by Bil Aulenbach

Let’s Take Another Look

One of Jesus’s best-known parables is the parable of the talents, found in Matthew 25:14-30. The story is about a wealthy man who goes on a journey and loans three of his slaves some talents (one of which was worth more than a laborer’s salary for fifteen years). The first slave receives five talents, the second receives two, and the third receives one. When the master returns, he finds that the first two slaves have doubled their talents, but the third had buried his in the ground. The master gives high praise to the first two but is furious at the third and calls him a lazy, wicked slave and orders that he be thrown into the outer darkness.

For years, I understood the parable to mean that Followers are to use their talents to further the Kingdom here on earth. The third slave was an example of what happens when we don’t use our talents. I always thought that his punishment didn’t fit his crime. It was harsh and painted God as an ogre. Fortunately, I don’t believe in such a god.

Then I learned about the Jewish art of midrash (biblical interpretation) and started seeing biblical stories in a different light. A few years ago, at a workshop for authentic spiritual writing, I practiced midrash with a retired rabbi. It was a real eye opener—and fun.

Now, let me reexamine the parable of the talents. I’ll start with a key phrase that I glossed over for years because I didn’t see it as relevant to the story. The third slave states, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed” (Matthew 25:24). I never knew what that meant, so I ignored it. Then I learned that in Jesus’s time, 2 percent of the population owned 50 percent of the wealth. As of 2014, according to a CNN report, 1 percent of the global population owns 48 percent of the world’s wealth.

How did that 2 percent become so wealthy? First, they purchased a franchise to collect taxes on the Romans’ behalf. The Roman system of taxation had a degree of equity to it, but the franchisees could collect as much additional money as they wanted, so they demanded large amounts that the farmers who worked the land could not pay. Then the franchisees would “loan” money to the farmers at high rates, which, again, they couldn’t afford. Finally, the farmers declared bankruptcy, and the franchisees took ownership of the land. The previous farm owners then became tenants or day laborers on their own properties.

Now the third slave’s words make sense. His master was a thug in nice clothes. That certainly puts a new spin on this old parable!

Furthermore, the third slave calls his master “harsh” (Matthew 25:24). What he really meant was that his boss was meaner than a junkyard dog and couldn’t have cared less that he cheated a man out of his family property and a decent living.

Guess what? Slaves one and two did the same thing—they cheated innocent farmers out of their property. But the third slave refused to do that and instead buried his talent. Naturally, the money-grabbing owner was furious at the slave—he wanted more land. To me, however, the third slave is no longer the villain for not doubling his talent but the hero for having a strong sense of fairness.

I think part of the reason I find this interpretation interesting is because today in our country, the rich are trying to do the exact same thing—get rid of the middle class and make everyone else an indentured servant.

What think ye?


Image courtesy of BasicGov (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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