13 Nov 2011

The Author

David Henson is a writer who lives in Georgia and blogs at Patheos. He received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalist. He is currently a postulant for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. His meditations and reflections on Scripture have appeared in Ready the Way: A Walk Through Advent, a 2009 publication of the Episcopal Church, Patheos.com, the Christian Century Web site and various blogs. A former journalist, his work has also appeared in publications across the country, including Oakland Tribune, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Coastal Living magazine. In real life, he is much less impressive than he tries to make his bio sound and really loves cooking, films and playing with his kids. Connect with him at http://facebook.com/unorthodoxology or at his blog http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson

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Parable of the Talents: A Slave Narrative of Injustice and Oppression
Slave_And_Master

The parable of the talents, we have been told, is a parable about personal responsibility, a warning of the terrible consequences of squandering our God-given blessings.

This is a parable about hard work, about the Protestant Work Ethic and about how God blesses those who tug at their bootstraps hard enough and long enough until they finally step out of the mud and onto solid ground.

This is a parable about giving back to God, about being good and industrious stewards of financial wealth so that we may return to God that which is God’s.

The kingdom of heaven has been like this. But is this what it is supposed to be like?

Is the kingdom of upward mobility in this parable the same kingdom in which Jesus says the first shall be last? Is the kingdom of heaven a place where those with plenty get even more and those with little will have everything taken from them? Because, wasn’t it Jesus who said it was easier to thread a camel and its hump through the eye of a sewing needle than for a rich man to squeeze his bulging pockets through the pearly gates.

Jesus said that no one can serve God and wealth, but this passage has been twisted to serve both masters. The morals the Christian tradition has gleaned from this parable, to me, seem to serve the Master Mammon more so than the God of the upside-down kingdom where the poor and oppressed are the kings and the queens.

Perhaps this isn’t a parable about personal responsibility, about hard work and giving back to God. These are not necessarily bad things. Each of these values has important things to say to us; I just don’t think they are the moral lessons, or at least the only lessons, this parable offers.

This is a parable about the rich getting richer, about doubling your money and, then, just for good measure, extracting more from the less fortunate.

This is a parable about protest, about standing up to injustice in spite of the violent, awful consequences from those in power.

This is a parable about slavery, about people being exploited for prosperity.

These three are slaves, not employees. Slaves, not even servants. Their humanity was bought at a price from a slave trader or it was swallowed up in the spoils of war. They were no longer humans. They were a product. When the harsh master upbraids the third slave, he says, in the original language, not “You wicked and lazy slave,” but “You wicked and unprofitable slave.” The slave’s great crime wasn’t his lethargy; it was his lack of profit, his lack of production, because as a slave that was all he was good for, his only measure of worth.

It’s difficult for us, in 21st century America, to imagine just how horrible slavery was and just how much it insidiously boiled down, not to race, but to economics.

In the 19th century, though, slavery was a way of life in America. If you weren’t a part of the system of slavery in the South, then you were tainted by in the factories in the North that used the cotton and ate the food picked by slaves.

Our nation’s history is often told from the perspective of the powerful. Though I grew up in the Deep South, I knew little about slavery, other than that it happened, there was a war and it ended. I didn’t know that Reconstruction crumbled by charges set by our own government. I didn’t know about the plantation that changed its name to prison. But recently, I’ve been reading slave narratives, to hear former slaves like Mary Reynolds in their own voices, explain what it was like to be a piece of property.

Mary Reynolds, slavery survivor

Like the slaves in the Parable of the Talents, Mary Reynolds had a master who reaped where he did not sow and who likely would have taken pride in his ability to drive deep, motivating fear into those who worked for him. Hearing her story as a slave on a plantation in Black River, Louisiana, might help us to understand this parable from the eyes of the slave, the eyes of the outcasts of society for whom Jesus came:

“Massa Kilpatrick wasn’t no piddlin’ man. He was a man of plenty. … It would take two days to go all over the land he owned. He had cattle and stock and sheep and more’n a hundred slaves and more besides. He bought the bes’ of niggers near every time the spec’lators come that way. He’d make a swap of the old ones and give money for young ones what could work.

