The western church has traditionally interpreted the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27) as an encouragement to use wisely the gifts that God has given us, though we usually play down the bit about the wrath of God poured out on the servant who doesn’t. As we observed two weeks ago, this fits in neatly with our protestant work ethic – our performance demonstrates our salvation, and God is looking for a return on his investment in us. But are there other ways of interpreting this parable when seen through the eyes of other cultures?
When workers’ groups in Latin America looked at this parable they came up with a very different interpretation, because their perspective is different. In Europe, theology has traditionally been done by wealthy, white, educated men. But the worker’s groups were the opposite: poor, uneducated, marginalised people who recognised in this story a situation only too relevant to their own situation. They pointed out that in an agrarian economy anybody who was returning 1000% profit (Luke 19:16) was clearly exploiting someone, and was therefore a bad guy. Only an evil and corrupt king would commend him. By their reckoning, the only person who comes out of this story with any credit is the one who buried his talents – because he didn’t oppress anybody.
No pressure then…
Most Europeans find this interpretation hard to accept, but possibly this is only because we are so accustomed to our traditional interpretation – that God has given us certain talents and expects us to make the most of them… or else. Which, when you think about it, doesn’t really square with our idea of the totally unmerited grace of God.
The marginalised South Americans who developed their own understanding of this parable would be far closer to the culture of Jesus’ audience than we are. And while there may be flaws in their interpretation (is Jesus really telling us it’s good just to bury our treasure and do nothing with it?) there are also flaws in ours – is God really an exacting man, reaping where he did not sow, and punishing those who don’t perform well enough?
We also face the challenge that the word ‘talent’ has a double meaning in English. We understand it to mean a gift or ability, which is stretching the original text too far, as a talent was in Bible times an enormous sum of money. Luke uses the equivalent word ‘mina’ (an ancient middle-eastern currency unit), which emphasises that there is a financial context to this parable. A mina was worth about 9 months wages for an agricultural worker – a phenomenal amount of spending money for the sort of people Jesus was talking to. A talent was the Greco-Roman equivalent.
Jesus is in fact basing this parable on a real life incident involving the king of Galilee, Herod Antipas. When his father Herod the Great died shortly after Jesus was born, his will had to be confirmed by the Emperor, so all his sons scurried off to Rome to persuade Augustus to grant their claims. The Jewish people also sent a delegation asking the Emperor to get rid of Herod’s dynasty altogether!
Which raises a relevant question:
Would Jesus really use Herod as a metaphor for God?
We naturally assume that the authority figure in any given parable – a king, a judge, a landowner – stands for God. But that’s not necessarily so. There can be the very odd occasion when the authority figure is an anti-type of God – see for example Luke 18:2-8 where the judge is clearly contrasted with God. This parable is designed to contrast the oppressive behaviour of the king with that of God. The king commends his stewards who exploited the poor by saying “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
It is interesting to note that immediately after this parable Matthew places the judgement of the sheep and the goats, which also features a reward for performance. But in that story, the slaves are not expected to make a huge profit out of the people, but to be generous to them. They were expected to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned. Is it possible that Matthew has set up a deliberate contrast between two ways of behaving – a worldly way embodied by an evil human king, and the heavenly way following the righteous God-King?
This understanding frees us from the pernicious pressure to perform in order to earn our salvation (or at least our reward) and allows us to love generously and freely, in a way that brings hope to the marginalised. Over history, faced with the choice of being the oppressor or siding with the oppressed, the church has at different times done both. Institutional church has often been the oppressor, while many courageous, counter-cultural individuals like Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa have met Christ in the poor and downtrodden as they served them.
Which course will you take?