Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
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.
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.
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.