Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The parable of the talents or the cruel master?

As we gather around the scriptures each week in church and listen for Jesus word to us I sometimes wonder how we actually perceive what we are doing.

What are you expecting as you listen?  Are you possibly hoping that what the scriptures and sermon do is become a mirror reflecting our already established world views and spiritual ideas back on ourselves?  Or are you hoping that instead of a pane of glass in the frame, a window which helps us look into the real world of God’s love and the promise of a coming kingdom?

This is a fundamental and important question for each one of you and me to grapple with.  What is that we are doing as we listen?  I think if we take seriously the idea that when Christ is present he is inviting us to look through a window and not into a mirror serious questions arise around the nature of the real world.

It seems somehow a little more weighty to make such claims as this today whilst the G20 meets in Brisbane.  I saw a comment in response to some of the alternative G20 activities, protests and meetings and so on, that at least the world leaders meeting at the G20  live in the real world like the rest of us.  But what is the real world and what is Christ calling us to?

So as look at the story that Jesus told this morning I believe we need to remember the basic convictions of the Christian faith and use that as our frame around that mirror. 

God created all things. Human beings were given a special place and relationship with God, and the creation.  Human beings have not responded faithfully in that relationship.  Jesus came into the world and lived as God among us.  Through Jesus’ life death and resurrection God has renewed the relationship and shown us mercy.  In all of this the frame through which we look is the framework of grace, which is ultimately embodied in the person and work of Jesus.

All of this is rather a long introduction to talking about the parable that we heard today.  Clearly this is a difficult parable.  And from my research around it this week I have found it is one which has caused much debate in the church, particularly in the last few years.

The traditional interpretation of this parable is to think of the Master who goes away as God and then to spiritualise the talents as some kind of ‘gifts’.  I will come back to that issue because first I want to share with you one of the commentaries I found about this passage during the week.

Not from a spiritual website but a business one called “Early to Rise”. I assume it is echoing the old saying, ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes you healthy, wealthy and wise.’  It said this:

Why do some people retire rich and most people retire poor? This question has fascinated philosophers, mystics, and teachers throughout the ages. There have been so many men and women – hundreds or thousands, maybe even millions – who started with nothing and became financially independent that people are naturally curious to know why it happened and if there are common rules or principles that others can apply to become wealthy as well.

The Parable of the Talents is one of the stories told by Jesus to illustrate a moral lesson. The message in this case (from the Gospel of Matthew): “To him that hath, shall more be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away.”

What does it mean?

In the modern world, we say it this way: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” The fact is that people who accumulate money tend to accumulate more and more. People who don’t accumulate money seem to lose even that little bit that they have.

What the author of this website has done is taken the parable at face value to affirm capitalism, the growth of wealth and dare I say – greed!
It reminds me of a time when a congregation member asked me where the passage “God helps those who helps themselves” is found in the scriptures.  To which I answered truthfully it is not.  But at face value this parable interpreted as an affirmation of using our gifts to amass wealth seems to echo such a sentiment.

In this situation, especially in our capitalistic and individualistic society, the parable is being used as a mirror to make us feel comfortable, worth and even self-righteous.

I have seen this kind of thinking to justify the idea that the poor are poor because they have not used their gifts appropriately or even worse done something to deserve their fate.  On the other hand, those who have wealth are using their gifts appropriately and are being rewarded with more.  If Jesus is understood in any way to be affirming this system then Jesus is actually patting us who ‘have’ on the back and deriding the poor.

I have to confess that this kind of reading of the parable is questionable if not downright destructive as it could be used to justify ignore those who are poor because the have not used their gifts.

Now of course there is the argument that the talents are not to be understood as money but as spiritual gifts. But even this kind of interpretation can lead to a spiritual elitism and self-righteousness.  I found this reflected in some of the comments made on blogs on this parable.  One person suggesting that one of the commentators obviously had not been given the spiritual gifts to understand the parable and so would be excluded and judged for their interpretation.

