary folk.  We don’t have a specific culture, we don’t have a specific lens, we just see things the way they are.

Which is complete nonsense, of course.  But I think it’s a North American thing, being so sure of ourselves and so blind to our own cultural lens that we just assume that if the rest of the world isn’t like us, well, they should be.

So let’s take today’s parable.  We all know what it means, don’t we?  We know it is all about using our talents, using the gifts God has given us for the work of the kingdom. We know we have to be like the first two servants, who invest their gifts and bring a return for God, and not like the cowardly third servant who does nothing with the gifts he has been given.  And that’s all well and good.

But if that is what the parable means for us, what have we not seen in it?  What might someone else see, someone from a completely different time and place: someone like a third world sustenance farmer in South America or India; someone like the Galilean peasants who would have made up a large part of Jesus’s audience?

They might well see precisely the thing that we overlook when we come to our so firm conclusions about what the parable means.  We have overlooked the surface level of the story Jesus tells, looked right through it as though it were window glass, to get to the metaphorical meaning we see behind it.  But that glass might be precisely the part that others might see front and centre.

There’s a sermon by the well known American episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor where she explores precisely this other perspective.  What is this story about when read by the other half (or other 3/4s) of humanity, those who are on the losing end of our socio-economic system.

It is the parable of the talents.  We understand talents to mean God-given abilities, because that’s what it has come to mean.  In Jesus’s time, however, it meant no more than simply an amount of money, a measurement of silver.  A talent is huge amount of money, in fact: the equivalent of 20 years earnings for a simple labourer.

Who has this kind of money to throw around?  Well, clearly the very wealthy.  And how did they get this money?  Well, the usual ways, no doubt: trade, business, lending money out at interest, and working the family estates.  And if you are a small farmer, trying to feed your family, you would find it hard to compete.  And you might well end up losing your land to the big landowner next door.

In the ancient world, as in our own today, the economy of colonized lands like Judea ran on export crops: wine, olives, fruits, products that could feed the growing markets of the cities of the Empire.  Sustenance farming disappeared into larger plantations.  Meanwhile the businessman who owns your field, when he really arrived, might settle in Antioch or even Rome itself, and hire servants to look after business back home.

If this is indeed the economic world of Jesus and his audience, then our interpretation of the parable’s meaning suddenly looks a bit suspicious. Barbara Brown Taylor remarks:

We are seriously supposed to believe that the first two servants in this parable are the praiseworthy ones, both in this world and the next—for making a wealthy man wealthier, for keeping an absentee landlord in business, for scoring a 100% rate of return for him in exchange for their own pieces of the pie—these are the guys who are doing it right, while the third one—the only one who buries the talent where it cannot do any more harm, the only one who tells the truth about the master (not behind his back but to his face), the only one who refuses to play the game any longer even if it means being banished from his master’s expensive “joy”—he is the one whose “overcaution” and “cowardice” have cost him “the opportunity for meaningful existence”?!
Of course the master threw the third servant out! He could not have someone in his household exposing the truth “that he gathered where he hadn’t put anything, that he harvested and didn’t sow.” It was past time to show him the door.
As for that outer darkness where there is “wailing and gnashing of teeth”? it is just the truth about where whistle-blowers really go once they have decided they cannot go on the way they have been anymore—that they would rather join the 99% in the dark than stay with the 1% of who burn through all the brightness without ever seeing those who foot the bill?

Now I don’t know what Jesus is doing in this parable. It feels almost like one of those trick double pictures; you know the one’s I mean, two faces or a chalice, a beautiful young lady or a witch, depending on how you look at it.

The thing about those pictures is, once you have seen it, you can never unsee it.  That’s how I feel about the Barbara Brown Taylor reading of this parable. Once you see the surface level of the story clearly, in all its ugliness and brutality and exploitation, you can never unsee it.

Maybe that is part of the point.  When we listen to Jesus carefully, as we gather here together to do every week, it is not so much in order to get a neat lesson we can file away somewhere in our minds.  It is to learn to see the world from a new perspective: the subversive and unsettling perspective of God’s kingdom.  It doesn’t give us necessarily easy answers, doesn’t tell us exactly what to think and do, certainly doesn’t give us a program to reorganize our world.  But the thing about looking at the world in light of God’s kingdom: once we have seen it, we can never wholly forget it.  We can never we  completely content with the answers this world gives us.  We are left with a holy restlessness, a longing for a juster world.  And for that, thanks be to God!