Friday, November 11, 2011

Devotional 11-11-11

The Parable of the “Good” Steward?

Please read Matthew 25:14-30.

We typically call this parable “the Parable of the Talents.”  We like labels, but whatever label we may put on it, it is a parable of Jesus that cannot be confined by a label.  It is a parable about money.  It falls conveniently in the Lectionary during November, also known as Stewardship Season, and so we have all heard sermons about the “good” stewards who doubled their master’s money and were rewarded, and the “bad” steward who buried his talent.  Since the parable in English translations uses the word, “talent,” we get another meaning from the parable not to hide our God-given gifts and talents.  And we hope that everyone will know we are really talking about money. 

This is a parable about money—a lot of money.  Let’s try to get some perspective on just how much was at stake for these three slaves.  Never mind that a talent was a silver coin that weighed 60 or 70 pounds.  Each talent was worth about 6000 denarii; a denarius was the average worker’s daily wage.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average daily wage for All Occupations in West Virginia in 2010 was $136.00.  By today’s standards in West Virginia, then, a talent would have been worth over $800,000.  The master had a portfolio that was worth roughly $6.4 million.  When he left, he diversified it among three of his slaves.  The first got $4 million, the second $1.6 million, and the third $800 thousand.  The first two each actively traded the investment and ultimately doubled his money; the third took a more conservative approach and preserved the principal amount.  So when the master returned, his $6.4 million was worth $12 million.

In my work at the United Methodist Foundation, I have used this parable as an illustration.  There is an easy interpretation that this parable promotes investing and discourages preservation at the expense of lost opportunity.  We generally think of the master as representing the figure of God, right?  It is certainly different from the typical portrait of God as gracious, merciful, and abounding in steadfast love.  The parable presents a downright harsh description of the master, when you think about it.  The master is shown as absent, harsh, and concerned only about maximizing wealth.  Did Jesus mean that character to represent God?  Is the common interpretation the only way to look at Jesus’ parable?

This parable is open-ended and invites different interpretations.  As with any parable, we bring our own context and understanding to the reading.  Our Western minds, trained by our worldview, automatically think of the first two slaves as the heroes.  They are the ones who took risks and produced a good return.  And to us, that is a good thing.  However, it has been suggested by some that the original audience would have heard it quite differently. For example:

“The social-economic situation in which Jesus told this parable benefited only the small ruling elite. It was a system that concentrated wealth in a few hands, a society where the poor became poorer, and the rich became richer.  Even though poor Jews hated exploiters, since financial profit was attached to being a rich man’s steward, many accepted to serve the rich, and some even aligned with these exploiters. I look at the parable of the talents as a critique of this situation.”[1]

When viewed from within that context, the audience would question how the first two slaves could have earned a profit of 100% absent usury or some other form of exploitation or dishonesty.  The central character of the parable, the third servant, is seen as the hero of the story because he does not collaborate with the other two to further exploit the poor.  Like a modern-day whistle-blower, he stands up to his master and refuses to cooperate with him, knowing that the master is harsh and cruel.  By refusing to be a part of the system, he becomes the “good” steward and suffers the consequences by being thrown into the outer darkness. 

The literary context of the parable is also important. Because of its placement, it can be seen as a contrast between the kingdom of earth and the kingdom of heaven.  “The parable of the talents thus shows that in this world, rich people exploit and praise fellow exploiters. The rich become richer and the poor poorer. But it is not so in the kingdom of God.”[2]

Interestingly, the story that immediately follows this parable is the judgment parable where the sheep are separated from the goats, (Matt. 25:25-40).  There, we learn that we visit Jesus by feeding the hungry, by giving drink to the thirsty, by welcoming the stranger, by clothing the naked, by caring for the sick, and by visiting those in prisons. In other words, we meet Jesus beyond the margins, in places of pain and suffering—perhaps in the very outer darkness into which the “good” steward was thrown!

Jeff Taylor 

[1] Folarin, G. O. (2008). The parable of the talents in the African context: an inculturation hermeneutics approach. Asia Journal Of Theology, 22(1), 94-106, at 99.

[2] Id., at 104.

1 comment:

Becky Warren said...

Jeff, I don't think I've ever heard the background of this scripture explained in such detail. Thank you for giving me a clearer picture of the times. The parable definitely takes on a new meaning.
You also encourage us to see if there are other interpretations. That's what makes you such a good teacher.