“Slavery was the worst days was ever seed in the world. They was things past tellin’, but I got the scars on my old body to show to this day. I seed worse than what happened to me. I seed them put the men and women in the stock with they hands screwed down through holes in the board and they feets tied together and they naked behinds to the world. Solomon the the [sic] overseer beat them with a big whip and massa look on. The niggers better not stop in the fields when they hear them yellin’. They cut the flesh most to the bones and some they was when they taken them out of stock and put them on the beds, they never got up again.

“We was scart of Solomon and his whip, though, and he didn’t like frolickin’. He didn’t like for us niggers to pray, either. We never heared of no church, but us have prayin’ in the cabins. We’d set on the floor and pray with our heads down low and sing low, but if Solomon heared he’d come and beat on the wall with the stock of his whip. He’d say, I’ll come in there and tear the hide off you backs.’ But some the old niggers tell us we got to pray to Gawd that he don’t think different of the blacks and the whites.

“We prays for the end of Trib’lation and the end of beatin’s and for shoes that fit our feet. We prayed that us niggers could have all we wanted to eat and special for fresh meat. Some the old ones say we have to bear all, cause that all we can do. Some say they was glad to the time they’s dead, cause they’d rather rot in the ground than have the beatin’s. What I hated most was when they’d beat me and I didn’t know what they beat me for, and I hated they strippin’ me naked as the day I was born.”

I share this story not because it is so shocking, but because I think when we hear this story and re-read the parable, it changes the meaning in a very profound way.

How to Earn A Profit

Slavery, whether in antiquity or in America, was an engine for the rich to build their wealth, using the souls of their slaves as fuel. On the scar-stripped skin of slaves, injustice and brutality was spun into gold, into silver, into talents — the equivalent of 15 years of work. So how would the good and faithful slaves double that much money so quickly?

Perhaps, they followed their master’s lead. Maybe they sowed where they did not reap. Knowing what was expected of them by the harsh master, perhaps they drove their fellow slaves harder and longer under threat of the stone-tipped whip. Maybe they chopped up families, selling the elderly for younger workers who could build more, grow more and pick more.

In a slave-based economy, any gain came at the cost of humanity, both of the slave and the enslaver.

The third slave, however, refuses. Read in the context of slavery, his burial of the money is the ultimate act of defiance, an aggressively nonviolent protest that reveals the master’s true identity. And when his master returns, the slave has the courage to speak truth to power.

He says, “I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

His indictment pulls back the curtain on the economic system of injustice and calls the master by his true name: a thief who sows where does not reap, who gathers where he didn’t scatter seed and who harvests the bodies and souls of his slaves. The slave was afraid, afraid for his fellow slaves and for himself.

The third slave knows that punishment awaits him. Flogging and torture were always done in full view of other slaves to serve as a warning against insubordination. But the third slave has seen what it costs to turn a profit, and the price is too high, for what would it profit a man if he gained the whole world, but lost his soul.

The slave puts his money in the only place where it could do no harm. In the ground. And, he returns it. “Here is your money,” he says. “You have what is yours. And only what is yours. Nothing more. Nothing less. I won’t do your dirty work.”

Unsurprisingly, the harsh master is furious, and confirms the slave’s characterization of him in word and in deed. He is thrown out, beaten, bloodied, damned to a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Of course, the difference between there and the slave quarters might have been minimal.

This, unfortunately, is what the kingdom of heaven has proven so often to be like. When anyone takes a strong, forceful stand for this kingdom of God, the world, built brick by brick, on injustice cannot stomach being shown its truest self. No one can confront the powers that be without the powerful flexing their might in return. King met the assassin’s bullet, Mandela languished in prison, Christ hung on the cross.

