Reading Upside Down & the Way Parables sometimes Play Tricks
Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30
Sunday, November 19, 2017 – The 24th Sunday After Pentecost
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
We heard read this morning, what is known in many church circles as the Parable of the Talents —the appointed passage to be read every three years in and around mid-November —perfect timing for Stewardship messages about offering our time, talents, and treasures —perhaps you’ve heard this such a message, preached from this parable.
I owe much of my thinking on this passage to Ched Myers with whom I studied the Gospel of Matthew back in January at St. Andrew’s College, who reminds his students that in societies where church was part of shaping social and cultural norms, Biblical passages therefore come to us ‘partially digested’ and we may have pre-established ideas of what they mean or how they should be read.
This one in particular has a pretty well worn meaning in church communities—that we should (like the “good” servants) invest of our gifts (whether they be financial or service) for God in the ministry of the church.
This morning I’d like to suggest, that while I am fully supportive of doing that —partnering in our shared mission of being church through giving in whatever way is right for us —I don’t believe that this is the invitation or call of this passage —and that this passage itself has a different call, a challenging but important one for us to grapple with.
This passage is consistently one of the top 5 listed when people, regardless of church involvement , are asked to name (or at least allude to) what’s in the Bible. It’s also interestingly, often quoted or inscribed by Chambers of Commerce on logos and crests.
Before the 15th century there is almost no religious art depicting this story —from the 15th onwards, it is one of the most popular, and regularly depicted stories.
But it’s a problematic passage, and maybe you noticed some of this while it was read…
It seems to encourage ruthless business practices and extreme usury and it seems to extol a system in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
And it portrays God (if we are meant to read the landowner/master character as a cipher for God as many have done) as an absentee landlord, who is ruthless, vindictive and hard hearted!
I think that this all exemplifies the need to question, in our tradition, what we expect to encounter when we engage with Biblical texts.
William Herzog, former Dean at the Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts wrote in his book Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed that “we expect earthly stories with a heavenly meaning, but we get earthy stories with a heavy meaning” which I would suggest means that in the Parables, we encounter hard truths about our present realities, about the workings of human communities and societies, and even the disposition of our own hearts and minds —the implication being that these are the sorts of questions that our faith (that God) would have us wrestle with.
Now to get specific about this passage —we should begin with the word talent.
Encountering this in English it makes sense that our instinct is to read the story as metaphor or analogy about the use of talents —skills or gifts that we posses, and in a religious context, bring into our community of faith —after all, it keeps using the word, talent.
But the word talent, and that meaning we normally give to it, actually entered the English language from this very passage.
A talenta was a piece of currency, and was among, if not definitively, the largest piece of currency in the Hellenistic (or Greek language dominated) world from which the New Testament emerges.
One talenta is worth 6000 denarii —one denarius being 1 days wage, making a talenta the equivalent of more than 15 years wages —estimated in modern USD at 2-3 million!
A talenta was a very large silver “coin” would have weighed between 57-74 pounds.
A talenta’s most likely use in Antiquity wouldn’t be business transactions (one is not shopping for groceries with a talenta, although one may be purchasing a foreclosed estate) and more likely about imperial tribute.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes that around 1450 CE is when the word talent begins to refer to “a power or ability of body or mind viewed as something divinely entrusted to a person for use and improvement”, and according to the OED, it enters regular usage in English, via commentaries, interpretations, and sermons, based on this passage.
So a key term from a parable becomes first a euphemism for something else (the name of a coin becomes a word for ability), a word adopts a new meaning, and that word becomes the key to interpretations of the passage.
Religious art helps us see what themes or aspects of the tradition are front of mind in the imagination, and up until the 15th century, this wasn’t portrayed in painting, tapestry, sculpture, but from then on, it’s among the most popular.
Now, being careful not to descend into the history of sociology, the same moment in European History in which this becomes a popular subject for religious art, and talent becomes a word to mean ability as opposed to an Ancient, oversized silver coin, we also find the rise of the mercantilism —a new phenomenon in which the direct connection between producer and purchaser becomes replaced by a system in which there is a new class —merchants which does not produce, simply buys and sells.
In a moment in which religion still plays such an important role, this new way of being needs a religious justification (Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism explores this idea), but this is hard to do with a religion borne out of a communal agrarian worldview.
But when the teachings of this tradition become removed from it’s socio-economic context, we can impose our own economic cosmology, and suddenly new meanings are possible —which, I would suggest is what happens in imagining of this parable —for we read it today with different economic priorities than the time in which it was written, so economic and social realities begin to shape some of the ways that the religious tradition is understood
The story begins with a land owner, the head of a great household, a social phenomenon ubiquitous in the time of Jesus’ ministry, as property is consolidated in a small but increasingly wealthy elite. It is very common for the heads of such households, the multinational CEOs of their day, to go away for long periods of economic and political dealings while retainers, well educated slaves manage affairs.
Three slaves, are given 5, 2, and 1 talent, in the words of the text, according to their ability.
Two of them go off, trade and return with double what they started with —and in the imagination of modern interpreters, they are celebrated for this.
Richard Rohrbaugh (not to be confused with Richard Rohr), in his paper A Peasant’s Reading of the Parable of the Talents points out that the acceptable interest rate in Mediterranean society would have been around 12%, anything more was consider rapacious or greedy and that communal stability, not individual advancement was the goal.
So someone who has become rich, likely would have been considered to have done so through theft or extortion —lucrative trading that would impoverish other members of the community.
One doesn’t often appeal to Aristotle when deconstructing traditional interpretations but, I suppose there is a a first time for everything because even Aristotle taught: The exchange of commodities for money with the aim of making a profit was an artificial, and potentially destructive, enterprise. Trade should be mutually beneficial, affording both parties with what they needed and otherwise lacked. Selling at a profit, on the contrary, always served one participant at the expense of the other.
