The Reverend George C. Wong
The Church of the Saviour
November 19, 2017
Accounting in the Kingdom
-Over the years, I have heard many informed people say with certainty that the Parable of the talents is one of the most straightforward parables.
-Over the years, I have also heard many other informed people say with certainty the Parable of the talents is one of the hardest to understand of the parables.
What might explain the difference in the “accounting” of the Parable of the talents? The reason likely stems from the way parables incorporate customs and situations from everyday life in ways that catch the attention of the listener. In the case of the parable of the talents and its cast of characters, people in Jesus time were familiar with stewards who watched over the land and property of rich people. Because parables tell stories using real life situations and people they can appear simple at first glance. But while the familiarity gives us sort of certainty and a feeling that we have got the parable “right”, we need to be alert, because there is almost always something deeper going on beyond the obvious surface. There is usually a surprise lurking when you scratch beneath the exterior of parables. We might seek the comfort and resolution of one interpretation, but there is often much more to be considered.
Parables are like one of those pictures made up of geometric patterns. Viewed one way, we clearly see a recognizable object. But then we view the picture from a different angle, then other images mysteriously pop out of the 3d space. I found out there that people even study how we view these pictures with different optical references, which produce different recognizable forms.
As we revisit the parable, I wonder what might emerge. The first two slaves took the money entrusted to them by the Master and by their trading doubled the money. When they each accounted their investment returns to the Master, they praised by the Master and then put in charge of more things. The two successful slaves were then allowed to enter into the joy of the Master, meaning they moved up higher in the Master’s organization. This is a vision of a three-tiered world: the Master, his domain and the good and bad slaves, and his subjects.
The apparent simplicity of the parable has lent itself to an initial glimpse and resulting interpretation which goes something like this: The talents those ancient units of currency, are interpreted as the gifts that the Master, that is that God gives to all of us. The parable is then held up as an example of an individual who did not make good and faithful use of their gifts. You might have heard that the parable means that “you need to use what God has given you or that you will lose the money and perhaps much more.” In this scheme, all the players are assessed by a strict and unforgiving measurement system. At the heart of the measurement system is fear of one kind or another.
Like the slaves, if we have been an employee or a subordinate, we understand how fear is a part of working in any organization—the fear of demotion, the fear of having the high profile assignment taken away, the fear of being berated by superiors, the fear of a reduced or no bonus, and finally, the fear of being let go. We tend to want to read the parable in a way which makes sense to us, so we might tend to want see this parable through the lens of organizations we have been a part of in our own lives. One of the main problems with that kind of reading of the parable is that it casts God as manager who will abandon us and cast us out onto the street if we fall down. In fact, some would say that is God’s job. I am challenged by this take on the parable because a God who kicks us when we fall down doesn’t sound very much like our God.
Does this reading of the parable and the corresponding image of God as a high-powered manager sound like Jesus as described in the gospels? Think about who Jesus associated with. He had fisherman as his inner circle, his posse. He ate dinner with tax collectors and other outcasts, not the successful and wealthy elite of Jerusalem. We might reflect on how Jesus interacted with those who had money. Remember he told the young rich man that he had to give up all that he had to be one of his followers. What did Jesus way of living say about the important of returns, and the accumulation of things material? Jesus lived hand to mouth as an itinerant preacher in the backwater of Galilee. For these reasons and many others, I find it hard to imagine Jesus thinking about quarterly fund returns versus comparable funds and benchmark indices. Jesus would not have had much interest in tracking “interest,” or the return on investment.
If Jesus is ill suited as the corporate manager type, it turns out this parable might not be so simple. Maybe another view emerges which is less obvious. Could Jesus be making the point that the world operates in a very different way from God’s kingdom? Our worth is almost always judged on the basis of clear metrics, returns, performance, connections, looks, pedigree and power. To those few is given more. By contrast, God’s gifts are given freely to all with no performance clauses and returns minimums attached. Still, there is some hope for those who like a bit of structure and order; fret not because Jesus does have expectations about how we are to use our gifts. Jesus reminds the rich that they must not neglect the poor and the marginalized. He reminds them that they can’t take it with them, so why not share what God has given them in the first place—not in order to earn a reward, not to get more love from God, but out of desire to be more like God, who is abundant in love.
Jesus reminds the poor that God has a big heart for the meek, the humble and the oppressed. He urges them to persevere and to know that they are not alone. He blesses those who are poor in spirit, those who are meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The Beatitudes suggest that Jesus never linked God’s blessing to possessions, achievements or investment returns. God’s special blessing falls on those, which the world would not expect to be blessed.
This leads me back to the idea of certainty and expectations. In the immediate years following Jesus death, some prominent Christian communities were certain that Jesus was coming back in their own lifetimes. Understandably, they wanted advice about how to be ready. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know with certainty that we cannot be so certain about exactly when Jesus is coming. We just know that he is coming and that we must prepare. The best way to prepare for Jesus coming is to be invested in participating in this world and in always using our “talents” make this world a better place. While we wait for the coming of Jesus, what is certain is that we do not need to operate either out of desire to earn God’s blessing by our worldly success or burying our gifts and treasure out of fear.
Instead, I pray that we let our lives be accounted for in units of love and measured in mutuality.