But there is hope. From King comes a President, rising up from a culture of dogged equality. From Mandela, a dismantling of apartheid and the construction of a mulit-racial government. From Christ’s death, comes our hope that hate, injustice and sin do not have the last word.

Unless we stand with the third slave, with Christ himself, that beacon of courageous humanity is always doomed to be tossed out by the powers that be. It is easy to get so swept up into a system that does at least as much harm as good. It takes courage to keep awake and not be lulled to sleep by the siren song of power, comfort and consumerism.

But this is a parable calling us to wake up and take up our crosses and follow Jesus, even if it leads to unpleasant places. There is so much to stand against; against injustice of hungry mouths in a land of plenty; against the exploitation of men, women and children who, like the slaves who once picked cotton, have their souls stitched into the fabric of so many of my clothes; against laws that tear apart families because of their sexuality or because of their nationality; against the ravenous greed of corporations and the wealthy elite who control our country and the global economy. The third slave challenges us to stand up with more than a sermon, with more than a bumper sticker and to do something… something radical, something together.

25 Comments
24 Comments
  1. Excellent! Eye-opening!

  2. one word: dang. never heard that angle before. very refreshing thoughts. thank you.

  3. I think that all too often when western Christians, particularly in the US, read this parable they tend to gloss over the characteristics of the master and simply look at the slaves who doubled their talents to justify their own inner sense of greed. To be honest, for a long time I was one of them.

    When one truly reads the parable, paying attention to the language of the third slave and the confirmation by the master, it turns that interpretation completely upside down. This, I believe, is more in line with what Jesus was teaching. None of his parables affirm the status quo, so to think that this one would is a skewed viewpoint.

  4. A splendid contemporary retelling. For those who’d like to explore this approach more deeply see: nash.mst.edu.au/index.php/component/…/13-bchenoweth-thesis

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  6. Drat. The link I provided above doesn’t seem to work. instead do a web search for “A Critique of Two Recent Interpretations of The Parable of The Talents Thesis Ben Chenoweth”

  7. Wow. Well. Its been a long time since I looked into this. Very thought- and prayer-provoking. Thank you.

  8. I absolutely agree that this parable has been misunderstood, and I can appreciate the perspective that you have brought. I disagree about the meaning of this parable… In Matthew, this is set between two other passages – the wise and foolish virgins (or bridesmaids, or young women) before, and the coming judgment afterward. I don’t think they can be ignored to bring a full understading of the major purpose of this passage. When I look at this parable in context, I have trouble seeing it as overthrowing the master. The master almost always represents God, and looking at this as a slave narrative suggests that God is unrighteous, not something that I can do. Plus, the foolish virgins parable has the same basic theme as this parable. There are those who act wisely to fulfill their responsibility and there are those who do not. When set against the judgment passage, the message becomes even clearer. If you don’t do your best with what God has given you, you end up judged for your failure to act well.

    In addition, chattel slavery of the 1800s in America was very different from slavery in the NT times. Yes, there were slave owners that abused their slaves at the time, but for the most part in Palestine, slaves were treated with a modicum of respect. Slaves gained honor from the master they served, often were better off than poor, free men, could reach to certain higher roles in society (While Joseph is a couple thousand years earlier, he still was the second most powerful person in Egypt), and could own property themselves. They were still people. This is the type of slavery that Jesus and Paul spoke about – the best parallel is the bond-servant from Leviticus (when you love your master so much that you want to continue to serve him, and submit yourself willingly to be a life-long slave).

    I believe this parable has been misrepresented in Western society to support our greed, but not because this is about passive submission to unjust slavery. Rather, this has been turned into an economic passage when economics is the tool to make the more important point. The point is that if you don’t do the best that you can with the resources,opportunities, and time that God gives you, you need to be aware of the possible consequences.

