I spoke about this famous parable along these interpretative lines a couple of times in 2013 and then 2015 and I thought it was time to put it into writing. Essentially, my approach is to ask the question, ‘Who is who?’ in the parable and, as you will see, this turns it from being a story about stewardship, especially of gifts (or talents), in the service of Jesus, to a story about doing the right thing with money and putting money to work for justice. I draw on my experience of the fossil-fuel divestment campaign, not least through Operation Noah‘s Bright Now campaign, to think again about economics and treasure buried in the ground. As always, I’d be interested in your thoughts, so please make use of the comments facility!
By this late stage in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem. He’s got one more story to tell and then, having been spoiling for trouble since he arrived, he’ll be arrested and executed. Either that or the Kingdom of Heaven will overthrow the Roman Empire. It could go either way and the crowd’s expectations are running high. For the Jewish peasantry, Jesus has been the best hope of change that they’ve had for some time. Could this be the final battle? The end of the world? The coming of God’s Messianic kingdom? Jesus has talked about these things, but has been careful not to give a sense of timescale. Spoiler alert: Having read to the end of the book, I can tell you that the world is about to change from its foundations upwards, but not in the way that anyone was expecting.
Our world is changing. Modernism is collapsing as new ways of knowing things, fuelled by new media, expose the shallow inadequacy of its underpinning of rationality, and the big, systematic narratives that modernism spun become harder to believe, assuming you can even be bothered to try. Christendom is unravelling in this wider cultural shift and in the face of the rapid growth and spread of different forms of church and faith from outside of the Western world, as well as new Pentecostal movements spinning off within Christendom, challenging the cosy church-state combine. Economics and politics are also shifting and changing as globalisation challenges the role of the nation state and concerns about climate and poverty question the validity of an economic model based on endless growth, oil and debt. The old world is not going down without a fight but change is inevitable. We may not be sure of how, when or how much, but the times they are a-changing. Christians may have grown sceptical over 2000 years about the second coming and the end of the world, and this leaves us floundering as we approach a precipice of change.
Time for a story. There are these three men: three servants (or slaves – there was little difference in those days) and their rich master, who’s going on a long journey. The master entrusts each slave with some of his money. The first one is given five talents. A talent was a weight of silver, worth twenty years’ pay for a labourer, so five talents is one hundred years’ wages – a lot of money. The second slave is given two talents and the third just one talent. The different amounts are based on the master’s assessment of each slave’s ability. Then the master goes away. It is worth noting that the master leaves no instructions for his slaves about what they’re supposed to do with all that money.
An interesting question to ask is, Well, what would you do? In order to answer that in relation to the story, you need to ask who you are in it. Which character do you identify with? Who is who? Generally speaking, in the western church, we approach a bible story like this assuming that the master going on a journey must be Jesus, about to leave his disciples, and we are the slaves. You can then take your pick about whether you’re a five talent person, a two-talent or a one-talent person. Then it’s simply about what you’re doing with the resources and abilities God has given you and how faithful you are being to Jesus, who one day will return and demand an accounting from you.
That whole approach makes a big assumption. It assumes that the world is ordered in a God-given way, with God at the pinnacle of power and below God a hierarchy of human power. This approach deserves to be challenged, because to say that Jesus uses powerful people in his stories to represent God is an interpretation made by powerful people. In reality, there are powerful people in the world who are powerful precisely because they are not like God and do not behave in a godly way. Jesus, the champion of the Galilean peasant, would not have taken this approach. Instead, I think Jesus sometimes told stories about the harsh realities of life for the rural poor, not as a way of describing God but as a way of exposing abuses committed by the powerful and painting an alternative picture of life and hope in the kingdom of God, the world if it were the way God wants it to be. So we would be wise to be careful about where we place ourselves in stories like this. In world terms, someone like me in England is rich and has choices in ways that my brothers and sisters in other parts of the world don’t even dream of. Are you rich master or slave? Are you sitting uncomfortably?
Jesus in this story highlights the dedication that goes into the acquisition of wealth. In v.24, the master is described as a harsh man who reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter seed, and he accepts this description of him. How do you think the master became rich? From the slave’s description, it seems probable that he bought up the land of small farmers when they went bankrupt between seed-time and harvest. Possibly, rather, he lent them money at such high interest that they ended up forfeiting the farm to the master and working for generations as bonded labourers. However, the long-term acquisition of land, the enslavement of fellow-Israelites and the charging of interest are all forbidden under the law of Moses. God’s economics were not based on growth or exploitation but were designed to care for the people and the land and prevent a growing gap between rich and poor – to prevent the rich using their riches to become richer. For this master to be so rich, he is unlikely to have been an assiduous observer of the law of Moses.
The three slaves are entrusted with huge amounts of capital, and they don’t need instructions to know that their harsh master will expect them to put it to work. The first and second slaves will have to have done more than work like slaves to have doubled their original capital. To have gained so much money won’t simply have been a little good luck. They have learned money-making from the master. The third slave is too frightened to risk losing the money he was given. Even that one talent was a huge amount of money and a huge responsibility. Perhaps he was afraid, not just of risking his masters money, but maybe he was also afraid of breaking the law of Moses in the way that his master did.
Perhaps this slave had grown up with this master and only knew of his master’s ways of growing richer and he didn’t like it and didn’t want to be guilty of the same sins. Perhaps he was a slave of this master because his parents had been some of the small farmers who had lost their land to him. This slave was being righteous in refusing to take money that had been gained immorally and continue the immorality further. If so, there is irony in the master’s accusation that he is a wicked slave. The master is re-framing morality to centre on himself, as is the way with addicts in slavery to money.
