19 January 2021
Subverting the System - The Talents Revisited
When we live fully we take risks. To love someone is to also risk losing. Heartache comes when we love and care for someone or for some cause.
Those of you who have gone into business for yourselves will know the risktaking, you have to risk losing all, you sink your savings, take out a big loan which you convince the bank manager you can service and go for it. There are sleepless nights as you try for the contracts or wait for the customers. The bottom line assumes great importance, times can be very hard and sometimes no matter how hard you work events beyond your control can take it all away - but if you didnít try youíd always wonder.
Loving has more risks. Daring to share your life with others is to be vulnerable. If you donít want to be hurt donít love. Those who have children will know the sleepless nights and thatís when they are adults. [the baby stage is practice] When someone you love hurts, you hurt. Sometimes, so much that you withdraw and donít want to love again. When we love, we risk, whether it be friendship or family, when we get closer to others we risk being hurt.
Living fully is joyful and wonderful but has within it also the bittersweetness of risk. What the risk is depends on where you stand, what your perspective is.
You might know the parable we just read An old story which gave the word "talents" to our language. Parables are wild and wonderful stories. They are so wild and subversive these tales that we might not want to hear them and try to make them safe.
Jesus' purpose was to get us to see the world differently, to unmask the illusions his audience had about the status quo and their place in it, and then to help that audience open its heart and mind to what he proposed as an alternative--what he called the "kingdom of God" (which is itself a metaphor) The previous parable about the bridesmaids told us to be alert! So we will be alert.
The story is about a very rich master. Itís a portrait of a great household--the closest thing in those times to the modern corporation. The powerful boss would often be away on economic or political business. His affairs would be handled by slaves.
These slaves have their MBAís and the master gives them enormous amounts of money to care for in his absence. We might roughly translate the assets made available for the first investment at about 6 million dollars.
The first two slaves double their master's investment, they risked losing it, but came back with their profits. The master is pleased and promotes them to more work. The third says he was afraid of the master, he knows he is a hard business man and he kept the amount safe, in the ground.
We find its ďuse it or lose itĒ and the third slave gets kicked out into outer darkness.
The usual interpretation is to say its obvious, we need to use the gifts we are given. That seems to make sense about the way the world is?
But is this what this parable really tells us? This is about money - there is no mention of "gifts".
What about the third slave, who was given a smaller amount. Who is risking what? Who benefits? None of the slaves owned anything, all their work was for this rather unpleasant tycoon. How did they turn over such a huge profit? Maybe there is another layer to this which we can hear from a different perspective?
What might those listening have heard from this? What sort of society did Jesusí listeners come from?
Times werenít good in Palestine at the beginning of the first millenium. The unemployment rate was high and there were a large number of peasants who had been dispossessed of their land.
Big landowners made loans to peasant small holders based on speculations of future crop production. With high interest rates and vulnerability to lean years and famine, farmers often were unable to make their payments, and faced foreclosure. After gaining control of the land, the new owner could continue to make a killing by hiring laborers to farm cash crops.
In the parable, the master's slaves do this highly profitable dirty work well.
We, undaunted by this historical context and blissfully interpreting the parable through our own lenses, have nothing but praise for these "good stewards." We then turn to the third slave who, represents an object lesson of entrepreneurial failure
But the manner of profiteering portrayed in the story would have been understood by the original audience as unacceptable. 12% interest was the tops - not the 100% being made here. The master certainly would not have been interpreted as a God figure. In fact he would have been recognised as one of the oppressors Itís possible that this third slave might be the hero of this parable.
When the master returns to settle accounts he commends the first two financiers "Well done, good and trustworthy slave--enter into the joy of your master." Weíre used to reading this as being entry into heavenly bliss. At the plain level of the parable it serves as a promotion ("I will put you in charge of many things"); and reminds us that these handlers are still slaves, and that it is the master's joy in which they are participating! We might say that these slaves are more captive than ever to the world controlled by their boss. The Boss benefits, the slaves get more and are under greater obligation.
There is a joke next. The third slave is about to explain his action. That he buried the money in the ground - the usual safe place for money. Remember, many in Jesus' audience were farmers, there is humor here. Plant MONEY in the ground. Those who work the land know that all true wealth comes from God, the source of rain, sunshine, seed, and soil. Jesus himself tells the parable of the seeds which grow secretly and are fruitful but money. This silver talent, when "sown," produced no fruit! Any farmer knows that. Two different views of economics clash here.
Think of the employer who runs their business to benefit everyone including his or her employees with the person who takes over companies, strips them of their assets and sells them on to make money.
The third slave begins to speak, "I knew you were a harsh man. "You reap where you did not sow, and gather where you did not scatter seed"
The slave courageously unmasks the master. We find the master's wealth is derived entirely from the toil of others. He profits from the backbreaking labour of those who work the land. Unwilling to participate in this exploitation, this third slave takes the money out of circulation, where it could no longer be used to dispossess another family farmer.
He rejects the rules of the master's world "Here, take back what is yours"
He admits that through it all "I was afraid."
For good reason--he is about to meet the prophet's fate.
The master does not refute the slaveís analysis of his world. He simply calls him "evil and lazy" and wonders why the slave didn't at least seek market-rate return.
He then makes an example of the third slave, dispossessing him and giving the single talent to his obedient colleague, to illustrate the way the real world works: "For to those who have, more will be given--but for those who have not, even what they have will be taken away" A description of a dog eat dog world.
The Third slave took the real risk of not playing along with the dominant worldview of exploitation and excess greed. He is banished to the "outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth"
A description of Hell? Maybe the hell on earth experienced by those rejected by the dominant culture, in the shadows where the light of the royal courts never shine, on the streets outside the great households,
But who is out there with him?
The next story suggests that we meet Christ mysteriously by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned. In other words, we meet Christ in places of pain and marginality; the "outer darkness." The slaveís punishment kicks him out of the system, but brings him closer to the true God, who calls us into the risky living which brings life. He is free of the master and with the one who brings life.
We are invited into a way which places more value on people than on unrealistic profits. This Jesus walks with us in the painful places, does not call us failures and celebrates life, real life in joy and risky loving. And all of us are invited, rich and poor to come and live in this way which brings lasting life.
Reference William Hetzog, Parables of Subversive Speech
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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