Parable of the Talents

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.

I’m clearly somewhere – but where?

It’s been a strange few weeks, I think retirement has finally begun to set in. Just recently journeys, events and meetings have meant revisiting a lot of past history, something I usually manage to keep boxed away quite neatly.

Time spent on the Isle of Mull involved just staring out of what used to be my father’s window at the sea, for hours, not being bored but, fascinated by the ever-changing view. Mind you, having otters, seals and the occasional dolphin messing about in it definitely helps.

Then three trips to London – all around Waterloo. Meeting up with an old friend on the Southbank for coffee after nearly 25 years, feeling slightly nervous about where our paths might have diverged but, hugely relieved to discover that we had travelled congruent ones. Then attending the graduation ceremony for Oasis College students I last taught a year ago. A great day – well done all! But, strange to be there with no funny hat, no responsibility and with no ongoing role. Lastly a meeting in the coffee shop below the college to reminisce about Frontier Youth Trust in the nineties with someone authoring a history.

A therapist once got me to draw out a map of my life so far and pointed out that I drew everything in boxes (and yes, there probably is an entire conference there). It’s true, I do tend to box things off. Finish a job and that’s it – put it away – no need to come back to it – no need to revisit old news.

However, recent circumstances, not least retirement, have to a certain extent forced some retrospection. In unguarded moments like driving the car on long journeys this happened anyway but generally in an unhelpful way similar to the ‘Things’ in Fleur Adcock’s poem.

“It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
And stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.”

Sure I’m feeling my age – of course – delusions of mortality and the uncertainty of the future – all pretty human? I’ve packed some life experience in, not all of it constructive and certainly not enough to think I can rest on my laurels. I won’t be having “I did it my way” played at the funeral.

It’s more a question of direction as in which way am I even facing? What’s important anymore? Do I still want to be a rock god – famous Christian – respected wise adult? Should I seek out opportunities or let them come to me? Where am I in the pattern of Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upwards” or in the journey Henri Nouwen maps out in “Finding my way home”?

I know life is an unpredictable journey and I know I’m somewhere on that journey. I can, admittedly somewhat unwillingly, reflect on where I’ve been but I have no idea of where I’m going or even where I am at the moment. It has recently dawned on me that this sounds dreadfully close to the opening of Thomas Merton’s famous prayer. For someone with my fundamentalist upbringing the absence of certainty about pretty much everything can be hard to handle. To put it in Rohr’s framework the voice from my ‘first half-life’ asks “This not knowing stuff – is this actually OK?”.

“Yeah, probably” the voice from my ‘second half-life’ responds.

Have you seen the pavements?

“Have you seen the state of the pavements? They’re all out of shape.”

The question was a not completely inappropriate opening conversational remark. Walking into the city centre the pavements are indeed a bit uneven. It was the follow on that took me a little by surprise, “That’s religion that’s done that.”. Then slightly more assertively, “Are you religious?”.

Honestly, I try to avoid being tagged as religious, but that’s really me playing internalised semantic games as to most casual observers I do fit the general usage of the label. Tony Campolo wrote, this September, that he no longer wanted to be called an ‘Evangelical’ – fair enough, since he recently revised his original stance on LGBTQ issues his decision will probably be a relief for the Evangelical right in the USA who can now safely dismiss him as ‘sifted out’.

Hi, Tony, welcome to the club. I was informed that I had been ‘sifted out’ myself some forty years ago and have diligently tried to avoid being labelled as an evangelical for some time now. I’ve also been denounced as a heretic – no really – and I’m particularly grateful for this now when the likes of Jerry Falwell are endorsing Trump’s presidential candidacy.

Tony Campolo’s article in Christian Today opens with the comment that “Every once in a while unfair judgements are made”. Blaming any religion for the angle of paving slabs could be a little misjudged but by and large religion’s problems are not the unfair judgements but the demonstrably reasonable ones. I write as a Christian and as a religion we have been judged, at the very least, to be gay hating, inward looking, judgemental, vicious, abuse concealing and irrelevant. Worse that that all of these accusations can be substantiated.

