November 19, 2017 Click on the left end of the black bar to play/pause
November 19, 2017
Fr. George Smiga
The meaning of any parable rests upon our understanding of the characters within it, and, if our understanding of the characters changes, the meaning of the parable changes as well. This is certainly true of the Parable of the Talents in today’s gospel. Usually when we hear this parable, we presume that the master in the parable represents God. God gives us talents, abilities, and blessings and expects us to use them. Like the first two servants in the parable, we are expected to increase what we have been given, so that at the end of our lives we can give back more to God than God gave us. We are not to follow the example of the third servant who, out of fear, buried his master’s money in the ground.
Now, this understanding of the parable is a valid one, and I have used it myself on several occasions. But, there are two aspects of the parable that do not quite fit with this interpretation. The first is the character of the master and the second is the action of the third servant. If we presume that the master in the parable represents God, then the parable presents us with a God who is harsh and cruel. The master in the parable is described as demanding, of harvesting where he did not plant and gathering where he did not scatter. At the end of the parable, he throws the third servant into the outer darkness without a hint of mercy. Is this the kind of God that the parable expects us to accept and serve? First problem.
The second problem is the action of the third servant. He, by his own admission, knows that his master is harsh and demanding and that he will be punished if he does not increase the talents entrusted to him. So why in the world would he decide to do nothing? Why would he bury his master’s money, when he knows that it would only assure his punishment—which is exactly what happens in the parable?
These two problems frustrate the normal understanding of the parable. They raise the question: Is there another way to interpret it? There is. We should not see the master in the parable as representing God but rather a human landowner. What do we know about this landowner? We know that he is rich. At the time of Jesus, a talent was worth about a million dollars. The eight talents that he entrusts to his servants at the beginning of the parable show that he has a net worth of at least eight million. How did he make this money? Here historical research can help us. When we examine the social setting of Palestine at the time of Jesus, we find that it was composed of a handful of very rich landowners and many very poor farmers who were struggling to survive. If a poor farmer had a bad crop, his only option was to borrow money from a wealthy landowner at an exorbitant rate. If he were unable to pay that money back, he would lose his land. So the richer got richer, and the poor lost the little that they had. This is how our landowner made his eight million.
This understanding allows us to make sense of the action of the third servant. When he receives his million dollars, he decides not to use it. He buries it out of fear. The fear is not that he would be punished. He knows he will be punished, because he knows the kind of master he has. His fear is that if he uses the money the way his master wants him to, he will dispossess more poor farmers from their land. This understanding of the parable, changes its meaning for us. Now, it calls us to imitate the action of the third servant. We are asked to refuse to use our talents for causes that are unjust, even if we have to face the consequences for doing so.
There might be a kid at school who others bully. There is a great deal of social pressure on us to join in. This parable says we should not, even if we know that we may be belittled for taking that stand. There might be someone at work who our boss consistently demeans. It is easy to look the other way. But this parable tells us that we should speak up to our boss, even though we risk having our boss turn against us. There might be legislation in our country that ignores the needs of the poorest among us and caters only to those who already have more than enough to survive. We may believe such an approach is wrong, but we say, “What is the use of opposing it? This parable asks us to work against the legislation, even if we cannot stop it and others will consider us foolish for trying.
The Parable of the Talents is not naïve or optimistic. At its end, the unjust landowner is still in charge and has seven million more dollars than he did at the beginning. The servant who refused to support his oppression is sitting in the outer darkness, grinding his teeth. His only consolation is that his master has one million dollars less with which to dispossess others. This is a dark parable. But if we place it in the light of all of Jesus’ teaching, we can discover at least this consolation: When we follow the example of the third servant and refuse to use our talents in ways that are unjust, we may suffer the consequences for doing so, but our heavenly Father will see the goodness in our actions, and in time we will receive our reward.