What follows is, by request, a cut down version of a recent sermon of mine based on the version of this parable found in Matthew’s Gospel.
We’ve all, although there is always the possibility that it is only me, been conditioned to accept a particular interpretation of ‘the Parable of the Talents’. We all know what it’s about and we’ve heard sermons on it and even Sunday school lessons.
In retrospect, I realise I’ve always found the usual version of what this parable is taken to mean at the very least uncomfortable, if not suspect and actually wrong. The application of a pretty simple bit of context does change the whole way we view it.
Simplistically put, the usual, bog-standard, traditional interpretation offers a view of the cast of characters something like this – we have:
- The rich business man who is Jesus or God.
- The three servants – who are us.
- The talents – which are our God given abilities
And, so the story goes, we will be judged on the basis of what we do with them. There you go – sermon over.
But, if we apply a bit of context and then look at that cast again a very different picture emerges. Firstly, casting the rich business man as Jesus or God just doesn’t fit. His behaviour is not in keeping with how God has worked in my life and it doesn’t fit with other scripture. For instance – the parable of the workmen in the vineyard in Matthew 20 where the latecomers are rewarded with the same pay as all the others.
In this parable, this judgemental individual makes loans (not gifts) to his servants according to his assessment of their abilities – then goes away and leaves them to fend for themselves – this doesn’t fit with passages like John 14 where amongst other things Jesus says to his disciples in verse 14 “I shall ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever that Spirit of truth. . .”.
On his return, the master calls his servants to account and promotes the successful ones and punishes the unsuccessful one very severely – everything is taken from him and he is thrown out to “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth” as the King James Authorised Version helpfully puts it.
Where is grace and forgiveness in this? If this is a picture of God or Jesus then they are behaving like some cosmic Alan Sugar (or worse if you used the transatlantic equivalent of the Apprentice) pronouncing “You’re Fired!” to the failed candidate.
On with a review of the cast. The servants are us – well at least one of them is. We’ll come back to that in a few paragraphs.
The talents – are our God-given gifts. Hmmm . . . only the English speaking nations could possibly assume that a Greek term for a sum of money means a skill or ability just because it sounds like the same word in English. The word ‘Talent’ here means a sum of money, quite a large sum of money, it’s got nothing to do with gifting from God and how we use them. That’s explored elsewhere in the Bible but it is not what this parable is about.
The rich business man loans out money – NOT talent as we have come to mean it. He clearly expects his servants to expand his wealth and on his return he calls them to account and the usual hero is the servant who has made the most money in the master’s absence
Sorry NO – this is NOT what Jesus is saying. The clincher for me here is the adding of a little bit of context – something that the people Jesus told this parable to would have understood straight away but which we would now miss.
Before being further impoverished and thrown out the poorest servant is told that he could at least have invested the money and got interest on it. Any faithful Jewish person would have realised that what the business man has suggested to the servant is that he could and should have engaged in usury. The lending of money on which interest is charged – something expressly forbidden in the Law of Moses. Any amount interest – we tend to think of usury now in terms of the huge interest rates charged by pay day loan shark companies like Wonga.
In Hebrew Law it was forbidden to charge any level of interest on any thing that was lent to a fellow Israelite. This set out in Deuteronomy 23:19 and Leviticus 25:36-37 and Exodus 22:25. The prophet Ezekiel, not one to mince his words, says this in chapter 18:7-8 writing about the upright or righteous person. He says:
“They oppress no-one, keep their promises, never steal, give their own bread to the hungry, give their clothes to the naked. They never charge usury on loans, take no interest, abstain from evil and give honest judgement between man and man.”
On the other hand in verse 13 he goes on to say of the unrighteous person that if “They have lent at usury and taken interest” then they have “Done a detestable thing and will surely be put to death and their blood will be on their own head.”
Alongside the books of the Law and the Prophets the Hebrew people also had the Mishnah (a collection of Rabbis’ teachings interpreting the Law) and this takes it even further – if you take out a loan with interest whether that is money or goods then the person making the loan, the person receiving the loan, any legal witnesses and the scribe who writes down the details are all equally guilty of usury.
The people who heard Jesus speak this parable to would not, indeed could not, have seen the business man as Jesus or God. They would know that the behaviour this man is encouraging his servants to engage in is utterly wrong. It is forbidden – the sort of thing tax collectors and sinners engage in.
So, if this parable doesn’t mean what we’ve often been taught it means – what is it about?
Well, it’s not really about usury either that’s just the example Jesus is using to drive his point home. There are of course plenty of sermons we could get out of examining the Bibles teaching about money.
Let’s reverse things – turn them upside down – it is after all the upside-down Kingdom of God we’re talking about here.
The business man can’t be God because he is expecting his servants to break the Law of Moses. So, the hero can’t be the servant who makes the most money either. The hero in this parable is the one who does nothing with the money except repay it in full.
But he doesn’t ‘do nothing’. He stands up to this man and speaks the truth to him. He confronts him, both by his actions and his words – he says:
“Look I know the sort of person you are and I know I’m just a servant here but you have no right to ask me to act this way. So, even though I am afraid of you I have done what my conscience dictated here is your money back in full.”
And Jesus, who is talking to his disciples, includes the health warning that this sort of action and speaking the truth to power has consequences for the speaker.
The Parable of the Talents is, I would suggest, a parable – perhaps more than ever appropriate for our current times. We are to be the voice of integrity, the powerless voice that speaks up for truth and justice to the most powerful and the quite frankly scary.
We have recently seen the resurgence of neo-nazism. Marchers is the USA carrying swastika flags and making seig heil salutes. Neo-nazi there’s a big misnomer – there’s nothing new about it. We don’t have the Klu Klux Klan here in the UK (I don’t think) but we do have the equally obnoxious National Action organisation – now banned as extremist, the English Defence League and organisations like Britain First who not only call themselves Christian but march carrying crosses.
We should take note that during the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany the church was divided. Some good Christian people initially saw the new regime as beneficial – others who with hindsite had a more accurate prophetic understanding stood against it. A well-known theologian of the time, one Deitrich Bonhoeffer, was very vocal in his criticism of the Nazi regime. He was arrested, tried without defence, evidence or witnesses and executed in Flossenburg concentration camp.
He said this: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
That is the essence of this parable – the need to speak the truth to power and it falls to us who follow Jesus to do this – whatever that looks like, with whatever means are at our disposal.