The parable of the talents – a subversive children’s reading

In looking for something for this week’s church newsletter I stumbled across this article by Jonathan Bartley of the Christian Thinktank Ekklesia, which I found quite provocative and got me thinking about a familiar story in a new way. I though it worth sharing.

‘It was a great joy to find myself taking the Sunday school at our local Anglican church this morning, particularly as the story we were looking at was the Parable of the Talents.

This is the story which down the centuries has been interpreted by churches as being about taking what God has given you, and making it grow – quite often money. Indeed, when certain figures in the Church of England spoke out against the actions of some city traders recently, the letters columns of national newspapers were filled with people quoting the parable back at them.

We acted out the story according to the Biblical text. But if you are true to the text it makes for quite uncomfortable reading if you hold the traditional interpretation. The story is of a very rich man (usually seen as representing Jesus) who was considered pretty exploitative in his financial practices, and ruthless, by one of his servants/slaves. 

His servants/slaves are give some money to look after while he goes away, but not in equal amounts. He selects the ones who he thinks are the most gifted, and gives them the most. 

When he comes back he demands to know how much more money they have made him. The first two have doubled their money, making a 100% profit (probably by using the same exploitative financial practices as he uses as he calls them “faithful”). He rewards them both, and gets them to make him more money. But the third servant/slave was so scared, he buried his money in the ground and didn’t make any money for the rich man. 

Rather than be compassionate the rich man, takes the money back, takes all the other (personal) money that the poor servant has away too, and sends him away destitute. 

“Who is most like Jesus in the story?” I asked the Sunday School. The chidren all felt that the frightened servant probably was. Jesus certainly wasn’t like the rich landowner who kept slaves, treated then unequally on the basis of their ability, had a reputation for exploitation and ruthlessness, had no compassion, and was only interested in increasing his wealth. 

The children’s interpretations fit in with those of some more radical theologians, who point out that Jesus’ hearers, themselves exploited and oppressed, would have also identified far more with the poor servant/slave than anyone else. 

It is probably the Church’s historical identification with power and wealth that has led it to change the meaning of the parable into something different, and in fact entirely opposite. The kids however, who do not carry the same baggage, probably have a more faithful reading of the text. But then of course, it was Jesus who pointed to the children and said that “The Kingdom of God belonged to such as these.”‘ 

I’ve always loved the parables. Jesus is a master of telling stories that capture our imagination, niggling with their provocative possibilities which call us to work out their meaning when none is given. Bartley is, I am sure, right to try and shed the traditional understanding and hear the story again, open to the possibility that it could mean something else. There is certainly something in what he has to say, or rather the answer of the children – Jesus would no doubt associate himself with the oppressed and frightened servant, and it is good for us in our materialistic culture to hear this. But is this to misunderstand how a parable works?

Parables aren’t allegories where each person or object represents something or someone – should we come to them asking who is Jesus in this story, or who is God? Instead, we should hear the story through the ears of those who first heard it – as Bartley tries to. By doing that, like Bartley, we hear a story of a ruthless businessman  rewarding those who take risks for his benefit and punishing mercilessly those who do not. The temptation is to then ask the question who is God in the story, but we must resist this! God is clearly not this businessman with his dodgy motivation and punitive methods! But, if this businessman, with all his faults, rewards those who take risks for him, how much more will God reward those who work for him, taking risks to share his love and compassion with those around them, sharing the good news of the Kingdom.
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