Skip to main content

A Different Parable of the Talents

Luke 19.12-27
There’s an interesting variation on Luke’s Parable of the Talents among the Rabbinic parables in the Babylonian Talmud, which was compiled about five hundred years after the time of Jesus. 

The Talmud says, ‘Our rabbis taught: “...the spirit returns to the God who gave it", [which] means, “Give it to him pure as he gave it to you.” 

‘This may be compared to a king of flesh and blood who distributed royal garments to his servants. The attentive among them folded them and deposited them in a chest. The foolish among them went and did their work in them.

‘Days later the king asked for his garments. The attentive among them returned them to him all sparkling; the foolish among them returned them to him all soiled.

‘The king was pleased with the attentive, but angry with the foolish. Regarding the attentive he said: "Give the garments to the treasurer and let them go to their homes in peace."

Regarding the foolish he said: "Give the garments to the treasurer and lock them in the prison house."

‘So, the Holy One, blessed be He, says regarding the bodies of the righteous: "He enters into peace, they rest in their beds". But he says regarding their souls," “The soul of my lord will be bound up in the bundle of life."

Regarding the bodies of the wicked he says, "There is no peace for the wicked, says the LORD", and concerning their souls he says: “And the souls of their enemies he shall eject as from the hollow of a sling". [1]

In a Methodist ministers’ discussion group there was hot debate about a similar, Marxist interpretation of Luke's parable. The parable seems to be about a king like one of the notorious Herod family. The king has to go to Rome to beg the emperor for permission to ascend his throne. A delegation of his future subjects try to block his path to power, and in this febrile atmosphere he entrusts some of his followers with a share in his power and asks them to look after things while he's away.

Put literally, they seem to be given a share in his treasure, but as their reward for increasing it is to be given five or ten cities to rule over I think we’re really talking about political capital rather than money. The servant who hangs on grimly to what he's been given has it taken away. But at least he isn't sent into outer darkness, but just to the backbenches, and he escapes the fate of the cruel king's opponents, who are slaughtered in front of him.

In the Marxist interpretation of the story, the man who loses his post is the hero because he distances himself from the rapacious attitude of the ruthless king, who wants the maximum yield from every situation, presumably in this case higher taxes from the subjects in his charge. The ruler, adopting the way his servant talks about his own failure, picks him up for failing to earn any interest for him, which only heightens the Marxist interpretation because the rejected servant also turns out be anti-capitalist.

Of course, the man who fails to make any political capital for his master cannot be the real hero. And even though the king is so horrible,  he can't be the real villain of the piece.

I’m reminded of my hermeneutics class at college, which wasn't compulsory and perhaps should have been. It was pointed out by our lecturer that a Marxist interpretation of the Parable of the Vineyard, which assumes that Jesus was a social revolutionary, sees the tenants who kill the emissaries and finally the heir of the absentee landlord as the true heroes of that parable, a conclusion which - the Marxist theologians would argue - was subsequently distorted in the Gospel record to make the parable carry a much less subversive meaning. 

This Marxist interpretation of Jesus’ parables would only work if we had these stories in isolation, as the sole surviving fragment of Jesus' teaching, but it falls apart when compared with the whole body of his surviving work, even if we assume that all of it was similarly redacted or altered to tone down the original revolutionary meaning.

A Marxist interpretation of the Gospel was all the rage in the 1970s and early 80s, especially among Liberation Theologians in South America, but after that time Marxism as a political philosophy became deeply discredited. With the fall of the Berlin Wall it was even asserted by a famous American historian, Francis Fukuyama, that Capitalism had finally won the argument and the debate with Marxism about which was right was over.

However, now that Capitalism has clearly not won the argument and is in disarray, Marxist thinking seems to be enjoying a comeback. Perhaps that's why some Methodist ministers are so keen to look again at Jesus’ parable from a Marxist point of view. Nonetheless, I don't see how this story can really be about standing up to brutal dictators and greedy bankers. I think it’s about commitment. 