This is all speculation, of course. Perhaps the third slave was just lazy and full of fear. But there is truth in the notion that, in our world, those who refuse to take part in financial arrangements that are inhuman will suffer. It is hard to go against the flow. To choose to spend more on your food because you’re not going to buy vegetables that have been flown half-way round the world, or chicken that’s been intensively farmed, or coffee or bananas grown by slaves, or clothes made in sweat shops, but instead pay more for fair trade or free range or whatever, is a hard decision, especially when money’s tight. It flies in the face of common sense.
In 2014, my church, Brighthelm, became the first local church in the UK to disinvest from fossil-fuels (we had some oil and some mining shares). We did this because caring for the environment is one of our core values. Our action on this propelled us into the global divestment campaign, becoming particularly involved with Operation Noah’s Bright Now campaign to persuade churches in the UK to stop investing in fossil fuels. There has been a small amount of progress, but it is a hard road to tread. Institutional investors are rightly concerned about maximising the return of their investments for the benefit of the institution and its beneficiaries. Ever since the days when you could stick a pickaxe into the ground in Pennsylvania and see a fountain of oil shoot into the air and you could sell the mineral rights to someone like John Rockefeller, oil has been a sound, reliable and profitable investment. The prospect of a carbon bubble, due to national commitments to reduce fossil-fuel emissions, as in the 2015 Paris climate treaty, as well as the changing economics of renewable energy and pressures to curb transport-related pollution in cities, call into question the financial wisdom of fossil-fuel investments. But there is also a powerful moral argument. The oil, gas and coal companies have a very simple business plan, which is to extract as much carbon as they can from the ground and sell it for it to be burned. It is a business plan for the end of the world, because the scientific consensus is that we must leave at least two-thirds of known reserves in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. How is it ethical to give financial support to such a plan or to profit from it? And yet trying to persuade church investors to withdraw their investment from this toxic industry is a tough job.
We look around us in the world – and I look into my own heart – and see the dedication and the hard work that goes into earning money and acquiring more and more stuff. Continually bombarded with advertisements, targeted increasingly intelligently, it is hard to resist the lure of money. It is hard to break the addiction, hard to go against the flow, hard to practise Jesus’ teaching on money – of which we’ve read quite a lot by this late stage in Matthew’s gospel, and which runs counter to common sense.
The third slave in the story did right in not adding to the evil done by his master. But he missed a big trick. While it is surely wrong to take part in immoral, dehumanising economic systems, it is also wrong to bury both your head and your purse in the ground and do nothing. The challenge for this slave was to think creatively about how he could have put his talent of capital to work for good in the world. He needed to think of ways in which that money could have been invested to improve people’s lives, for example, paying off the debt of a bonded labourer and setting them free to farm their own land again. The slave had an opportunity to use a huge amount of money to do some good and he blew it because he was afraid of his master and his fear robbed him of his ability to think outside his master’s box. His fears came true anyway, as at the end of the story we see him cast into the outer darkness to weep and gnash his teeth, having first seen his wasted buried treasure given to the ten-talent slave, according to the way of the world where money follows money and those who have will gain more, but from those who have nothing, even what little they have will be taken away from them (v.29).
If you don’t like the end of the story, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it in a world where the rich get richer through steady, systematic theft from the poor; in a world where the rich and powerful trample the poor into the dust; in a world where the plan of the rich to grow richer consists of digging and drilling holes in the ground, not to bury treasure but to take out the treasure and burn it? If you feel for the cast-out, weeping, tooth-gnashing slave, what are you going to do about it in a world where hope is placed in holes in the earth and the earth is laid waste in a carbon-fuelled growth fest and the poor have to live on the waste dump or try to scratch a living from the scorched earth or run from the floods? What are you going to do about it when, in all honesty, you – and I – are on the side of the harsh, greedy master?
We have to switch sides, somehow. We have to break our addiction to possessing stuff and gratifying our consumer desires. We have to change what we desire. We have to change. Foundationally, we have to be changed through identification with what Jesus is about to go through – not a big power-filled showdown with the Empire but being executed on a cross, then raised to new life three days later. Jesus, cast into the outer darkness, chose solidarity with those like the third slave in the story: all who are down-trodden, outcast, broken. So, from that foundation of being changed through death and resurrection, we consolidate that deeper change through breaking old habits of death and we do this by choosing to weep and gnash our teeth in the darkness with those who have been cast out: to choose solidarity with the poor of the earth. While we have money, we can be true to the teaching of Jesus, in this story and elsewhere more explicitly, by not hoarding money but investing it in the Kingdom of God and living by Kingdom values like generosity, hospitality, love and grace. Rather than bury our resources in the ground (/vaults/equities/profit-making schemes), instead we can plant them like seeds that will sprout and grow and bear much fruit in lives changed for the better – release for the captives, freedom for the oppressed, good news for the poor.
I think our attitude to money is the most basic test of our attitude to God. Jesus was clear that you cannot serve both (Matthew 6.24). In his conversation with a rich man, Jesus told him that his wealth was what was keeping him from eternal life (Matthew 19.16-30). One of the first things Jesus said publicly was ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (Matthew 6.19-21). We can learn from all four characters in the story of the talents and resolve not to emulate any of them, but instead try to follow the story-teller, and invest our resources for his sake towards the world becoming the way God wants it to be – a world where all life flourishes in peace. As Jesus said in his last story: ‘Just as you did it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.’ (Matthew 25.40)