Thursday, May 28, 2009

Read Me First (Parable of the Talents)

Okay, going a little long this time, you may just want to read the story before the story, or skip this one entirely, depending on what you’re looking for. I need to do this, because most of what else I have to say does not have much weight without it. I often hear statements like, “the answers are in the Bible, just read it” or “the Bible is just a bunch of fairy tales”, but rarely do I hear people backing either of those up. I could just take a few of the pretty verses out of my favorite sections, the ones that talk about caring for each other and all that nice stuff, but that would just open up the possibility of finding contradictions to those in another part.

Instead I will be taking a well known parable, one that I think is often misquoted. It can be misquoted to support a right-wing agenda or to support those who say God is angry and vengeful. My interpretation supports people working together, and I will attempt to show that it is what Jesus, or whoever wrote it down, was trying to say. I will also show why it is important to understand the context of the parable and to know a couple things about how to interpret scripture. You can skip down to it, or first read the story of how I came to have this understanding.

The story of the story

In my search for understanding, I have taken what I consider rare opportunities to find new points of view. When something passed my way called “Wild Christ”, I jumped at it. It was a Men’s spiritual retreat, just a weekend, put on by a couple of musicians I have become familiar with. I liked the way they blended the new and the old and the description of the teacher that would be there sounded very interesting. I was not disappointed.

We talked about the story of the loaves and fishes, but not in some dry fashion, not just the story of sharing and giving, but the whole context of what the people in the story must have been feeling. Look at the story and notice what comes just before. Their friend, the one that begins as the leader in two of the gospels, John the Baptist, is beheaded. This is why they all end up in the wilderness with very little on them. They were in deep grief. David brought this to life in a very moving way.

Later we covered another well known story, the Parable of the Talents. I will cover more details in a minute. Basically a rich man gives his “slaves” some money, called talents, and some of them use it to make money, but one doesn’t. He calls the master wicked, and the master calls him lazy. In many churches, when this comes around on the lectionary, the parishioners are handed 10 or 20 dollar bills and told to do something with it. You may have heard, “for to those whom much is given, much is expected”. Not all churches are comfortable with the money part, so they take the word “talent” and use it in its modern sense and ask, “What are you doing with the talents that God gives you?”

This is more or less the interpretation that David taught. After all the twists that had been added to the stories and Bible passages we discussed throughout the weekend, I sat there expecting another one. I kept looking back at my Bible and trying to find something that came just before it or right after it, or some subtle phrasing that David was about to point out. He didn’t. As he started to summarize what I felt was a capitalist interpretation, I finally spoke up. I knew there was something about usury laws that didn’t fit. I didn’t feel that the master in this story was an analogy for God. Unfortunately I couldn’t quite formulate or back up what I was feeling, so I just came across as negative. David was very gracious and said, “Well, okay, you have a different opinion.”

When I got back home, I did what I always do when I fail to make my point, I Googled. I found the perfect sermon, in fact it was titled with some person’s name “got it wrong”. The sermon talked about the person who had called the Parable of the Talents the capitalist parable, and he corrected him. I include some of my search results at the end.

The Parable of the Talents

We have a strange one here. This master is praising his slaves for doing well with his money, except one that is sent to the outer darkness. There are several key parts that I’ll need to cover to make this clear.

To start, it says, “Again, it will be like”. This may sound like another “The kingdom of heaven is like” parable, but note he is talking about the end times, and this comes near the end of his ministry, so what is the “it” that “it will be like”? Then there is this master handing talents to his slaves. A talent was a lot of money FYI, a few years wages. I don’t want to go off on a tangent about slaves, but this is not the type of slavery that Europeans imposed on Africa. He does not have them in chains, in fact they go off and do some unspecified business dealings with the money/talents. The people Jesus was talking to were mostly slaves, so he is telling a story they can relate to.

An important note on doing business, the Judean culture of the time valued stability. People hearing this story would see the first two slaves, who had parlayed the money into double its value, as not good. We, as modern readers, raised in a capitalist society, would skip right by that, thinking they had done a good job. This is why I recommend studying the Bible in community. By in community, I don’t mean finding someone who can tell you what it means and you just accept it.

In a group, you’re more likely to have someone who would know about the history of economic theories and might say, “Hey wait a minute, what would someone be doing preaching capitalism in ancient Rome? What do we think is going to happen here, are the slaves going to go off and start or something? They’re still slaves.” Better yet, you can divide up the work of research. Each week someone could volunteer to find three or four interpretations of a passage and your group could discuss the merits of each. But I digress.