    • Austin,

      I disagree with your take. Parables are in different places in the three synoptic gospels. They are arranges such that they fit the message the gospel writer(s) wished to send to their intended audience. And there is something quite interesting about the parable of the ten bridesmaids. It is the only parable in which the judgement of the characters is announced at the beginning of the tale. Curious, no? Thanks for your take on it, Dave Henson.

      • The bridesmaids parable is also, if memory serves, the only place in the Gospels in which Jesus condemns women. I could be wrong on that.

  9. yeah, um, good principles, but is that the right passage to draw them from?

    this writer seems to be ignoring the surrounding context which identifies the master as Jesus and also teach the same principles of stewardship and readiness for his return. this seems to be a case of “good sermon, wrong text.”

    i would have gotten ripped a new one for mishandling the word of God in preaching class if I did this. like, “Your grade is an “F.” Come back when you want to preach the word with integrity.”

    I’d prefer to teach that same lesson from James 5:1-5 (or Eph 6 or Amos 5.24 or elsewhere) without undercutting my own authority source by making it say something it doesn’t say. while taking our stand with the oppressed, we must also take our stand for the word of God as our authority and have our feet on solid exegetical ground. otherwise I’d say we are ironically guilty of the same kind of “leadership without integrity” which you are trying so hard to condemn in the article. keep your authority source in tact and just preach the word.

    • Though a little late in this discussion, I hope to get a response. I too, had always thought that Jesus was interpreting himself as the Master in this parable. Yet the master’s principles do not coincide with teachings from the bible that it is by faith not works that we are saved. It its interesting to note that Dave had derived at the interpretations that the key teaching here has something to do with slavery. We should take account that the parable in this teaching is meant to be isolated in its own context. But rather, take it as a series of parables in which Jesus describes the state of the world when he brings upon the kingdom of heaven, which the day of his return. He asks us to be ready for we will not know the day or the hour. And he goes on with how we must always be prepared like the virgins who woke up and trimmed their lamps. The parable of the talents then goes on to describe a master. The key points as Dave describes, is a master who harvests where he has not sown and gathers where he does not scatter seed. This is contradictory to Jesus for he is our shepherd and he is the one that scatters the seeds. The second thing to note about the Parable of the talents is that the master in question required the unfaithful servant to deposit his money with the bankers if here were not to do something with it himself so that the master may collect, at the very least interest, in his talent. Be reminded that a “talent” in those times was a calculated sum of money. Correct me if I am wrong, but a talent is 75lbs of silver. In the Old testament, it is said many times that it is unlawful to collect interest/usury upon your brother. Only a wicked man multiplies his wealth by employing servants to expand his kingdom by reaping his servants harvest without having have lifted a finger himself. And it is an even more wicked man for punishing a servant for giving him no return on something he still owns in full. That to me is has the very elements of slavery in which David Henson has touched upon.

  10. Austin,

    Thanks for the hearty engagement. No doubt, there are differences between slavery in ancient Palestine and in 1800s America. But I am hesitant to paint slavery in Palestine at this time in this more positive light, particularly because of the slave owner’s response in the parable itself (and others in the NT) that indicate that harsh physical abuse was acceptable. Slaves in this time were still property and were still, by and large, exploited. A few favored servants in this time would be more equivalent to the so-called house slaves in the 1800s in which many slave owners assumed, like in Leviticus, that their house slaves loved them so much that they would want to continue to serve rather than be free or submit themselves willing to be a life-long slave.

    That kind of thinking is dangerous and comes often from the position of the powerful. Indeed, American history is littered with the narrative that slaves loved their masters and were better off with them.

    Plus, I’m not interested in a race to the bottom over which slavery exploited humans more, just like I’m not interested in the (academic) debate over which was worse American slavery or the holocaust. It’s an invidious comparison. It’s bad, and that’s enough for me.

    I think the Parable of the Bridesmaids, too, demands to a new look, as I’ve written about here: http://religionatthemargins.com/2011/11/breaking-of-the-bridesmaids-a-parable-for-patience-justice-and-occupy-protests/.