It seems to me that holding the notion that the focus is on how we use our talents leads us towards the dangerous area of works righteousness and elitism, in other words looking narcissistically into a mirror.

But how can we retain the frame of grace and smash the mirror and so look through the window into God’s future and promise.

As we look again at the parable despite the error of some English translations this parable does not begin with the words the kingdom of heaven is like in fact at the end of the parable the opening sentence following the story is ‘but’.  “But when the son of Man comes.”  In other words the parable is not representative of the kingdom, of anything it is quite the opposite!

As a helpful corrective I went back and read the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus found in Matthew 19.

The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

Given this story I suspect that Jesus would be reticent to affirm wealth and those who pursued wealth as the master in the parable does.  This made think more about Jesus audience and I was thankful to Richard Rhorbaugh for his insights on the passage who argues that most of Jesus audience would have been poor, probably farmers and fishermen living hand to mouth.  The daily economy of their lives was not lived within a capitalistic culture but an agrarian one where labour was not about building a portfolio. It was about simply living day to day.

In fact the culture and philosophy of the era leading up to Jesus parable had raised some significant questions around the generation of wealth. 

Aristotle in his Politics saw retail trade as unnatural and was critical of making money or wealth as if it were an end in itself. Trading goods, which first two servants engaged, was thought of inherently evil. Plutarch similarly attacked those who amassed wealth in his writing On the Love of wealth.  Much later in the fourth century, the Christian scholar Jerome wrote, “every rich person is a thief or the heir of a thief.” (In Hieremiam, II, V, 2: CCL LXXIV 61)  For we who are wealthy and live a market based consumerist culture can only hear all of this as a critique of how we live.

This takes us back to Jesus audience.  To a peasant, the poor person listening to this parable, the Master in the tale would have been a terrifying figure.  It is not surprising that the servant who buried his talents in the ground describes the master as harsh, the Greek word here could actually be translated as cruel.  He was perceived as harsh and his judgement appears consistent with this.  And might I say inconsistent with Jesus teachings about God’s mercy and forgiveness earlier in Matthew.

To help fill in some context for us who not part of the Jewish tradition in the book of Exodus we read that if someone entrusted with an amount of money loses any of it they will be held to account over the loss and taken before a judge.  In response to this passage the Rabbis agreed that a person burying the money was not responsible for any loss.  It was thus viewed as a wise course of action to bury the wealth.

In addition to these problems the Master suggests that servant with one talent could have invested it, which means the Master is encouraging usury.  The lending of money to gain interest was once again at best questionable and at worst an outright sin.  Jesus himself is recorded as saying in Luke 6:35 Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.

Finally, the servant also says of the master reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed. The master has a reputation for taking what is not his and the master does not deny it.

Even when we spiritualise the talents the notion we are left with is one that appears contradictory to the story of Jesus life lived for us to draw us back into the relationship with God.

Where does this all this leave us?  With an image of an unmerciful, judge that will punish those who don’t make more for someone who is already wealthy beyond measure.  This vision has little room for the concept of God’s concern for the poor.  The Master is a still a tyrant and it has been suggested by some that Jesus is being quite specific about which tyrant he is attacking: Herod’s Son Archelaus who had gone off to Rome to seek the support of the Emperor.

Is it not more likely that as we look at this parable it is setting us up to hear what Jesus will say next to present a different view of God’s reality and God’s concern for the world: to look through the window of grace and hope.

We will be reading the passage which follows next week but let us have a sneak preview now.  It has an edge of judgement to it but centred within that judgement is where God’s true concerns lie:
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.

Jesus audience including the poor would have heard the contrast as a sign of why Jesus was there with them and what God’s invitation was about: restoration of community, relief to those who suffer; compassion and care.  Good news for the poor, blessing and hope.  A window not a mirror of how we already live and what we already believe.

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