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11am Worship Together      15th November 2020
The Parable of the Talents
Andrew Penny

The parable of the Talents


The parable of the talents is so well known, and its immediate point, so apparently obvious, that you may think there is little more to say about it. I want to approach the parable from its “form”; its place in a tradition of storytelling which it shares with other parables such as the Unjust Steward, the Absentee King, the Rebellious workers in the Vineyard, and of which there are echoes in several other parables.

First however, we might question whether the point of the story is so obvious. There is an ambiguity, which our meaning of “talent” exposes. In Matthew’s Greek a talent just means a large sum of money (thousands of pounds in our money) but of course in English it’s come to mean a skill or aptitude and it’s noticeable that the departing master leaves the different amounts “in accordance with their abilities” or as we might say talents.

Looking, however, at the narrative type of this and other “absentee” stories we see an essential plot that has a King, rich man or landowner, going on a journey, leaving his city or property in the hands of chosen servants. He is travelling far enough away for them to be left to their own devices for a considerable length of time, but not usually a fixed period so the servants etc do not know when he will return; crucially, they are left with responsibility and independence.

Some commentators suggest this was a common economic and social model in Galilee, where estates were apparently left by absentee landlords in the hands of a senior slave or steward.  Politically it was a similarly common model in the empires and kingdoms of the ancient world; cities and provinces were left in the charge of local government and or imposed governors, independent but responsible to a far-off emperor. In all cases, farms, provinces and cities, the temptations to corruption and even rebellion that feature in the parables, featured regularly in real life too.

That historical model may have supported a theological one. The Promised Land was entrusted to the chosen people, but they were always aware that they held it on terms and were answerable to God, who might seem distant, but who was capable visiting his people with judgement when they failed to keep their part of the bargain. Similarly, Jesus’ contemporaries were waiting for a Messiah, who was seen as King David returning to restore the Promised Land to its people. Perhaps most significantly, however, the early Church saw itself as waiting for the imminent return of its Lord who had apparently disappeared, leaving the Holy Ghost to guide and inspire his people until he came again in judgement to hear their account of how well they had carried out his instructions and taken the Gospel to the ends of the world. These parables are not only commentary on history- on how the Jewish people had fared and how, perhaps they needed to rethink the model, but also a parallel with a living experience of the Early Church.

The question for us is what resonance these stories can have now. We shouldn’t be shy of seeking new meaning. The Gospels themselves are new reading of previous expectations; the Messiah did come, but He was not quite as people had understood the predictions. The Messiah’s message was the heralding of another Promised Lane- but the Kingdom of God was not a replica of the Old Testament vision of a land flowing with milk and honey. We believe in a second coming of Christ but, having waited two thousand years, we need to re-think what that second coming means; it’s plainly not what the authors of the New Testament thought. Can the Absentee Lord parables, that of the Talents in particular help us in that reinterpretation?

Here are a few reflections on why we might think them rather unhelpful. First, the Absentee Lord is a stern capricious and unjust man, who reaped where he did not sow and gathered what he had not winnowed. He doesn’t share many characteristics with the Jesus of the Gospels, who is not indeed the mild hippy of children’s illustrated Bibles who, while he is occasionally angry, is always forgiving. The returning Lord or Master is not always forgiving. More specifically, the way in which we have shifted the meaning of talent from money to ability disguises a capitalist message of the parable. The current economic state of the world suggests, to some, at least, that endless expansion and the unremitting increase of wealth, is not necessarily such a good thing. Turning five talents into ten must have involved some fairly risky investment; what would the master have said if despite his servant’s efforts the five talents were lost in a stock exchange crash or sank to the bottom of the ocean?  We might also ask at what social cost a 100% increase was achieved. And even more topically, what are the implications of the treatment of the poor man who was entrusted with only one talent? He was prudent and had much more to lose. As the parable says, the talents were entrusted to the servants in accordance with their ability; where would that leave the disabled in our society?

These intentionally anachronistic observations, do not, however, detract from the way in which the parable of the talents and other absentee stories chime in a fundamental way with our religious experience. Most of us do, I believe, feel that we are in some way trustees or guardians both of the world and all its resources, and also trustees of our own skills and abilities. While we may exploit nature for our and others’ benefit it is wrong to do so in a way that destroys it for future generations. We have a duty too to make the best of our abilities for our sake and for others. We feel responsible and conscious that those around us and those to come will judge our stewardship. The environmental crisis, in particular, has made us acutely aware that, just as our personal behaviour has consequences, so does our communal behaviour, only the consequences can be much more drastic and far reaching. Understanding consequences is not, I suggest, so dissimilar to accepting judgement.

Most fundamentally, however, these parables illustrate something of our relation with God; it’s an inevitable consequence of a belief in a creator God, who created us in his image but with free will, that we should be answerable for our exercise of that freedom.

We needn’t be tied to old or traditional interpretations, and certainly need to rethink our relationship with wealth, and our response to the abilities of those around us, and indeed our own mixture of abilities and failings and our successes and failures. But we can, and should, allow our imaginations to be provoked into new ways of understanding. And that I suggest is what this strange story of the absentee master and his talents, with its moral both comforting and troubling, may do. Amen.

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