No. 22 Parable of the Talents
Old Testament prophets cried out against avarice, exploitation and injustice, especially by those in positions of authority. Jesus did likewise, through emphasising the love of God and of neighbour as the universal calling for those who sought do the Father’s will, and the need to toil for the coming of the Kingdom of God and the cultivation of a spirit of generous selfgiving to hasten its advent through keeping the Commandments of God and the acceptance of the Beatitudes as a way of life. We know too, that Jesus often conveyed his message in parables and allegories, the latter being stories based on real life situations and events, where he mentioned no names, but which his listeners were familiar with, and from which they could recognise his inferences and moral lessons.
One such example of allegorical teaching, being revisited in our day, and which is most relevant to it amid widespread preoccupation with the pursuit of money, lies in what is popularly known as the ‘parable of the talents’ (Matthew 25:14-30, and Luke 19:12 -28). The familiar ‘parable’ tells of a rich man who went abroad and entrusted varying sums of money to three of his servants. Two traded with them with great success and were commended and rewarded by their master for their enterprise and initiative on his return, and invited to share in his happiness. The third, buried his talent and gave it back to his master intact. For this seeming indolence he incurred his master’s wrath, was castigated, humiliated and thrown out into exterior darkness.
Useful lessons commonly drawn from this story include recognising that while we are not all cast in the same mould or equally endowed, each one of us is required to make the best use of our God-given gifts to help one another and to help usher in the Kingdom of God; that those who do this will be rewarded, while laziness or indolence and neglect to our duty incur punishment.
There is a tendency for many to assume that the master or rich man in the ‘parable’ represents the Father. With this notion there are serious difficulties. Nowhere in Matthew’s Gospel does Jesus make clear that such was the case. Luke’s parallel account shows that the master is a historical figure, and in no way like the Father, who forgave and tenderly welcomed back the prodigal son after a wasteful life when he squandered and misused his inheritance, nor like Jesus who dined with exploitative tax collectors such as Zacchaeus. Nor would the Father be expected to act unmercifully towards someone who merely was disinterested in sharp business practice and inordinate profit seeking.
Allegory, not parable
In Luke’s account, the master, a man of noble birth, is a detested nobleman who goes off to a distant land to be appointed king, and entrusts sums of money to his servant to trade with and make a profit. As it happened, Herod Archelaus, the then ruler of Galilee, had been to Rome for just that purpose and Jesus’ audience would readily have made the connection. Herod was notoriously vain, greedy and corrupt. A man who furthered his own interests by whatever means were required, so he was certainly not the sort of person Jesus would equate with his Father, or would want his followers to emulate or regard as an exemplar of justice. The ways and values of Herod whom Jesus once referred to as a fox were antithetical to those of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The hero of the allegory appears to have been the supposedly lazy and wicked servant who could be deemed to have been the only one who acted in accordance with the ethics of God’s kingdom. Profit maximisation was not his primary objective. Unlike his master he would not reap where he had not sown or engage in unethical business practices. He did not openly refuse to co-operate with his employer, but he told Herod a few home-truths, resisting passively, and was willing to take the consequences. Did he refuse to be a party to greed? Wasn’t he the one who opted for the Beatitudes which urged righteousness, and promised blessings on those who were persecuted in the cause of right and who chose wisely between living by the values and methods of the kingdom of this world and those of the kingdom of God?
Luke’s account could help us to recognise unsavoury truths about the politics of greed, selfishness and power, as opposed to the spirituality of service, Jesus’ benediction of the poor and marginalised. For in this day and age, we have a innumerable examples of shady and dishonest activities, often concealed beneath a cover of seeming respectability, and undertaken at local, national and the global levels in the name of free enterprise and profit-making at someone else’s expense; a web in which entire nations may be enmeshed, sometimes with disastrous consequences for millions.
Is it not our Christian duty to say ‘no more’ to such corruption, in the name of the integrity and justice both the Old and the New Testaments speak of? For all of society, does not the ‘allegory of the unjust ruler’ merit far, far more than a passing glance?
Lord, teach us how to live by the values of your Kingdom.