Some parables seem easier to understand than others. Even with Jesus’ explanations, some parables just don’t make sense. Many of the parables that sound simple are harder to unravel than we realize. Layers of meaning are embedded within centuries of tradition. Relationships, families, and the rhythms of life have changed since Jesus took the common stories of his world and shaped them into parables to be re-told with religious emphasis. So no matter the subject of the parable, we always come to the plate (to put in baseball terms), with one hand tied behind our backs.
We’re handicapped whenever we come upon any parable. Why? The parables were never intended for us. We are not Jesus’ audience. Each of Jesus’ parables, ones we feel we know well and those that are less familiar were told to a specific group of people in 1st century Palestine. The tenant farmers and fisherman who made up many of Jesus’ early followers were his congregation, audience, and listeners. These are their stories. We have inherited the parables. What do we do with our inheritance?
The most important task for us is to try and hear Jesus’ story as it was intended to be heard. We need to understand something about the audience. Who was he talking to? How did they live? Why did he choose this story? Did the audience choose the parable?
I think it’s reasonable to say that Jesus was contextual in picking his parables. For instance, if Jesus came to Ocracoke to preach, do you think he would tell you a story about cotton farmers, raising tobacco, or soybeans? No, he wouldn’t. I’m sure, once he was preaching and teaching on the mainland he’d have plenty of parables about tobacco and cotton. On Ocracoke, he’s going to talk about fishing, shrimp, sailing, or the ocean. So you could say that the people he’s with help choose the parables he tells.
Who are these people with Jesus today? What does the parable tell us about his audience? None of them are self-employed. Their employers are ridiculously wealthy and they are left to manage portions of their land. Some may live as famers eking out a hand to mouth existence. Others live with a greater degree of uncertainty. Their jobs and their lives could be eliminated. The line between life and death was arbitrary and easily crossed in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Some worked for wealthy men and others worked for the moderately rich. Most of them were barely getting by.
Hence, Jesus is about to tell another parable about how it can all go wrong.
It goes wrong for us from the very beginning.
The first thing that holds us back from truly understanding this parable is the word “talent”. I can tell you that a “talent” is the Greek word for a unit of currency used by the Greek and Romans. A single talent weighed somewhere between 80 and 130 pounds. One talent was worth about twenty years’ wages for a single person. The only people who were able to hold their money in talents would have been the richest of the rich, the economic elite. I can tell you all of these things. However, if we hear the word talent, not as Jesus’ audience heard it but as we hear it (as natural aptitude and skill) then we’ve lost the meaning of the parable from the outset.
Were we read through this entire parable and hear the world “talent” as natural aptitude and skills to make it fit our early 21st century worldview, we might as well put the Bible down and go read Dr. Phil, Oprah, or some other self-help book.
The second thing holding us back from getting Jesus’ point is this: we automatically assume that the guy giving out the talents is the “God” character. That’s an easy mistake to make if you spiritualize and mistakenly read talents as “natural aptitudes and skills” and think this sermon is about doing more with what God gives you. However, if you read the talents as actual talents (money from a rich man), maybe the guy giving away the money isn’t the God character we’ve always assumed him to be. Suddenly, you’re left with a parable you thought you knew, turned upside down and you realize Jesus’ followers heard this story in a way completely different than we’ve talked this parable for years.
If the rich guy isn’t God and the talents aren’t my “natural aptitudes and skills” then what’s going on? What did Jesus’ people hear? What are we missing? We are missing the debt.
The median American household income is $56,516 dollars a year. For the sake of a reference point, let’s multiply that times twenty. What do you get? $1,130,320 dollars-that’s just to give us a starting point to understand how much a talent is in the mind of Jesus’ listeners. Five talents would be $5,651,600 dollars. Three talents would be worth $3,390,960 dollars. These people are being trusted with unbelievably large sums of money. You’ve got to remember this: the person given only a single talent is still given the equivalent of 1.1 million dollars. You don’t give that kind of money away to people you don’t trust. Each of these three people must have been valued and trusted retainers (or managers) for the wealthy landowner.