I’ve got a lot of time for both the previous and current Archbishop of Canterbury and the current Pope. I like the tone of some of the things they have said. Perhaps it’s just after so long I’m pleasantly surprised to hear something sensible being touted by institutional religion. And this is the crux of my problem I don’t think the institution of church has anything much of a connection with my faith. Structurally it’s unchanged since God knows when, the 1600s at the least. Still mostly men in strange clothes, in strange ceremonies, with strange words, engaged in esoteric argument incomprehensible to many and comparable to angels and pinheads. The Christian religion and the institutions which control it have cooperated in both propping up and benefitting from the power structures, business and government, of the day. Marx was right “The first pre-requisite for the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion.”

The Christian religion, that should be an oxymoron. The terms simply don’t fit and when they are forced to cohabit the results are all the things we have rightly been accused of. I want a new name. Christian was originally what others called us anyway I think I prefer the old name for ourselves ‘followers of the Way’.

We are, some writers tell us, in a post-Christendom era. Good, that gives a chance for a real paradigm shift. A faith not a religion. Relationship based not institutional. Free not State. Full of grace, not dis-graceful. Not grabbing power over but sharing power with. Not judgemental and exclusive but open heart and handed. There are small signs amongst the tired structures, small voices with big hearts. There is a Way but it is not for the religious.

Searching for Church – Sunday’s lesson

thenwhy    from Asbo Jesus blog – Jon Birch

Sunday morning was a salutary reminder of two things. Firstly, how grateful I should be for the company of former employers and fellow employees of Frontier Youth Trust and Oasis College of Higher Education. Working alongside them I have been encouraged, allowed and even required to think, some would say “outside the box” although I tend to prefer Tom Peter’s view “Box? What box? I don’t see no box. Screw the box.”. As should be the case with all good study my chief learning outcomes have been to realise how little I know and how much there is to read about everything.

In all areas of faith and life being able to talk, discuss, debate, disagree and occasionally think aloud the unthinkable has been a huge privilege I have simply come to take for granted. Being part of these authentic communities of practice, being able to negotiate my identity within them and experience the grace and generosity of spirit they try to model has been formative for me. Yes, of course I could come up with a list where over the years there were ‘bad’ situations where we could have handled things better, where we could have been more gracious, more generous. Even so, overall, I’m truly grateful for the chance to be part of a “Christian community . . . where we keep the flame of hope alive among us and take it seriously so that it can grow” (Henri Nouwen).

Which brings me to the more ranting bit of this post and here I’ll leave out names and locations. As I have recently moved house I am trying to find a faith-based “community of practice”, a.k.a. a church, to be part of in a new location. The second salutary lesson of Sunday came in the form of the sermon which was the most ill-informed, untheological effort I have heard for decades. The visiting speaker, spoke well and wore a rather sharp suit. He managed to take part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ and miss the point so completely that it had no savour and shed no light.

He claimed Biblical authority at every turn as unrelated Bible texts were juxtaposed to suit his agenda is a quite breath-taking misuse of scripture. History was reinterpreted for us in a resolutely childish manner – no, I take that back as it represents an insult to children everywhere. It wasn’t childish it was ‘1066 and All That’ but without any sense of irony. The state of the British Empire and commitment to Christian faith in the United Kingdom are according to the Bible (allegedly, Jeremiah) inextricably linked and thus we don’t have an empire anymore because we have sold out our status as a Christian nation, I seem to remember Darwin got the blame for this. As to the interpretation regarding the current State of Israel – I can’t even begin to unpack the anti-semetic garbage that underpinned it. I live in hope the speaker hadn’t actually thought the logical conclusion of this bit through.

I think it was intended to be a ‘challenging word’, it was, the biggest challenge was sticking it out to the end to see if got any better. It didn’t. He concluded by stressing to us that he there was statistical proof that what people wanted was sound biblical teaching – they didn’t get it.

“That”, as Forrest would say “is all I have to say about that.” Well, no, that isn’t true. . . but I’ve reached the end of trying to be civil.