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Understanding the parable of the talents for 21st century humans

 

Question & Answer

 
Q: By John

Do you, like me, have great sympathy for the third servant in the parable of the talents? What do you think that this parable is meant to say to 21st century humans?  John (a Quaker from Plymouth, England)

A: By Rev Jessica Shine

Dear John,

John, I’m SO glad you asked this question! At first I didn’t quite get it, but then as I re-read the sacred text I realized how much of my former theology had been shaped by patriarchal evangelical theology – especially here! So first, thank you for inviting a new perspective for me!

Honestly, I’ve never felt sympathy for the third servant (this story appears in Matthew 25 and Luke 19). As an ‘A-‘ personality type, I’ve thought ‘you snooze you lose!’ Or even better ‘use it or lose it’! In my world, I earn my worth by what I produce so of course bigger is better. For a while, that was my theology too… at least part of me is letting that go, thank goodness!

Look, there are a lot of weird parts of this story: where is the master going? Why is he called a master? What exactly are these people entrusted with and is there more? The whole master/slave concept is a doozy which doesn’t get much better in Greek, as ‘master’ can also be translated ‘teacher/leader’ and ‘slave’ can also be translated ‘servant’. There could be several more articles written about how Greek aristocracy, theology, and language (not Jesus) influenced how white Americans will view slavery and 500 years later, racism. But that’s not for today.

When I re-read this, I realized that my former Christianity used this story to propagate Capitalism (which cheapens the lesson by the way). If you don’t believe me, ask yourself how you see the value of each character and why?

Here’s the bottom line, the master isn’t compassionate with the slave who fearfully hides the estate entrusted to him. The master is furious. The third servant clearly operates from a sense of scarcity, ‘at least I didn’t lose money’ is his thinking. This story seems to suggest, however, that the master would have at least liked to know his third slave engaged in some form of business, or engaged with what was entrusted to him. Instead he sat on it. He was indifferent. Maybe he thought he could bury it and the master would make his own profit, since the master in this story can make money from nothing.

Some scholars interpret this lack of engagement to mean there is a lack of relationship. There’s no relationship between the slave and his master, or the slave and the ‘stuff’ and this is what becomes clear as the master leaves the scene. Somehow this master can reap where he didn’t sow and earn money where he hasn’t done business. Either he’s shady and corrupt (totally possible) or he’s not afraid to take some risk.

Now Jesus doesn’t seem to give license to reckless spending here, and to be honest it doesn’t seem like this story is all about saving up for a rainy day. It seems instead that the master was operating from an abundance mindset. So what if the point of this story isn’t to get more (hello capitalism)? What if the invitation here is that the master isn’t afraid of risk?

When I read this, I see Jesus, again telling a story about a kin-dom that demands relationship first. Relationships are risk. Relationships are hard. Good relationships are even harder. Risk is about who we let in, how we live, where we work, and how we lead our kids. But the good news here is that the master’s primary concern isn’t risk, otherwise he would have expressed gratitude for not losing anything. I think Jesus is calling forth a community who are able to engage with reality, risk, and each other. This community doesn’t hide from vulnerability because the chances of deeper relationship are so worth it. Jesus is teaching that community is a reflection of our relationship to the “master” (whatever that is for you). That a good teacher/leader/supervisor turns over authority to others, not to profit from their hard work, but instead to give them an opportunity to interact with risk.  Because Jesus isn’t afraid of risk here. It seems that, as in the most meaningful parts of life, in this story the true enemy isn’t fear, it’s apathy. No emotion. No concern. No relationship.

Is how I’m living and engaging in relationship reflective of the Love I have found in Jesus? Or am I operating from a scarcity mindset? Or even worse an apathetic one.

~ Rev. Jessica Shine

About the Author
Rev. Jessica Shine
 earned degrees in theology and divinity, but still hasn’t figured out how to walk on water. Despite this, she was ordained to ministry by the Seventh-day Adventist church and continues offering spiritual care as a clergy member of The CHI Interfaith Community (based in Berkeley, CA). With two decades of experience serving church communities, police officers, hospital staff, and teenagers, Shine has a passion for people and a skill for communicating in transformative ways. She is a descendant of Mexican, Indian, and Western European immigrants. Her spirituality began in childhood, was influenced by Jimmy Swaggart and Mother Theresa, and continues in the Pacific Northwest. She dwells on lands where Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla and many other tribes made their homes. Shine also co-hosts a podcast on death and dying called “Done For” (available on iTunes, Google, and at doneforpodcast.com).

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