Travel wasn’t cheap in the ancient world. Wealthy landowners were the only people with means to go abroad and leave millions of dollars worth of resources in the hands of their managers. These people wanted their money to work for them while they were away. Jesus’ audience knew all about the wealthy landowners wanting to put their money to work. Put your money to work by lending it out at exorbitant rates of interest to farmers, sharecroppers, and fisherman on the Galilee who hadn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of ever paying it back. That’s how you made money with money in 1st century Galilee. As employees of the boss, they lived off what little graft and excess he chose to pass down. The big man’s departure was a license for them to print money. With the venture capital he provided, they had a chance to go from retainers, middlemen, and mangers to become wealthy men of stature in their own right.
What happens next? They make it rain talents. They loan money to anyone and everyone. Taxes have to be paid. Rent is due. For their trouble, they charge a little extra. The boss man is going makes his money and then some.
By this time, I’m sure lots of heads in Jesus’ audience are nodding. He’s getting more than a few amen’s. They knew guys like the people in the parable. They owed them money. They knew about high interest rate hopelessness. The people who made money on the back of the debts they’d never be able to discharge were probably mingling around the edges of the crowd.
One day the boss returned. He wanted to see the profit. You too would want to know what had happened to your money if you’d given out the ancient equivalent of nine million dollars.
The land owner is more than pleased with the work of his first two employees. The first servant doubled his money. What started out as a little over five and a half million dollars is now over 10 million dollars. That’s just from one person! Who wouldn’t be pleased with that? You would think he could stop right there.
The second guy is called up and he’s too has doubled his money. His three million dollars was turned into over six and a half million dollars. In the time the wealthy landowner has been away these two employees alone have made nearly seventeen million dollars in after tax profits. Surely, no one could be happy with these results. Even if the third guy made no money, look how well the other two did. It’s sad to think about how many sermons have been preached and stories told about two greedy servants and their master were the good guys who did God’s will. I’m not sure that’s how Jesus meant this story to be heard or his audience understood his message.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We know what happens. The third man comes up and says, I didn’t invest, lend, or do anything with the money. In fact, he says, “here’s your million dollars back, take what’s yours”.
This makes the landowner really angry. He calls the third man all sorts of hateful and evil names. Again, another reason why I don’t see God as the rich guy is that I don’t see God calling us evil and lazy. Look at what the landowner tells him: You should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned you could give me what belonged to me with interest. As in, “that’s what the other guys did”. They gave it to the bankers and reaped the interests. What do bankers do: they loan money, they put people into debt, at high interest rates, the keep poverty going, and they prop up the temple system and Roman occupation.
The third man said no. He is a whistleblower. He wasn’t going to play ball. The third guy wasn’t going to keep the system of oppression, debt slavery, and spiritual bondage going into perpetuity. His way of stopping suffering was to take the money out of circulation. He said no. What happened to him because he said no? He was deemed worthless and sent to suffer in the outer darkness because he said no to the powers at be.
Jesus is the Third Man. Jesus is the one who said “no” to the system of oppression, sin, slavery, and bondage that was killing his own people. Jesus is the Third Man who said I’m going to make it impossible for your resources to be used as a tool of oppression when it comes to having a relationship with God. Jesus is the Third Man because he suffered and died a most painful death and was placed in a darkened tomb. One might even say that Jesus is the Third Man because he was sent to the outer darkness of death between two thieves
This is not a story about our natural aptitudes, skills, abilities, or how we are to be good stewards of God’s blessings. This is never how this story was told, intended to be heard, or should be preached. If anything, I think this is a parable about how we read scripture. It’s tough to read and re-read stories we believe we know so well. When we realize God isn’t the big rich guy and is, instead, the third man we’ve always discounted and mocked as he’s dragged off to Hell; it means there ought to be a serious reordering of our priorities and values on tomorrow’s to-do list. There is something fresh and new about this old dusty book if you’ll only hear like Jesus tried to share it and read it like Christians-not Americans, Republicans, Democrats, or anything else.
I mean really, can you imagine Jesus showing up at your front door asking for his profit? None of us would have that much to show. Jesus isn’t in the profit business. Here’s what I can imagine: Jesus shows up at our door and says this: He loves us. How do I know? The Bible, especially stories like this Parable, tells me so.
Richard Lowell Bryant
*I am indebted to the work of William Herzog and his “Parables as Subversive Speech” (Lousiville:Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994)