Howard wrong on parable of the Talents
Posted August 10, 2007
Last night Lateline reported John Howard’s Hillsong address to churches around Australia.
JOHN HOWARD: Parable of the Talents, to me has always been, has always seemed to me to be the “free enterprise parable”. The parable that tells us that we have a responsibility if we are given assets to add to those assets.
He’s got it completely wrong. Here’s a sermon I preached a couple of months ago:
[The congregation was first asked what the parable means and which figure represents God.]
I have some problems with the interpretation you have just given me, with the Master representing God [or Jesus], the first two slaves as good and the third slave as wicked.
To begin with, is this what God is like? “I knew that you were a harsh man” “You knew, did you?” “throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Is God like a harsh man? One who throws the lazy into the outer darkness? Hey, God may be cruel, but he’s fair! Is that the God of peace and love and justice proclaimed by Jesus?
Secondly, the Master is pleased with 100% return on an investment. And if you can’t get that, at least get some interest for it. Does God support usury, the lending of money at interest? It is forbidden elsewhere in the bible. Has God changed his mind? And is it just, to double your money with investments? Who pays the price for this?
And what do we make of this phrase: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” How easily this can be used to say I deserve my wealth, whereas those without deserve their fate.
And my final problem is that this is not the way you tell a story. It is always the third person who provides the lesson. We should be drawn in by the first two characters, people who behave as expected, and then the third person should surprise us with something unexpected and teach us the lesson. The story of the good Samaritan is like this, the first person, not unreasonably, passes by on the other side. The second person does the same, as would we. But the third person – The Samaritan, of all people – provides the lesson and teaches us who our neighbour is. Any good joke follows the same pattern. But with the parable of the talents, we get the lesson straight away. The first slave does the right thing – he uses his talents wisely and is rewarded. Good on him. The second slave does the same thing… ok, we get the idea. And the third slave… does the wrong thing and is punished. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished. Where’s the twist? The surprise at the end, that gives the lesson? Sounds like a fairly mediocre parable.
Now I don’t want to throw away the parable, but I do want to throw away this interpretation and find a better one. And to find that, let’s first look more closely at what this parable is about, before we decide what it means.
So, the parable of the talents is about… talents. So, what was a talent? Well, it was an amount of money, but how much money? Now if you’re like me, your main cultural reference for the worth of a talent is a scene in “The Life of Brian”. A beggar comes up to Brian and his mother and says: “Spare a talent for an old ex-leper”. Brian’s mother replies: “A talent! That’s more than he earns in a month!” Unfortunately this is highly misleading. Who would have thought that Monty Python was not historically accurate, but there you go. A talent certainly was more than Brian earned in a month. A talent was about 15 years wages. In today’s terms, taking a wage of say, $65000, a talent comes out to one million dollars. Hardly the amount a beggar would be asking for on the street, unless he were very ambitious.
Now, what exactly was the household described in the parable? The Master has five, plus two, plus one, talents. Do any of you have eight million dollars lying around and need other people to look after it for you? This is not a household like the ones we live in today. In fact, at the time, power was concentrated in cities. And the cities controlled the surrounding countryside. But within the cities power was held by large households – the Packers and Murdochs of their day. It is in these households that you would find a master with eight talents, lying around needing looking after, while the Master went away searching for other business opportunities.
So we’ve looked at the talents, looked at the household, now, what about the slaves?
Who are these slaves? Well, any sizable institution, like a household, needs a sizable bureaucracy to manage it. And at the top of the bureaucracy are these slaves, entrusted with looking after the household’s vast wealth. The slaves have played the game to rise to this position, and must maintain it if they wish to stay where they are.
Let’s leave the parable for a while and see if we can make some connection with these slaves. What have a I got here in my hand? A credit card. But this is no ordinary credit card. It is an Australian Government Purchasing credit card, and it’s got my name on it. What does this allow me to do? It lets me spend someone else’s money – in this case the Federal Government’s money, tax payers’ money. Now could you put your hand up – this is the interactive part in case you’ve tuned out – put your hand up if you have ever had control over money that was not yours, not part of a business you owned, not a relative’s, but someone else’s money. The money of a Government, your employer, a church, a school, a community organisation.
Ok, everyone with a hand up – like the slaves in this parable, you are a manager of other people’s money. This parable is about you and me. You can put your hands down now.
We often have parables about the poor, but we’re not poor. We have parables about the rich, and again, we’re not rich, that’s somebody else, we’re off the hook. But this parable, it’s about the managers. And at Ringwood Uniting, we should pay attention, because for many of us, this… is a parable about us.
Now if you didn’t have your hand up. If you’re a worker, a small business owner, a student, unemployed, looking after children full time, you’re off the hook today. You can just glance at all the managers and look smug.
