The Upside-Down World of the Parable of the Talents
by Sylvia Keesmaat
It was one of those days that a teacher lives for. My class and I were reading biblical interpretations by African biblical scholars and for our closing reflection we were reading and pondering the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 and Luke 19. That’s when it happened. One of my students, Donald, who is from Sierra Leone, suddenly said, “Wait a minute! This parable doesn’t say anywhere that the king is God. It doesn’t say that this is even a parable of the kingdom. In fact, this king describes himself as a harsh man, who takes what he doesn’t deposit and reaps what he doesn’t sow (Luke 19.22; Matt 25.16). What if the hero of this parable is actually the slave who doesn’t invest his money?”
Another student, Amy, piped up “But that doesn’t work. The text says that the one who didn’t invest his money is wicked and lazy.”
“Ah,” said Donald, “but who calls him wicked and lazy? The harsh king! The only clue we have about what others think of the slave is when the bystanders protest when the slave’s money is taken and given to the wealthier slave (Luke 19.25). Sure, the harsh king calls him wicked and lazy, but then, the king himself is described as harsh and wicked. Anyone he condemns is actually the hero of the story!”
“I don’t know,” said Amy, “I’ve always thought this parable was about the gifts that God has given us. And surely we are supposed to develop those.”
“There’s only one problem with that interpretation,” said Donald. “The story isn’t about the gifts that we have. It is about money.”
“Well, yes it’s about money,” responded Amy, “but it is a parable. Money is a symbol for something else in a parable.”
“Jesus doesn’t say that anywhere,” Donald answered. “Why is it that every time we read a parable about money we interpret it as being about something else? Jesus talked a lot about money. In fact, the stories that surround this parable are about money, too. In Luke 19 this story follows the story of Zaccheus, a rich tax collector who gave away half of his money and repaid fourfold all that he had taken.”
Suddenly Donald became very excited. “Wait a minute!” he shouted (shouting with excitement about the Bible is allowed in my classes). “Maybe the unfaithful slave is Zaccheus! Zaccheus had all kinds of money. And instead of investing it responsibly, he started giving it away! I bet that his sons were furious with him. After all, this was their inheritance that he was squandering by being so generous. And even though he was a chief tax collector, there was probably another bureaucrat over him who was tearing out his hair when he discovered what Zaccheus was doing. I bet he was called a wicked and lazy servant for suddenly stepping out of his role as tax collector. Suddenly the flow of money going up stopped, and it stopped with Zaccheus. Maybe this parable is meant to affirm what Zaccheus had just done!”
“Well, sure the Zaccheus story is about money,” said Amy. “But the parable preceding this story in Matthew 25 isn’t.”
“But look at what follows the parable of the talents in Matthew,” said Donald. “It’s the parable of the sheep and the goats. That’s about whether you practice a generosity that provides food for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort to the sick and imprisoned. Such generosity is against the kind of hoarding that is necessary to make a profit, the kind of harshness that characterized the king in the parable of the talents.”
“Then what about the punishment?” asked Amy. “What about the fact that the slave is thrown into the darkness, into the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth? He has become an outcast.”
Donald thought for a moment. “The startling thing about the gospels,” he said, “is the way that the outcast is treated. In fact, Jesus is continually accused of welcoming outcasts and sinners and eating with them. Perhaps by being punished by this harsh king, the slave became the kind of person that Jesus welcomed to follow him.”
I don’t always have such exegetically exciting classes (and I’ve streamlined the discussion from this one in my retelling). This class, however, sent me away pondering the text anew. And so I decided to give Donald’s reading a try. And I decided to do so by entering into the narrative, by trying to see the story from the perspective of the slave.
You had been feeling uneasy for a number of weeks now. Ever since your brother-in-law tricked you into seeing that new preacher, Jesus, you’ve found it harder and harder to do your work. Not that anyone is keeping close tabs on you; you’ve been one of the highest ranking slaves in the household of Lucretius for many years now. In fact, you are so accomplished at making money that out of 50 slaves in the household only two others have higher positions than yours. You are known throughout Galilee for your sharp bargaining skills, and your business acumen. You have singlehandedly acquired thousands of acres of land by repossessing farms when the owners were unable to pay the 200% interest rate that is common in this area. And your master has rewarded you handsomely and welcomed you into the joy of his kingdom. Not that you need it; you have ensured that your master’s profits have fed your coffers as well.
But it has all become harder since you heard Jesus. Not that you took Jesus seriously the first time you heard him. It was pure coincidence that you had been there. You had stopped by at your sister’s to bring birthday greetings to your brother-in-law and, incidentally, to collect his rent, when you discovered him rushing out the door with your sister. “Come on,” they said, “we’ve got a wonderful surprise for you.”