The Jewish Scriptures offer similar wisdom —charging usury is prohibited in Leviticus, and the book of Isaiah intones – Woe to you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!
So while modern readers may consider the work of the first two slaves to be admirable, to first century audiences, this would be deplorable, the scandal would have been the return on investments, which just wouldn’t have happened without dispossessing someone else for the gain of the landowner.
By the 19th & 20th century most commentators and interpretations have nothing but praise for the two, so called “good stewards” and genuinely revelled in the parable’s seeming exhortation to venturous investment and diligent labour, and by that moment, popular opinion is likewise fixed about the 3rd slave who has become an object lesson in entrepreneurial failure, or moralized into a sad case of ‘wasted talent’ —don’t be like the 3rd slave, has come from countless pulpits.
The master comes home, and rains praise upon the first two who will be given more to do and invited to enter into the joy of your master.
But these are slaves, and it is the Master’s joy, not their own that they are welcomed to enter, which may improve the conditions of their slavery, finer robes, nicer quarters, perhaps even servants of their own, but they remain slaves, beholden to improve the fortunes of another, and quite likely further alienating them from their communities.
And if the peasant audience would have viewed the type of action by the first two as destructive and greedy, is the 3rd slave in fact, in their minds, the hero?
I suppose it depends on how you stage this in your imagination —is the slave cowering and ashamed, or are they defiantly speaking truth to power when they say I knew that you were a harsh man.
The word harsh in the Greek text in which this would have been written is skleros which in the Greek Translation of the Jewish Scriptures that would have been popular at the time is a word linked to the Pharaoh in the Exodus story – who forced the Hebrew people into harsh skleros labour and who himself is described as hard skleros hearted —the Exodus story, is, for Jesus’ audience and Matthew’s readers, the defining story and Pharaoh is the archetype or symbol of power, cruelty, and oppression!
So this 3rd slave becomes almost a Moses figure facing off against Pharaoh as he continues, you reap where you did not sow, and gather where you did not scatter seed, and so I took the money out of circulation where it could not be used to dispossess more families from the lands they struggle to hold.
Now his decision to bury the money might initially seem odd, but I wonder if we might read it, especially given the agrarian audience, as satirical political theatre full of rye peasant humour.
The owner has already been called out as a pseudo farmer – you reap where you did not sow and gather where you did not seed, and now, I planted your silver, but nothing grew.
In a spiritual imagination in which all true wealth comes from the Creator who sends sun and rain and causes the seed to grow, this 3rd slave becomes a trickster figure, exposing the truth that money is not fertile —it cannot grow the natural way, only through usury, whereas the Kingdom, like a mustard seed grows, like a grain of wheat grows, like a bulb grows to a flower.
So here, you who hold such power, but cannot make fertile that which is not, take what is yours.
The slave is powerful but fearful, and his fate will reflect that of many who speak the truth to power.
The Master’s response is telling, he does not refute the accusation, you knew I reap where I do not sow, you wicked and lazy slave (which incidentally has never ceased being a go to condemnation of the poor) why didn’t you at least give the money to the bankers? In Antiquity there are no commercial banks, so he’s referring to the temple money changers, that just 4 chapters earlier Jesus kicks out of the temple.
And then the Master delivers the famous line —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 —what may have been read as an encouragement to service, is I believe a depressing summary, a feeling far too familiar to those who today struggle in poverty.
So when these words are attributed to Jesus (which they often are) remember that they are being spoken by him in the voice of a character, who may not actually be a stand-in for God as some would suggest.
The slave is expelled into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth —a vivid image of exclusion. But in the very next parable, which we don’t read this week, what we call the sheep and the goats, one group is told I was in prison and you visited me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…when they are confused they are told, when you did any of this to least among you —you did it to me.
The slave winds up in the darkness, but if you finish the chapter, you realize that it is among those pushed into the darkness that God will be found.
And if the passage that follows helps us understand this one, so too does the one before, which Sharlene McGowan lead us in exploring last week, and not to go into it too much, it ends with the exhortation, STAY AWAKE.
If we are left asking what to do with what this parable offers, i would suggest that stay awake is a good start. Of course, there may be wisdom in here to inform how we invest and spend as individuals and institutions, but 1/2 way down the final page of the sermon is not the place to begin exploring these ideas, but to be called to wakefulness, to think deeply and become aware of the realities of an economy in which those who have get more and those who lack are taken from, is I believe, the first call of this passage.
For if we do not pair with charity with a questioning of the need for such acts, with questioning how we have come to a place where some of us have enough to give another, while some do not have enough to survive, if we do not ask these questions, I do not believe we have followed the thread in our tradition far enough.
In the 4th Century, Basil the Great, bishop of Turkey taught that when you give to the poor, do not accept their thanks, but offer your forgiveness, for God ordained a world with enough for all, and while you sat hungry, my pantry shelves had enough for both of us, that while you shivered naked my closet was full with enough to warm us both, that while you held an empty bowl, my bank account contained what we both needed.
Perhaps the gift of this passage showing up at this time of year is not to remind us of the exhortation to give to build and share ministry together, which of course is a beautiful invitation (something that I hope we are developing the habit of speaking about with one another, not just during formal Stewardship Campaigns).
But perhaps the gift of this passage in an invitation to wakefulness, look out, not in, to remind us that we must not forget, to also hold in mind, or at least bring back to the front of our minds some heavy truths, that are inescapable to some of us for whom these are daily lived experiences —even from those who have nothing, what they have is taken from them.
On the door to the offices of the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry hangs the simple but stark quote, the existence of poverty is shameful, to be poor is not.
And in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, and we are not alone.