Now, back to the parable. Let me suggest that it’s not a parable about the Kingdom of God at all. It doesn’t begin with ‘The Kingdom of God is like’ as many other parables do. No, this is a story about the world, and what the world is like.
The Master is not God. The Master is just a master. The Master is harsh, he believes those who have, should get more.
And how do they get more? Well, one of the ways large households doubled money, was to lend it out to farmers and charge them exorbitant interest. The real money was not in the interest, but in foreclosing on the loan. Getting the land and crops when the farmer could no longer pay the loan back.
People who no longer had land, had to go to the city and sell their labour, and would be the sort of people hearing this parable as Jesus told it. A parable about the people who had ripped them off. What would Jesus’ audience think of the slaves? Not very nice things, I reckon.
So how do we see the parable now? The head of a large and powerful household goes away leaving three able slaves, his Senior Management team, in charge of 8 million dollars. The first two slaves do what it takes to double their money. “Those evil so and sos. We all know someone who’s lost their land to them” is what we’re meant to be thinking. But such unpleasantness is avoided in the polite conversations between the Master and the first two slaves. “I have made five more talents” , “ Well done good and trustworthy slave”. No mention of people thrown off their land. The slaves just enjoy their master’s happiness that the finances have gone so well.
The third slave is the hero is this story. For whatever reason, he decides he cannot partake of this any longer. He decides to become what is now called a “whistle blower”. Instead of using the money to make more money, instead of entrusting it to bankers, he takes it out of the system, burying it in the ground, where it can do no harm. When the master returns, it no polite chat. Rather, the third slave says the unmentionable, making plain where the Master’s wealth comes from. Telling it straight to the Master. “ I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed” – a description of reaping a harvest sown by others who have been thrown off their land by the Master. The Master does not take kindly to this, giving the usual slander of idleness and immorality that accompanies any whistle blower: “You wicked and lazy slave!”.
The third slave is stripped of all of his responsibilities and they are given to the other slaves. No longer part of the bureaucracy that has supported him, the slave will soon be destitute, living in the world of the poor – the outer darkness, as the Master sees it – where people do indeed gnash their teeth, whether in anguish, or chattering from the cold.
Having looked at what this parable is about, I will now close by looking at what it means.
For managers like many of us, it is a call to be awake to the realities of the institutions we manage. Is injustice kept hidden behind polite language and euphemisms? Is it time to say “no more”? Do you have the courage to risk the consequences of speaking out? Possibly losing your employment, your reputation?
Now we don’t do altar calls in this church. But I’m tempted to say “Do you feel the spirit is prompting you to reveal the truth with us today? If so, come on down and share with the congregation.” Maybe you do feel this way. But that would be unfair because there is one final bit to this parable.
Government whistle blower Andrew Wilkie has said, “Some would have followed me out the door before the [Iraq] war, if only they felt they could have. But in reality most people find themselves constrained either by their sense of duty or by financial consideration – they cannot afford the instant loss of a career with little immediate prospects of another. Or else they feel powerless to make a difference and are overwhelmed with despair.”
Yes, the fate of the whistle blower can be harsh as this parable attests. But it is not the end of the story. The hearers of Jesus’ parable would detest the manager-slaves, but this story encourages empathy for the third slave. Not “one of those so and sos has finally got what they deserve”, but rather “he’s now in the outer darkness with us. How should we treat him?” With no support the whistle blower would be hungry, thirsty, he would be a stranger, lacking clothes, he could get sick, possibly imprisoned. Do you see where I’m going with this? Yes, the very next passage in Matthew is the “Last Judgment”, the one with the sheep and the goats, where we are encouraged to feed the hungry and thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, because that is where we meet Jesus.
So there is a message here for the church as a whole. You non-managers don’t get off scott free today after all. Whistle blowers may end up in the outer darkness, but that is where the church should already be. With Jesus, providing the necessary resources to those outside of the system.
If the managers of our society really believed that the church would support them spiritually and economically, they would be more inclined to act like the third slave and blow the whistle when they see injustice.
Delivered Sunday April 22nd 2007 Ringwood Uniting Church, 9am Service
William R. Herzog II, Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus As Pedagogue of the Oppressed, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1994, Chapter 9, “The Vulnerability of the Whistle-blower: The Parable of the Talents”.
Ched Myers and Eric DeBode, “Towering Trees and Talented Slaves”, The Other Side, May-June 1999.
Andrew Wilkie, Axis of Deceit: The Story of the Intelligence Officer who Risked All to Tell the Truth about WMD and Iraq, Schwartz Publishing, Melbourne, 2004, p 146.