Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that many traditional renderings of the ‘Parable of the Talents’ are without value. The story has been helpfully employed to encourage Christians to use what they have to the best effect. In doing so, the word ‘talent’ has been given an extended meaning. For in Jesus’ time, the ‘talents’ in the parable are sums of money. So it is really a story involving humanity’s use of money, our financial dealings. Let’s come back to that in a while. It does however seem to me quite acceptable to interpret the story beyond this, into other spheres of life. There is merit therefore in those many readings of this parable which encourage us to use our gifts in general. As Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospels, we are certainly not to hide our lights under a bushel. We are meant to shine, even to glitter – and not just in the Brisbane Pride sense! One of my favourite spiritual writers, John O’Donohue, also rightly affirmed that ‘from those who are given much, much is expected’. In that we also have a responsibility to one another to enable each another to use our gifts productively, and to shine – indeed, to glitter! However, that is not really what Jesus’ original story is about! Indeed, if we’re not careful, if we do not approach it properly, we end up with very misleading interpretations, and a really terrible idea of God...
Have a good, close, look at the text. It is easy to assume that God is represented by the Master, the man with the slaves who goes on a journey. If we assume that, the third slave, who buries their talent in the ground, might be seen as failing God. They are then what Donald Trump calls a ‘loser’. They, after all, are the one who is fired by the Master, and thrown into outer darkness’. Yet why would we assume that? For the third slave tells us, in speaking of their Master: ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed’. Now, I ask you, is that really what Jesus elsewhere tells us about God? Is God for Jesus really like ‘a harsh man’? Does God really reap where they do not sow, and gather where they do not scatter seed? Does God really fire us if we do not make lots of money for them? Is God really like a rich autocratic Master who treats us as servants who are only worthy of attention when we help them build their business empire? Really??
God is not the Master!
The answer of course is no. God, for Jesus, is not like the Master, the grasping business man who treats others as slaves. God is neither harsh, nor a man. We are not valuable only if we are producing money. We are not fired by God if we do not measure up to conventional worldly standards. Christian discipleship is not like an episode of The Apprentice. Let us look at the text. Jesus is saying something quite different. The Master is actually the opposite of the God of Jesus, and it is the third slave who is actually the faithful one.
Does that sound strange? It does if we make a mistake about Jesus’ stories. For, typically, Jesus spoke in what we call parables, not allegories. Allegories are the kind of stories where one thing represents another, and are straightforward in their message. Reading the story of the talents as an allegory is how we start to think of God as the Master. However a parable, in contrast, does not have a straightforward meaning. It is designed to stir us up, make us think and feel differently, and help us understand God more creatively and mysteriously. It may even prompt argument, and certainly delve more deeply into life and its meaning.
Reading the story of the talents as a parable helps us make much more sense of it. Jesus was trying to challenge their hearers’ assumptions – the assumptions they had, and so many still have, about money and worldly success being the effective be-all-and-end-all, plus the idea that God is like the God-like business man of ‘The Apprentice’. A key element is not over-spiritualising the word ‘talent’ in the story. Yes, we can apply it to other human gifts or possessions. But surely Jesus actually meant ‘talent’ to mean a sum of money, and that is how Jesus’ hearers heard it. For Jesus was taking on the destructive economic and power systems of the day.
Think about it. If we see the Master in the story not as God, but as a greedy power-hungry business man, we see Jesus challenging us to return to God’s idea of money and to Hebrew scriptural teachings. Core to this is the frequent scriptural condemnations of usury: that is lending money to gain interest. We may have adapted this in modern times, but the heart of it is this: God does not want us to use money, and economic power, to exploit others and to get richer whilst the poor and weak suffer. For poverty and injustice, not sex or gender, is at the centre of God’s concern in the holy scriptures…
Doesn’t that queer things up?! For once we see the story of the talents as a parable not an allegory, and about economic sin and exploitation, we have a very different message to take on. Of course God is not encouraging us to compete against one another in a brutal manner, making more and more money for the sake of it. If we see the Master in the story as God, then the Kingdom of God becomes a kind of pyramid scheme. More is given to those who already have, and even the little some have is taken away. This isn’t even what theologians call ‘works righteousness’. It is simply ‘money righteousness’. But the Gospel of Jesus is not about prosperity. Jesus’ good news is about undeserved grace that can never be earned. The God of Jesus does not fire people, but offer unlimited forgiveness. For the Love of God in Jesus is infinite and inexhaustible, and it is for everyone. God’s story is not the ‘The Apprentice’ TV show.
the third slave as 'queer' hero
The real hero in this story is therefore indeed the 3rd slave who refuses to play ‘The Apprentice’ game and serve its God. They are the real servant of God for they refuse to use money to commit the sin of usury and exploit others. Again, take a good look at the Bible. The story of the talents is immediately followed by the great story of the sheep and the goats. In that story Jesus explicitly says that it is in compassion that we find God – in feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, caring for the prisoners, housing the homeless and refugees, and so on. The opposite of doing so is the real sin which brings judgement. No mention of sex there at all by the way, is there?!
What a message of challenge and hope that is for this Brisbane Pride Month! The story of the talents is a stark reminder that the real sin of our world is exploitation of the poor and the planet, primarily achieved through the kind of power pursuit and economic greed we see in the Master in the story. The third slave is like queer people who refuse to bow to false assumptions and who cherish those things of God which truly matter. It is clearly not sexual and gender diversity which Jesus sees as sin. It is rather the reckless search for power and wealth by the few. The third, the 'queer', servant in the parable calls on us to end ‘The Apprentice’ game. They ask us to stop serving the ‘harsh man’, whether in world or religion. They invite us to care and serve one another, and to use our money to do so. It may be costly, as they discovered, but this is the way of faithfulness to God. For the ‘queer eye’ can restore our sight and transform a too straight and troubled Church and world. So take heart from Jesus, and the truly faithful servant. Shine forth, whatever it takes. Don’t bow the knee to the ‘harsh man’. but glitter!
In the Name of the God of Jesus who cares little for money but so so much for each of us. Amen.
Josephine Inkpin, for (Brisbane Pride) Sunday 15 November 2020, Holy Trinity Fortitude Valley & Milton