Unraveling a Parable

When I was in school in England we had assemblies where the local vicar or a teacher would read a passage from the Bible and talk about it. (It was assumed that we were all Christian, and I don’t recall being aware of any student who would have been of a different faith. But that’s another story.)

One passage we often heard was the parable of the talents, which is today’s gospel reading. And it was interpreted very simply as being a lesson about developing the gifts God gives you to their fullest potential. So since I was good at languages, I should perhaps become a teacher of Latin or French or whatever. My father had loftier goals in mind for me: he thought I should aim to become a simultaneous translator at the United Nations.

But the point was clear: if you were given a talent or a gift, you should work hard to use and develop it. And if you didn’t, if you were like that “wicked and lazy slave,” you were destined for the “outer darkness” of poverty, unemployment, low status, failure.

But is that actually what Jesus had in mind when he told that parable?

Parables are like riddles: they don’t have one obvious meaning. One theologian I’ve learned from is Amy-Jill Levine, who is Jewish and has devoted much of her academic life to studying Jesus from a Jewish perspective. She says that the use of parables in Jesus’ day was common, and they were more like puzzles than object lessons. In fact, she says that the very clear interpretations of parables that we tend to hear as children are almost certainly NOT what they meant, because they’re not as obvious as that.

It’s worth noting, as well, that where parables are given line by line explanations in some of the gospels, as with the parable of the sower, for instance, scholars are pretty clear that the explanation wasn’t part of Jesus’s teaching (not even privately to his disciples), but was added by the gospel writer as a sort of first level commentary or editorial.

So the first thing to bear in mind when we hear or read one of the parables is that we should beware of jumping to conclusions about what it means – especially if the meaning seems simple and comforting. Parables are meant to make us scratch our heads, feel challenged, look at things differently.

Parables can also have more than one layer of meaning, depending on who’s hearing them and when. Context is important. What Jesus’ parables meant to first century Jewish peasants in an occupied country is likely to be different from what they mean to us privileged, rich, twenty-first century Canadians.

As Jesus often said after telling a parable, “Let those who have ears listen!” In other words, we have to listen up, chew it over, turn it around, think about it, and let it change our way of thinking.

So what might the parable of the talents mean? Is it more than an admonition to develop our God-given gifts, with the threat of outer darkness for eternity if we don’t?

Imagine you’re a landless peasant hearing it. And you hear about this incredibly wealthy multi-millionaire who has slaves, and entrusts some of them with enormous funds and expects them to double them for him to get even richer. How would they even do that? In Jesus’ day the only way would be through corruption, and through collusion with an oppressive political and religious system where loans were given with impossibly high interest rates, and then those unable to pay them back would have their land taken, and be thrown into jail.

So maybe the parable is a critique (in the tradition of the prophets) of the corrupt power system and injustices of the day. Maybe the rich slave owner doesn’t represent God, but represents those like King Herod and Caesar who exploited their people for their own increased wealth. And maybe the third slave is the good guy, the whistle-blower who names what’s going on and wants no part in it. Maybe he’s the Christ figure, who was willing, as Jesus was, to face the evil powers even if it meant rejection and suffering – being cast into “outer darkness.”

Have you ever considered it that way? I certainly never heard that sort of interpretation when I was in school! But I began to read the gospels through a different lens when I started going to Central America – and especially by reading books like The Gospel in Solentimane, which is a commentary on the gospels drawn from the Bible study discussions of Nicaraguan peasants. In one part, discussing Jesus saying, “Woe to you who are rich,” a peasant called Marcelino comments, “The wealth [of the rich] is produced by the labour of others. A man has a cotton field of two thousand acres, but he doesn’t farm two thousand acres. Other people farm [it] for him. And if he gives a party, it’s with the product of [their] work. Instead of giving, [the rich] take away.”

Here’s another completely different way of seeing the parable of the talents: maybe it’s about who we understand God to be, and how that affects how we live our lives. Do we see God as incredibly generous and abundant with gifts, like the rich man entrusting so much money to his slaves? Or do we see him as harsh and unjust, as the third slave did?

Certainly it’s true that your image of God will shape who you become. If your God is kind and loving and generous, you’ll be more likely to have a trusting, compassionate, generous nature yourself. But if you believe in a harsh, punitive God, you’re more likely to be judgmental and even violent yourself. And we see that in the ways that different groups who all call themselves Christian behave: those who focus on the justice and love of God are more likely to be involved in social justice movements, outreach to the impoverished and marginalized, dialoguing with others, and so on; whereas those who focus on the wrath of God and the threat of hell are more likely to be pointing the finger at others, condemning those who are different, even attacking them.