Thursday, 10 November 2011

What kind of God? The parable of the Talents.

by Peter Lockhart

I recently read Robert Banks handy little book “And Man created God”. A book that addresses issues concerning the rise of atheism, whilst at the same time challenging the notion that we as human being have a constant predilection to make God into who we want God to be.

I wonder whether this is because we find it so difficult to cope with the God Jesus introduces us to.

This morning the gospel reading from the lectionary comes to us from Matthew 25:14-30 and I have not read it quite deliberately because it is almost too well known to us. But in synopsis here it is:

Jesus tells a story of an absentee landlord who gives money to three of his servants to look after. Two of the servants increase the master’s wealth and so are rewarded whilst the third buries the money, keeping it hidden and safe until his master returns. The two who have increased the wealth are rewarded whilst the third is admonished and thrown out of the community.

Now there are a variety of understandings floating around about what this parable means.

The first focuses on the notion that the money actually represents gifts or skills that we have and that the purpose of our lives is to use them to achieve greater and better things. It is an appealing and comfortable reading of the story for many people but one which I would want to question. It runs the danger of leading us into a prosperity theology in which our wealth is understood as a reward for our faithfulness. It could also imply a negation of unconditional grace in favour of an understanding of having to be good enough for God.

A second interpretation of the story is to understand that the money is our relationship with God or our faith; so that we increase the gift of faith we have been given. I think many people are comfortable and happy with this reading of the story as well because it puts us in the driver seat, and we like to be control. But once again I would want to challenge it as it too can lead us towards an understanding of our relationship with God as being reliant on what we do.

To return to my point about Robert Banks book it is more than likely that most of us will opt for what makes us comfortable in our interpretation of the scriptures and therefore our understanding of our relationship with God.

This brings me to a third understanding of the story. It is an understanding which is built on the placement of the story in Matthew’s gospel and the context in which it was written. The story is placed in a series about the coming of the Son of Man and unlike the parable of the ten bridesmaids does not begin with the words “the kingdom of heaven will be like this”. This may indicate that the parable of the talents is not a vision of the coming kingdom, but rather a critique of a current reality.

The best way to demonstrate this understanding is to retell the parable.

Scene 1 – The Absentee Landlord

Once upon a time there was a wealthy man, not just an ordinarily wealthy man; this man was Bill Gates wealthy, Donald Trump wealthy, Rupert Murdoch wealthy. This man had so much money you may as well try and count the stars as count his wealth, but like all billionaire’s this rich man wanted more.

Scene 2 – Meet the slaves

This wealthy man had a group of lackeys, well slaves really, and decided to give them some money so he could have some more for himself. One of the lackeys he gave $30 million, another lackey he gave $15 million and to a third he gave $3 million. If you have ever watched the Apprentice with Donald Trump you get the idea. Then the wealthy man went away.

The first lackey being quite entrepreneurial used the money to trade goods buying them and then selling them on for a higher price. Doing this he managed to exploit the $30 million and turn it into $60 million. In the same way the second lackey doubled his $15 million making it $30 million.

But the third lackey struggled with what was going on. Having been brought up prudently he followed the custom of the people around him and sought to protect the money which he had been given. He buried it in the ground to keep it safe, to keep it hidden.

Scene 3 – The Return of the Wealthy Man

On the return of the wealthy man the first two lackeys fronted up with the extra money they had gained for the wealthy man. Just in case he had needed any extra cash, now he was really loaded and he appreciated the skill of these two go getters. He told them how great they were and that he would give them even more money so that they could make even more money for him. Then he told them how lucky they were and that they could share in his happiness now that he was even wealthier.

But the third lackey came to the wealthy man still bearing the meagre $3 million he had started with. This third lackey exposed the wealthy man saying, ‘Your reputation is well known, you make others work for you and reap the rewards of their labours. I fear you so I kept safe what is yours but I did not try to increase its worth for your benefit.’

Scene 4 – The rich man does his block!