Now we come to our poor, one talent, third slave. He runs off and buries his talent. Why did he do that? The next line gives the answer, he says, “you are a hard man, so I was afraid” Those who want to twist this parable in to an advertisement for something that won’t even begin to be thought of for 1,000 years need to disbelieve this slave. I see no reason for that. I don’t see any support for the master being an analogy for God or Heaven, he is not acting in a manner consistent with either. Nowhere else in the Bible does God say the way to salvation is to get a job, make money off someone else’s money and be pleased with their praise, or to put your money in the bank and collect interest. In fact usury is banned.

Here are a couple passages on that, there are many others
Exodus 22: 24-25
Proverbs 28:8

On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with work. I’m all for everyone using all of their abilities. My life is much better when, at the end of the day, I feel used up, tired, exhausted from a job well done. I can’t really argue with the idea that if you have talent, in the modern sense of talent, you should use it. I just don’t think that is what this parable is about.

This is the same problem with the libertarian idea that welfare encourages laziness. I agree that people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and use their God-given abilities to improve their situation. I just don’t think welfare is designed with those people in mind. Not everyone is able to do that, especially if you are only 12 years old, which a lot of people benefiting from welfare are. Most people get off government assistance within two years. There are people who abuse the system, but last I checked it accounted for 2% of the cost.

There I go on politics again, when I’m supposedly talking about religion. I am great fun at parties. Another problem I have with the interpretation of the master in this parable as God is the punishment meted out for our friend slave number 3. I often see this quoted by people who are digging through the Bible looking for quotes to prove that God is mean and vengeful. If you go with Jesus praising those who put their talents to good use, you have to deal with what he does to the one who doesn’t. He is cast into the outer darkness. You need to go out into the desert on a moonless night with no flashlight to really know what that means. Actually, please don’t do that if you don’t know what you’re doing.

So, what is the lesson here? I should note that in a parable, it is usually the third person in the groups of three that carries the lesson. Those listening to the story can relate to the third slave. They are familiar with wicked masters and outer darkness, and with a little imagination and an understanding of the culture and the times, now we are too. Looking back to the parables just before this one, you can find that Jesus is talking about the end times. Looking ahead, you can see that this is the end of his ministry and the beginning of the crucifixion story.

By the way, if you aren’t familiar with wicked masters, lucky you. Personally, I have worked for two companies that went bankrupt. In both cases the people who ran the company seemed to walk away with plenty of cash. I worked for William McGuire at United Healthcare, you can Google him and see what his sentence was. I just heard Elizabeth Edwards on The Daily Show talking about how at one time, 1 of every $700 dollars spent on health care went to pay him. I am very familiar with wicked masters. If you are not, I’m happy for you, but be aware. I’m sure many people at Enron or Washington Mutual thought their bosses were pretty smart at one time.

I think Jesus is preparing his followers for what is about to come. Crucifying did not end with Jesus, in fact it got a lot worse. The assault by Rome on Jews and their new sect of Christ followers increased, ending with the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. Those who are willing to point out that their masters are wicked will not necessarily be rewarded in this lifetime, or at least not soon. A parable can’t be interpreted in isolation, as I often see this one being interpreted. It may seem that the third slave is being punished, but who is doing the punishing, and how does Jesus normally treat the outcasts? Normally he welcomes them as followers.

It took 100 years or more to turn the death of Jesus in to a story with a happy ending. Churches today tend to avoid the ugly truth of how unhappy that time was. In Acts chapter 7, the book immediately following the gospels, a guy named Stephen is killed in cold blood just for recounting the Bible. The Apostle Paul is imprisoned and killed for his preaching. The early churches have problems of their own and grapple with spiritual questions. It is unfortunate that this is skipped, because it leads us to believe that all we need to do is accept that Christ died for us and everything will be okay. That’s not what happened 2,000 years ago.

The historicity of the crucifixion, or the reality of the resurrection is not something I’m going to debate. I’m saying, to determine if the Bible is some form of a possible truth, or even just a possible guide for how to build a loving community, read carefully what comes after the resurrection. People didn’t go have a ham dinner and hide colored eggs. People had to work hard and use their talents to build a community that had never existed before. That work is not done.

Some interpretations for comparison
The one I found after the weekend
Similar, with some differences
A story of students working through it

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