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Passionist Life A parable to remind us that resistance matters, even in mundane things

A parable to remind us that resistance matters, even in mundane things

Passionists UK A parable to remind us that resistance matters, even in mundane things

Dec 01 2023, 10:19 AM

The ‘Parable of the Talents’ in Matthew’s Gospel is a story about a powerful figure who enlists a number of subordinates to carry on his affairs while he is away. He assumes they can be trusted. When he returns he receives an account of the situation and deals with the subordinates as he sees fit. Those who have continued to make more money for the Master are rewarded; the one who criticises the master for his exploitative dealings is immediately cut out of the deal.

The parable is thought to be based on a now lost original, which has been treated with great freedom by the evangelist. So says the footnote on page 1721 of the Jerusalem Bible 1985 edition. The question immediately comes to mind: how different, then, was the original from the parable we now have? 

Most of us are familiar with an explanation of this story in which ‘talents’ are identified with the current meaning of the word, as in ‘skills’ or ‘abilities’. Christians are expected by Jesus, their master, to make full use of any gifts he has given them. We go away with an image of a moral cottage industry in which countless anonymous good people apply themselves to helping those around them. Nobody doubts we should do that, and some of us could do a lot more of it, but is that what the parable is actually about?

At face value, this is a tale of High Finance; a story about a very rich man who increases his fortune with the assistance of dutiful subordinates. The Talent was an enormous amount of money: a vague but useful equivalent would be a million dollars (with thanks to Daniel Harrington SJ’s The Gospel of Matthew). Two of the servants use their allocation to make a lot more money, which they hand over to the Great Tycoon, much to his delight.

So now the Tycoon has some tried and tested financial assistants, but he is left with a problem: the dissenting servant. Like the Prodigal Son, this servant has a little speech prepared:

‘Sir, I had heard you were a hard man, reaping where you had not sown and gathering where you had not scattered; so I was afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground. Here it is; it was yours, you have it back.’

At least, unlike the Prodigal, he gets to finish what he wanted to say, and it even gets a second hearing when the Tycoon repeats it back to him. The speech is saying: ‘I know what sort of man you are, so I am afraid to say this, because of what I know of your behaviour. But I have decided to have nothing to do with your money and your way of taking from others what you have no right to. I return your money to you in full.’ (Echoes here of ‘Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.’)

The boss kicks him out and leaves him penniless.

This is where the interpretative crunch comes. Allegorically, the servant who refuses to play along is the villain; allegory tells us the servant is lazy, lacks commitment to the task entrusted to him, represents those who obscure and undermine the mission of the Church. He deserves to be punished and cast out of the company of the faithful and the good. 

There is no place in this world, it seems, for forgiveness and mercy. (This sort of hard ending occurs in the previous parable of the wise and foolish virgins, as well as with the sheep and the goats, which comes next). This is not easy to square with what we generally believe about a loving God, or what we read about elsewhere in the Gospels.

The Tycoon being a ‘hard’ man, the servant is labelled a ‘good-for-nothing’ and consigned to a dark place of weeping and ferocious teeth. Matthew uses this phrase five times, which suggests he was quite fond of it. But where does it come from? And what does it mean? 

There are some possibilities. Psalm 37(36), is headed (in the Jerusalem Bible) The fate of the upright and the wicked. In it we read: 

‘Be quiet before the Lord and wait patiently for him, not worrying about men who make their fortunes, about men who scheme to bring the poor and needy down. […] The wicked plots against the upright and gnashes his teeth at him […] The little the upright possesses outweighs all the wealth of the wicked. […] The wicked man borrows without meaning to repay, but the virtuous man is generous and open-handed…’

And in the Book of Job, chapter 16, Job speaks as follows:

‘My slanderer has now turned witness, he appears against me, accusing me face to face; his anger tears and hounds me with gnashing teeth. My enemies look daggers at me and open gaping jaws.’  

It looks as if, in this case (though not all), we have stylised ways of representing the fate of the just. Is this what Servant 3 represents? What if this is actually a story about Collaboration and Resistance?

Disrupting the flow of things

Like all Jesus’s parables, this story is steeped in everyday life. Absentee landlords (eg the parable of the vineyard tenants) and absentee financiers (eg offshore traders nowadays) were well-known phenomena then, as they are now. The means used to raise the extra money, modelled on the Master’s methods, would be familiar to the first hearers of the story: violence, extortion and threats of all kinds. The only purpose of this activity is to make more money, in order to hand it over to the Tycoon, on his return, in the hope of keeping in with him. There is no implication that the money was used for good purposes.

We know much more nowadays than did the people of Jesus’s time about the workings of society and how we are all shaped and influenced by these forces. For a lot of the time, we can do little about their impact on us as individuals. Servants 1 and 2 could only go along with the situation as it was. In a sense, they knew no better. Things were like that, and that’s all anyone could say. Presumably, Servant 1 and Servant 2 could see the ending coming, and so they busied themselves with making money, as protection against the punishment they could expect if they didn’t. 

This is where the third servant comes in. He is by far the most interesting character in the story. The third servant disrupts the general flow. And this disruption begins to throw a different light on everything else in the story. 

The other servants would have seen, before the Tycoon returned, how their colleague was not taking part in the plan. What conversations might they have had about this? There was plenty of time for Servant 3 to think about what he was doing and not doing – the Tycoon was away for ‘a long time’, according to the text. What thoughts might have gone through his head in that time? Why am I doing this? Is it worth the trouble? What good will it do? Why not just do as the others are doing? Anyway, he perseveres, and prepares his statement, as above.

Servant 3 falls short of true heroics; he does nothing with the opportunity he had to carry out the good works which this enormous sum of money would have allowed him to do, for example. He might have come to the Master and announced that he had used it all up to benefit the poor. Even so, he is on the right side in his opposition to the game the Tycoon wants his subordinates to play.

Servant 3 stops us in our tracks. After all, what was it about this story that caused its first hearers to hang on to it, with its echoes in Mark 13, and which so appealed to Matthew that he retained it for this point in his Gospel? It has to be this breakthrough in understanding that radical change was upon them.

Matthew is writing here about monumentally important things. The series of stories that appear in this part of Matthew’s Gospel are parables of what it will be like ‘when the Son of Man comes’. It begins with the disciples contemplating the sheer size and magnificence of the Temple, followed at once by Jesus’s announcement that all this was to be swept away. This is an announcement of the end of civilisation as they knew it. 

Surely, we have to have a similar sense of proportion as we work our way through the comparisons Matthew offers throughout chapters 24 and 25. We need a sense of the size of the forces about to be put into effect. The problem, therefore, with the interpretation we all know is that it is not adequate, appropriate or commensurate with this vision. The vision is apocalyptic, in the everyday meaning of the term, and in its technical meaning. And these senses are acted out in the banal activities of day to day life.

We are told it will be like this ‘when the Son of Man comes’. What does that mean? Just this: that these conflicts and struggles will be the scene into which the Son makes his entrance, and he will come to judge the situation as he finds it.

Are there Apocalypses in forms we can understand in our own times? Are there stories as grotesque as those of Antiquity, which might serve as a warning we can recognise today?

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