Now, the wealthy man was furious! How dare this lackey not make more money for him! He really did his block! He blew a piston! He even said it would have been OK if the lackey had gone to a bank and engaged in usury, which is a sin. If he had done this at least he could have got some else to make more money for the rich man.

Having had his little rant he then chucked the lackey out to live in poverty on the street. The wealthy man cut him off from his community and world because he hadn’t made money for an already incredibly wealthy man.

Of course these are not the words of the scriptures I have embellished them a fact for which I do not apologise on this occasion. This reading of the parable is far more uncomfortable for us and no doubt to those listening to Jesus.

Read this way Jesus parable is a critique of the systems of this world, a critique of those who benefit of the labour of others. It is a critique of people like King Herod's son Archalaus who had traveled to Rome to have his authority confirmed by the Emperor and had his opponents killed on his return..

Moreover, it could be read as a critique of the behaviour entrepreneurs in our age and their desire for increased wealth and prosperity, often reliant on the work of others on their behalf. It reverses the prosperity theology that has often been associated with this passage and rings more truthfully of Jesus words to the rich young ruler “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Added to all of this the following passage in Matthew with the words, when translated directly from the Greek, ‘But when the Son of Man comes’. This suggests to me that what has just been told is in some sense the opposite of what Jesus envisages when the Son of Man comes.

In this passage Jesus declares, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

These are the ones, the ones cast out by the Pharisees and the Archalaus's of this world that God has an express concern for. It is a concern expressed in Jesus own willingness not only to be associated with them in his life but ultimately to be cast out with them – to hang on a cross, a place understood by the Jews to be place for those cursed by God and humanity.

It is in this act that God identifies not with our ability to turn $30 million into $60 million but with us as people who have been cast out, who are broken people, even lost people who are in need of mercy and help.

As people who hear and understand this message of grace I believe our place is not to be using our so called talents for our own gain, so that we might be given more and share in a wealthy master’s reward. No! Our place is to identify with those outcasts who Jesus identified with; our place is to challenge the systems of this world which enable a few to grow wealthy off the labour of others; our place is to welcome in to the presence of Jesus and his coming reign those who feel ostracised, abused and desolate in this world in which we live.

To return to where I began, Robert Banks caution is to weigh carefully upon our decisions about who God is. Jesus representation of God to us is one which upends the comfortable and domesticated images of God and plants new seeds of faith and understanding.

The question I am left with after reading this parable, and I will leave with you, is do we believe in a God who rewards those who already have much? Or a God who rewards those who seek personal gain through using others to advance his cause? Do we in a God who judges us on what we do and castes us aside if we don’t measure up?

Or do we believe in a God who asks serious questions of systems and institutions and individuals who exploit others for personal gain? Do we believe in a God who identifies with the outcastes of this world and shares in their lot? Do we believe in a God who seeks a way of revelation through which we meet God in serving those who suffer in the world? In other words do we believe in a God of unconditional grace and unending love?



  1. A poor interpretation! The message I get from the parable is 'don't waste any opportunities given to you' - you can replace money with education, for example - a person not fullfilling his potential is a waste- to himself (or herself), to his (or her) family and to society.

  2. @ Anonymous, I disagree it's not a poor interpretation simply because you have gained a different message simply a different one to yours. The emphasis in this interpretaion, which does contrast to one of the traditional ones which you present, is that in my view Jesus is critiquing exploitation and pointing at grace as opposed to establishing a works righteousness approach to our relationship with God. This appears to fit better in my view, alongside other biblical scholars, with the context inf Matthew and grace of God revealed in Jesus. Peter Lockhart

  3. Hi Peter,

    Sorry to not reply earlier. I appreciate this reading, which I came across a few years ago and which continues to make more and more sense to me. How did your congregation find it? Did it lead to some interesting discussions? I've found that this passage is often a key plank in some Christians' understanding of wealth and money and provides a justification for their greed and usury. Reading it this way (noting the elements in the passage and context that encourage such a reading) makes a lot of sense, but is very challenging for those who find their grasp on economic ethics turned upside down as a result.

    Grace & peace,