    Peace

  11. Dave,

    Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t go to your seminary. I received an A when I preached this in my sermon class.

    Peace.

  12. Good stuff David. This was the passage for Sunday’s service. Our minister quoted Bill Herzog, http://www.ants.edu/faculty/bio/herzog-william-r, who argues that the third slave is the voice of God. That the talents represent an unbelievable amount of wealth further reveals the economic corruption at the heart of the text.

    • My life has never been the same since I read his Parables of Subversive Speech. Herzog’s fingerprints are all over this. I probably should have footnoted it, since it’s basically his interpretation. I was reading that book and taking an African-American Women’s Literature class when I wrote this originally. It seemed to fit nicely together.

      • hi, I think that woud have been a good idea to footnote it, especially if the ideas or the new angle didn’t originate from you. keeps things here on the up and up and gives us readers the chance to ‘follow the rabbit trail.’ I’ve never heard this take before, so now I will have to go back and reread the passage in context! thanks for sharing.

        • Thanks Lee. Herzog calls the third slave the “whistleblower.” I’ve taken his inversion (that the third slave is the hero) and added my own fusion with American slavery to evoke a more emotional point whereas Herzog evoked a more corporate/business take on it, referring to the slaves as “retainers.” I’ve taken his pioneering interpretation and set it against a different backdrop, slavery and added my own inferences and connections as a result.

          So, Herzog’s influence is certainly heavy, but this piece is not a wholesale retread of his work either. I should have offered this link to his book at the end of the article for those who may want additional perspective. I’ve talked of Herzog’s work before on my now-closed blog and at my facebook page. Connect with me there, if you like!

          Here’s a link to Herzog’s book:
          http://books.google.com/books?id=sG6Bjr7guSAC&pg=PA150#v=onepage&q&f=false

    • Herzog was an ABSW grad?!?!

  13. Very thought provoking interpretation of this parable. Most of the time people think and argue that Jesus speaks out against the third slave.
    We hyper-spiritualize the Gospels so much that most Christians that I meet tend to think that talk of economics and politics aren’t really a part of the Gospel. In the Kingdom, God’s order in which the economics of Jubilee are supreme, there is no place for riches – a rich person must divest and redistribute – there are no rich or poor in the Kingdom – each one has enough – no one has too much. If loans are not repaid after seven years, we are to write them off. It is this equality that puts off rich people who very much need assurance that they can hold on to their wealth and still rest assured of a place in God’s life to come. Even the disciples were amazed at such talk, but Jesus gives them hope of such equality because “for God all things are possible.”
    We are being asked to speak to our own reality, our own indebtedness as a society and how to see ourselves in need of Jubilee or “(re-)distribution”. Recognizing that “(re-)distribution” is a scary word that will probably turn off many, even in “the community of faith” we quite clearly need to affirm our acceptance of the axiom of equity.

  14. Very interesting. I’ll have to check out Herzog’s book. Is his argument more that Jesus’ original meaning was subversive or that the text is polyphonic? I didn’t have the balls to go with your interpretation in my suburban affluent congregation. I did say that being obsessively devoted to our own success, work ethic, etc, causes us to see God as an imperious slave-master rather than a dreamer who wants to share His joy with us. http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/the-risk-of-dreaming-with-god/

  15. I am so glad to read your article -sorry I did not notice it sooner. I first heard Ched Myers present this view a couple of years ago. It gave me whip lash but made me realize how easily we can misconstrue what Jesus says if we don’t listen to the stories told in the way that Jesus would have told them. You may like to see Ched’s article too http://godspace.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/the-parable-of-the-talents-a-view-from-the-other-side/

  16. Great article. Here’s one I wrote about the parable with a similar take:
    http://www.iquestionthat.com/2012/09/11/the-parable-of-the-talents-revisited/

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