When the king’s authority seemed to be under threat, the servants he commends showed exemplary commitment to his cause. They worked hard to support him, whereas the cautious, lukewarm servant sat on the fence. He didn't join the rebellion, but neither did he give the king his wholehearted support.

In the version from the Talmud the servants who are commended are the ones who didn’t use the gifts they’d been given, but kept them safely stored away. But doing nothing is never an option in Jesus’ teaching. Encountering Jesus, whether in person, in spirit, or in the stories he told, demands a response. We can’t just tuck him away safely in a drawer to think about when we’ve nothing much else to do. He challenges us to do something that will make a difference, to become active servants of the Gospel, to make an immediate response.

Looking at the story from a slightly different angle, the keen supporters of the king seized the moment - not exactly throwing caution to the winds, but being ready to take risks for the sake of growing the king’s power. They either traded on his political capital and increased it, or they traded with actual money and increased his wealth.

The point of the parable  would seem to be that if the wise servants of a ruthless and bloodthirsty tyrant are ready at all times to seize their opportunities and commit everything to their master's cause, how much more ought we to be ready to commit to the cause of a generous and compassionate master like Jesus. For him we should be ready, when the opportunity arises, to commit absolutely everything. It’s therefore a very apposite message for contemporary Methodism in the UK, given the challenge we've been given to dare to take calculated  risks for the Gospel.

[1] Babylonian Talmud, *Shabbath* 152b


Popular posts from this blog

I don't believe in an interventionist God

Matthew 28.1-10, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11 I like Nick Cave’s song because of its audacious first line: ‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God’. What an unlikely way to begin a love song! He once explained that he wrote the song while sitting at the back of an Anglican church where he had gone with his wife Susie, who presumably does believe in an interventionist God - at least that’s what the song says. Actually Cave has always been very interested in religion. Sometimes he calls himself a Christian, sometimes he doesn’t, depending on how the mood takes him. He once said, ‘I believe in God in spite of religion, not because of it.’ But his lyrics often include religious themes and he has also said that any true love song is a song for God. So maybe it’s no coincidence that he began this song in such an unlikely way, although he says the inspiration came to him during the sermon. The vicar was droning on about something when the first line of the song just popped into his head. I suspect …

Why are good people tempted to do wrong?

Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Psalm 119.1-8, 1 Corinthians 3.1-4, Matthew 5.21-37 Why are good people tempted to do wrong? Sometimes we just fall from the straight and narrow and do mean, selfish or spiteful things. But sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re still good people even though we’re doing something wrong. We tell ourselves that there are some people whose motives are totally wicked or self-regarding: criminals, liars, cheats, two-timers, fraudsters, and so on, but we are not that kind of person. We’re basically good people who just indulge in an occasional misdemeanour. So, for example, there’s Noble Cause Corruption, a phrase first coined apparently in 1992 to explain why police officers, judges, politicians, managers, teachers, social workers and so on sometimes get sucked into justifying actions which are really totally wrong, but on the grounds that they are doing them for a very good reason. A famous instance of noble cause corruption is the statement, by the late Lord Denni…

Giotto’s Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds

John 1.10-18
In the week before Christmas the BBC broadcast a modern version of The Nativity which attempted to retell the story with as much psychological realism as possible. So, for instance, viewers saw how Mary, and Joseph especially, struggled with their feelings.

But telling the story of Jesus with psychological realism is not a new idea. It has a long tradition going back seven hundred years to the time of the Italian artist Giotto di Bondone. This nativity scene was painted in a church in Padua in about 1305. Much imitated it is one of the first attempts at psychological realism in Christian art. And what a wonderful first attempt it is - a work of genius, in fact!

Whereas previously Mary and the Baby Jesus had been depicted facing outwards, or looking at their visitors, with beatific expressions fixed on their faces, Giotto dares to show them staring intently into one another’s eyes, bonding like any mother and newborn baby. Joseph, in contrast, is not looking on with quiet app…