There’s nothing quite like a presidential election to completely blur the lines between politics, religion, economics, and social norms. Words become weapons in the battle to dominate the opposition and, in the end, emerge the victor. All that matters is winning. It quickly gets ugly when people stop listening and start interpreting. I’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty hateful diatribes simply because the other guy couldn’t tell the difference between metaphor and literalness.
It’s an age-old problem. Jesus, of course, used parables rather than explicit definitions. That’s why many of his parables begin, “The kingdom of God is like….” He did it so often that we can easily forget that not all of the parables are actually about the kingdom or reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. For example, take his well-known parable of the talents:
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ –Matthew 25:14-30 NRSV
Curiously, a number of Bible translators assumed the “it” in the opening verse of this parable refers to “the kingdom of God” simply because the immediately previous parable (the ten bridesmaids) does. Sometimes they’ve even inserted that information in brackets within the text just to get the point across. But, at least for the sake of argument, let’s not go there. There’s a lot of digging to do in this instructive story.
We’re dealing with a whole lot of money in this parable–and it is money we’re talking about, even though that ancient word “talent” carries a much different meaning today. In Roman times one talent equalled 6,000 denarii. One denarius was an average subsistence wage for a day’s labor (most accurately, it referred to a weight of gold or silver rather than currency itself). One talent, then, was the equivalent of 15 years wages. In modern, 21st-century terms, let’s just peg that at somewhere around $2 million. See what I mean about a whole lot of money!
We also tend to make automatic assumptions with parables. Typically we try to turn them into allegories: each individual character represents somebody else. Therefore, any time we come across a king, a “master,” or even a wealthy individual, we quickly assume that’s a stand-in for God. Correspondingly, servants or slaves of this “stand-in for God” most likely represent us human beings.
Here in this parable we find a wealthy merchant with at least three slaves who is about to go on a journey. We don’t know exactly how long he’s going to be gone, or even where he’s going. To the first slave the master entrusts $10 million; the second receives $4 million; the third gets $2 million.
By the time the wealthy man returns from his journey the first two slaves have each doubled their master’s investment. Certainly a 100-percent rate of return is pretty darn impressive, and the master is quite pleased. Each of those two slaves get some kind of promotion: they share “the joy of their lord” and are given responsibility for even greater things. Keep in mind, however, that both are still slaves–their master isn’t so pleased that he grants them their freedom.
But then attention turns to the third slave. While explaining why he buried the $2 million he’d been responsible for so that it could all be returned to his master, he says to his master’s face that he was a “hard man” who “reaps where he hasn’t sown.” In other words, he didn’t plant seeds in the field but he still gets all of the harvest. The wealthy master is furious, calls the slave lazy and wicked for not matching the investment prowess of the other two slaves. As punishment, the third slave loses his responsibility over the $2 million (which is handed over to the others) and then he’s thrown out into utter darkness (allegorically speaking, of course, that must mean he’s cast into hell by God).
Finally, the wealthy master declares, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” One way to update that quote to our time might well be something along the lines of “the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer”–and God wants it that way!
Maybe we better take another look at this parable as to just what Jesus might be saying.
First, some historical notes. Here in 21st-century North America, which is arguably the epitome of Western corporate capitalism, our culture admires those who create wealth. People who can make a buck–or a whole lot of bucks–are held in high esteem. To take a sum of money and double its value in a relatively short period of time is often considered part of the American dream: rags to riches, so to speak. Sure, there’s an occasional Bernie Madoff who goes just too far, gets caught, and spends the rest of his days in prison. This generally proves to be the exception not the rule, however.
The ancient world was a far different place, where the highest legal interest rate was about 12 percent; anything higher than that was excessive and ultimately damaging to society. The ancient ideal was stability in society, not self-advancement. And so anybody who tried to accumulate enormous wealth was looked down upon rather than admired because they were, in essence, trying to throw all of society out of whack.
Jesus’ Jewish audience listened to him share this parable with well-known scriptural precedent as background. First was a warning against stored surplus:
This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. –Exodus 16:16-20 NRSV
The Law of Moses clearly prohibited usury and profiteering off the poor:
If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves. They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. –Leviticus 25:35-40ff
The prophet Isaiah also condemned those who “join house to house and field to field” (Isa. 5:8) in their accumulation of real estate. And so with all that as background, it quite possibly was not Jesus’ intention to glorify greed. Certainly the kind of windfall investment returns of those first two slaves would have been characterized by Jesus’ hearers as dishonesty–at best.
Maybe we should just stop reading this parable through the filter of our own time, place, and economic order. What if, instead of viewing the wealthy merchant as God and the first two slaves/stewards as heroes of this story, we turn everything around? Perhaps the wealthy merchant truly is a “hard man” (greedy, corrupt, unforgiving) who cares nothing at all for the suffering of the poor and underclasses. He’s simply intent on economically abusing others for his own benefit–and he finds two willing subordinates to help feather his nest. And perhaps that third slave, rather than being the villain, is actually the hero who speaks truth to power. Jesus, after all, made it a practice to do exactly that quite often.
But wait a minute, you might well interject. What about those sermons we’ve all heard for next to forever about developing our talents for the good of God’s kingdom, as well as the idea that God wants us to prosper not only for our benefit but ultimately to benefit others–starting, naturally, with supporting the church and its programs of ministry?
Well, I think there’s probably nothing wrong with those approaches, just as long as we recognize that they’re not biblical truths but a reflection of modern-day societal concerns. That, of course, should give us pause. And not only because of all those Christians who’ve bought into the so-called Prosperity Gospel (although that’s a concern certainly worth looking at closely). This approach raises all kinds of questions about justice and equity in our world today. It challenges us to reconsider our views of extreme wealth amid the growing poverty of much of the world, including our own country. And it calls into question why we erect church buildings as well as how we use all our financial and human resources.
Finally, if that third slave is now the hero of the parable, are we to emulate his actions? Are we–as was he–to be on the outside looking in, out there in the “darkness” on the margins of society along with the poor and oppressed and vulnerable with a divine commission to speak truth to power? What an uncomfortable thought, but one that in its own way leads us to this counsel of the apostle Paul:
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. –1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 NRSV
P.S. I have benefited greatly (and borrowed liberally) from an excellent article by Ched Myers and Eric DeBode, “Towering Trees and Talented Slaves,” The Other Side (May/June 1999). Unfortunately, it can no longer be accessed online.
Some things to consider:
How often have you heard biblical understandings brought into current political discussions? How did that turn out?
What might this radically different interpretation of the parable of the talents say about the way the church (whether an individual denomination or all of Christianity) should teach the principle of stewardship?
Have we passed the point of ever demarcating the lines between politics, religion, economics, and societal standards?