And so you went, not suspecting at all what you were in for. You joined the rest of the village as they thronged to a mountain near the sea. You didn’t know what to expect, and well, what you saw and heard didn’t exactly make you want to hear more. There was this Jesus, with a motley bunch of guys hanging around him. He was saying the most outrageous things, and the people were hanging on every word. To be fair, at first it wasn’t so bad: “If anyone wants your coat, give your cloak as well.” That would sure make your job easier. And “do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Well, you generally didn’t refuse anyone, unless of course they had no land.
But it went downhill from there. “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors” and “do not store up for yourself treasures on earth” and “you cannot serve God and wealth” — good grief, you serve God with your wealth, don’t you? And “do not worry about what you will eat; what you will drink, and what you will wear”. At that point you left in disgust. You didn’t need to hear any more from this preacher who obviously knew nothing about real life economics.
And despite your brother-in-law’s urgings, you refused to go and hear this Jesus again. Until a year had passed and you were once again making your birthday visit. But this time your brother-in-law was visiting a friend at the other end of the village and so you walked over. And the next thing you knew, you were in a crowd with this Jesus again and he was telling this crazy story of a king who forgave the debts of all his slaves–just forgave them! (Matt 18). And then the king expected his slaves to pass that forgiveness on! But what made it really odious, was that this king was equated with God — and the kingdom of God with such forgiveness! You couldn’t believe it. Why, no kingdom could flourish on forgiveness. Every kingdom you knew of flourished precisely by not forgiving, by demanding huge interest, by taking land if interest could not be paid. In fact, this was the only way to turn a profit that you were aware of. How could a kingdom work any other way? You shrugged your shoulders. Why were you getting so upset? It was only a story. No one had ever acted this way.
But as you went around your daily work, you discovered that you were feeling increasingly uncomfortable. You couldn’t imagine why, but you felt that you were going soft. The story of that kingdom of forgiveness had captivated your imagination; you found yourself imagining what it would be like to work for such a king whose standard was forgiveness and not profit. You caught yourself wondering what would happen if you ever tried such a practice. No, it was crazy.
But after that brief glimpse of something different, you discovered that it was getting harder. Harder to face the farmers whose land you were foreclosing. Harder to make the impossible demand of 150 or 200% interest. You found that your joy was being replaced by — could it be? — something like shame?
And then your brother-in-law showed up again with more stories of Jesus. Stories of a landowner who paid all his labourers the same wage, no matter how long they worked, saying the first shall be last and the last shall be first [Matt 20.1-16]. He told of a rich young ruler, who was told to sell his possessions and give them to the poor [Matt 19].
He urged you to come and see this Jesus again; he begged you to accompany him to Judea. And you were tempted, but the timing was all wrong. You could not possibly go. Just the day before your master had called you to him, along with two fellow slaves, and entrusted you with property according to your status in the household. You yourself were given an enormous sum. Why, it would take your brother-in-law fifteen years to earn as a labourer the money that you were given to invest. The others, according to their rank, were given more. And then your master left.
You knew what you needed to do. You needed to stay put and turn a profit. You knew that your master would expect at least a 100% return; you knew he was a harsh man. And you would need to work quickly, as did your fellow slaves, lending out that money in such a way as to receive enormous interest rates, if not a few farms.
But as you looked over your list of farmers, you couldn’t do it. You couldn’t banish the vision of that other kingdom. And so you went out to the garden that night, and as the fragrance of honeysuckle filled the air, you dug a hole and hid the money. And you felt free.
The next day you went to your brother-in-law. “Let’s go see Jesus,” you said. And as you travelled, you told him your story and all your misgivings came out. “I know that my master is harsh man,” you said, “He reaps crops that he did not sow – he eats off the hard labour of others. He gathers where he did not scatter seed, taking the bread from the farmer’s mouths. That indeed is his joy. I know what will happen. The other slaves will be rewarded. He will call them good and trustworthy and will welcome them into the joy of his wealth. I will be considered wicked and lazy. I may even lose my place and be cast out.”
Your brother-in-law tried to be comforting. “That is true,” he said, “you may lose all that you have, all your power, all your status, all your rank. You may be cast into the pit outside the city walls, where they weep and gnash their teeth. You may be the lowest kind of outcast. But this Jesus, he provides meals for outcasts and welcomes them. Maybe this is what you need to do to follow him. Maybe becoming an outcast is the only way you can enter his kingdom.”
You pondered your brother-in-law’s words as you travelled along. It was a lot to ask. Why, you were being asked to give up your very life! But, somehow, you felt as though your choice had already been made.
Finally you arrived in Judea. Jesus had been stirring up Jerusalem. Everyone knew that he was at the Mount of Olives. The town was abuzz with all that he had done. Had he not visited the home of Zaccheus the tax collector, and as a result Zaccheus had given away half his fortune, returning all property to its owners and repaying them four times what he had taken?
This story of a man who had done what you were contemplating, took your breath away, so that when you finally did reach Jesus you didn’t really notice what he was saying. And then he paused, looked straight at you, and began. “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, each according to his status . . .”
Who is the faithful servant?