Second Sunday before Advent
'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.”
AddressHere we're going to be thinking about the parable of the talents, a parable that is well known to many people. We're going to allow ourselves to be honest with the Bible and not gloss over any issues. We're not going to be polite about what we read, but in our honesty we may find a deeper truth. But first I wonder what we think the parable of the talents is all about? People usually assume that this is all about the end of the world when everyone will stand before God and there will be a final reckoning about whether we have done what is right with the gifts we have been given, or whether we have squandered our talents and not used them. Certainly that it one way of thinking about it. And I think it is quite possible that this was Matthew's intention because it is placed with other end of the world parables. But I think there are some problems with that, and if we allow ourselves permission to be uneasy with this parable then maybe there is a different and deeper truth to this.
You see we need to remember that parables may have been placed out of the context in which Jesus told them in order to highlight another point that the Gospel writer is trying to make. The Gospels are not necessarily told in a historical order. For example Matthew, Mark and Luke place the cleansing of the temple at the end of Jesus' ministry just before he's arrested. John, however, puts it at the beginning to make a different point. So I think that Matthew might have done the same thing here because what Jesus appears to be teaching from our traditional interpretation doesn't make sense.
And what do you make of the man's words about his punishment of the slave when he says, '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.' Does that sound like the Gospel message?
I think that what he has said is actually a rather good description of the economics both of his country then and most of the world today, which always favours the rich and leaves the poor with less and less. I don't think Jesus is telling a parable about using our talents; I think he's actually saying something quite different, and the reason I say that is because the harshness of the characters in the story simply do not add up to what we believe about God. So the old interpretation, that this is all about what happens to people when they don't use their time and talents properly, is one we ought to ask questions of.
What, then, might it actually be about? What might this parable be saying if the one who buried his talent was actually the only good guy, and that the parable is making some kind of point about society and money?
Well here's my suggestion. I believe that this parable is about an evil slave-owning land owner. He's already so rich that he's got enough money to give to three slaves to go and play with to see if they can make some more money for him. Just to remind you some idea of how rich he is, one talent is the equivalent of six thousand days wages! So one talent is probably more than half a million pounds. In other words he's just dished out several million! And that's just play money for the slaves to see what they can do with. If he's got this much money to throw around then it's no big deal if they don't make much from him; he wouldn't have given it to three mere slaves if he couldn't afford to do lose it. This is just a game to him. Well two of the slaves play along. Who knows, they think to themselves, maybe if they can prove that they know how to play the system and make him some more money then he'll give them more responsibility. So they take the money they have and use it to make more money.
But the third slave is a righteous man. He refuses to be a part of an economic system that enslaves some and keeps the poor penniless for the sake of the rich. And so he takes the money and just buries it. He's not dishonest, he's just going to keep it safe. He didn't even put it in the bank. Why? Well here's the clincher – usury, the making of money by charging interest, is forbidden for a Jew, so he wouldn't commit that sin. But the other two slaves had no problem with making loans with interest rates that payday loan companies would raise their eyebrows at, and enforce collection with threats and prison.
And so the rich man lost his temper with the honourable man and then said the words which challenge our economic system in ways that should make us all stop and think: “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.”
This is sadly the description of what so often happens to those at the bottom of the economic pile. They are labelled as scroungers when the reality is that they would rather work, but even what little they had has been taken from them. I have friends who have been through this and others who are still there, when circumstances overtake them. I'm told we are all no more than three steps from homelessness.
Far from being a parable about what we should do with the gifts we have, this parable is actually more likely to have originally been told by Jesus in a different context against the economics of creating wealth for the rich by exploiting the poor. And so it challenges us to think about our attitudes to the poor in our society and whether we live in ways that make their opportunities better. It challenges us to think twice about the comments made in many of our papers about welfare cheats, building the impression that everyone who has to claim for welfare help is a scrounger when the reality is that most of them would rather work.
What then are our attitudes to the poor, and would we risk becoming poor and being cast out for choosing to live differently?
You might also like to be challenged by this report from the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/nov/15/coalition-helped-rich-hitting-poor-george-osborne