First of all, I listened to an awesome radio 4 show this week, which is part of a brilliant series called “Promises, promises: A History of Debt”. This week’s short program was entitled: “The International Politics of Debt” and serves as a good backdrop to challenge some of our world-view before embarking on this next parable, which to be honest, interpreted through the lens of Freire and Herzog, blew my mind! Have a listen: http://bbc.in/18eAr6m The parable in question is that of “The Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27)
Matthew 25:14-30 English Standard Version (ESV)
The Parable of the Talents
14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
I have sat in so many different church contexts over the years and heard this parable taught the same way. “Use your talents/gifts/money for God, because God doesn’t want you to waste what He’s given you. You are supposed to multiply it and increase it and use it for His glory/for good/to show others His blessing…..” But, hang on a minute. What if we turn this parable on its head? What if Jesus is not casting God as the master
, but he is again directly speaking into the societal set up of the day? What if this master is in fact a ruler in an agrarian society
, with a governing class beneath him, a section of merchants, retainers and priests with a few artisans thrown in underneath that and a bunch of unclean/degraded/expendables at the bottom of the pile? If this is so, (and I’m not sure the master fits the bill in terms of who Jesus is revealing the Father to be), then what might the parable mean?
Is it possible that the radical person is not the one who doubles the money of the “unjust ruler”, who reaps where he doesn’t sow etc etc? Rather, could Jesus be highlighting the one who choses to challenge this way of life,
that in effect keeps the ruler rich and powerful, or gives increase to the ones who are willing to increase their wealth through defunct systems of usury, to be the real radical/irritant/one of another kind of Kingdom? It’s not to say that God doesn’t want us to use gifts he’s given us for the benefit of others…..but maybe that’s just not what this parable is about.
Too often, the parables of Jesus are used to uphold and justify a certain way of doing economics and perhaps we don’t want to engage with the hard-hitting realities of what he might really be saying…. If we assume that this master does not represent God, then what might a modern-day reading of it be (also given the context of international debt)? Maybe something like this: For it will be like the CEO of a big chocolate company
, who went to the Ivory Coast to ensure a good flow of chocolate into the West and ever expand his chocolate empire
. He called three of his most entrusted leaders to himself, and asked them to ensure more chocolate at a lower price. He set one of them, with the most experience over 5 factories, the next one over 3 factories and the last one over 1 factory. The first two set to work, thinking about how they could make more chocolate for less money in order to keep their boss happy and the business functioning well
. They knew if they did well, they would secure their own future in the company and good income for their families. Understanding capitalism, they came up with a cunning plan. They decided the best way would be to get cheap or even free labour.
So, they enslaved children from the surrounding area and nations with families who were too poor to keep them, and put them to work in the fields, picking the cocoa, or in the factories at the grinding machines, under terrible and dangerous conditions, in which many of the children died or were abused by hard task masters.
The last of the workers, saw what the other two were up to and it made him sick to the stomach. He refused to enslave children in this way and couldn’t understand the motivation of the CEO. He chose to pay people a fair wage, keep their working conditions good and have strong morale amongst his team. The CEO returned. He was willing to turn a blind eye to the methods and was full of praise for the ‘business acumen’ of the first two. He paid them well, ensuring his ‘fair trade’ logo and set them up over even more projects to continue achieving brilliant results
. The other guy was out on his ear, sacked from the company with no right of appeal. Confused and dismayed, what was he to do? End his life? Beg for his job back and act the same way as the others? No, he continued
to try to live a life that restored people’s humanity and hoped for “the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible”.
So, who is the radical carrier
of the Kingdom of God here?