Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd November 15, 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
Today’s gospel lesson is another tough one to get our heads around. What was Jesus meaning by telling this parable? Was he encouraging high-risk investment? Was he lauding the rich and condemning the poor? There have been many sermons preached on this parable that encourage people to invest heavily in the ministry of the church. Here are a couple of examples.
Inspired by this parable, one church in the U.S. gave 100 envelopes, each with a $100 bill, to church members one Sunday, asking them to invest it in God’s work. The results were incredible. Three months later, people gave back $50,000. Creative ministries were started. Lives were transformed. The church engaged in a risky investment that quintupled the principle and, more importantly, developed relationships and even changed some lives. A literal reading of this parable provided the impetus to engage in high risk investment.
One of the thriving churches I visited last year decided to risk a similar project. Burton Ave. United in Barrie, Ontario filled an offering plate with $20 bills and passed the plate around the congregation, asking them to take $20 and use it as seed money for creative fundraisers. A few months later, they received back the proceeds and made $10,000 by drawing on talents including honey-making and dance lessons. A literal reading of this parable about high risk investments, combined with a figurative interpretation of the word “talent” provided the motivation.
Christians inherited from their Jewish ancestors in the faith a symbolic way of reading scripture. When the early Christians read this parable, they largely read it symbolically, understanding the word talent to mean special ability, aptitude or gift. That is actually the etymology of our English word talent. Its origin came from a figurative reading of this parable.
There are many ways to interpret scripture and these are some of the ways this parable has been interpreted. There are other interpretations that are just as valid that try to understand Jesus’ socio-political context. But before looking at this, I want to caution us that we can never know for sure what the authors of our scripture meant. We can never know for sure what Jesus meant when telling his parables. We can make educated guesses but we will never know for sure because we can’t climb inside the mind of Jesus or the writers of scripture. Now, I love to explore the socio-political context of Jesus and of the early church writers. This helps me to make educated guesses about what scripture means. But they are still just guesses.
The second caution I would make is that Jesus often employed the use of parables in his teachings, which obscured what he was trying to teach. But the use of parables was brilliant, in that it kept people guessing and wondering. Parables are stories that have multiple layers of meanings and that is why people come up with different interpretations. This means that there isn’t one, correct meaning that we simply have to uncover. Rather, parables have multiple meanings that will relate to different people in different contexts in different ways.
Often, Jesus intentionally used provocative, startling images that would definitely have caught the attention of his audience and kept them wondering. So—for us to understand his parables, it’s helpful to first look at what would have been startling to his audience.
In this parable, the word “talent” is a transliteration from the Greek word “tálanta” that referred to an exorbitant amount of money—the equivalent of about 15 years of wages for a labourer. The first shock in this parable is that a landowner gave a slave 5 tálanta, which meant two generations-worth of wages to do with as he would. As soon as Jesus said this, his audience would have been laughing because slaves would never have been given such dignity, respect, trust or freedom of choice. They, themselves weren’t paid. They were enslaved. Another shock to his audience would have been the landowner’s response to the third slave who simply buried the money.
This slave lived in fear—and probably disgust—of the landowner’s dishonest ways in which he secured his wealth. This slave was proud of the fact that he kept the money secure for his master—he didn’t even lose a penny. But his master lambasted him for not even investing it with the bankers. To our ear, that sounds like the safest, most prudent way to safeguard money, but to Jesus’ audience, they would have been scandalized because the Hebrew scriptures forbid charging interest. The third slave was protecting the money faithfully, while the first two engaged in high-risk, likely shady, investments. When questioned by the landowner, the third slave had the audacity to call him a harsh man who made money off others who did the work. The landowner repeated his accusations—most probably dripping with sarcasm, but note that the landowner did not refute these charges.
Knowing these things makes this parable even more confusing. What is Jesus trying to teach with this story? His audience would not have equated the landowner with God or with Jesus because God is not harsh and does not reward dishonesty or unethical, risky wealth management on the backs of others.
One of the clues that we can gather when trying to interpret difficult biblical passages is to look at what comes before and after the passage. This parable is the middle of three parables all talking about the coming of the peaceable reign of God. The Gospel of Matthew places these stories just before Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ audience would have heard these stories as they were preparing for their Seder celebrations in the midst of growing, political tension. The Romans had already arrived in Jerusalem, looking for any signs of sedition. It was a dangerous time and Jesus knew that his life was in peril. These three parables would have therefore been told to help his audience prepare for violence even as they waited for God’s reign of peace. Marcus Borg often called the coming of God’s Kingdom or Reign as God’s Dream.
So how would this parable have challenged Jesus’ audience to prepare for God’s Dream? Just prior to his own crucifixion, he was probably not giving monetary investment advice to his audience, who were largely peasants. There was something deeper underneath his words. Perhaps he was telling them to be prepared for what was about to come and to not be afraid or hide away. Perhaps he was telling them to have the courage to risk using their talents and gifts for the sake of God’s Dream.
How can this parable speak to us, who live in a severely socially-restricted time? What words of challenge do you think Jesus would give us? We are being asked not to have social contacts with people outside of our households. We are joining the bears in digging ourselves into holes of hibernation. This is a safe response to the pandemic. But I expect that Jesus would hold up his hand and say,
Not so fast. Please do not socially isolate when you physically isolate. Draw on my strength and take courage to risk creative investments in virtual support for one another. Harness your talents, interests, passions and gifts in whatever you do, for this will give you energy. And then ask how you can use these talents to risk making a creative, social investment in God’s Dream.
But whatever you do, do not disappear. In your physical isolation, you need support more than ever and so do your friends and family. So do our community ministries for those who don’t have a home or a safe place to retreat into. As you lock your doors and feel the weariness of it all overtaking you, do not give up. Take courage and strength to continue to risk love, so that we may truly be able to say, “We are all in this together; separate, but not apart.”