Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC
Proper 28 A - Sunday, November 15, 2020
Today’s parable is traditionally understood in one of two ways. And I will espouse a third very different way.
In one nutshell, the parable can be read as a representation of what we do between Jesus’ ascension after his resurrection and his return in glory at the end of times.
In another nutshell, the parable can be read as a championing of our capitalist economic system where fructifying your wealth to gain more wealth also gets you God’s approval.
In both of these interpretations, the parable is a positive example of what to aspire to. And it is assumed that the landowner stands in for Christ.
According to the other interpretation I focus on today, Jesus uses the parable as a counterexample of what the Kingdom of God is supposed to be. He exposes instead what the dominant economic system does; it makes the rich wealthier and it impoverishes and marginalizes those who are not so adept at playing the system.
So let me show you why I entertain this third interpretation as a possible understanding of the parable of the talents. I would like to rename this story told by Jesus as the Parable of Wealth Accumulation.
In Jesus’ time, economic views were very different from our time.
First, the material wealth of a society was considered as a finite amount that was distributed among everyone. The only way of getting a bigger share of the pie was to make other people’s share smaller. Those who amassed great wealth were frowned upon as less honorable members of society. It was assumed that, like tax collectors who took their cut from taxes, the rich had acquired their wealth at the expense of others.
Honor, not material wealth was the measure of a family’s value.
Most people would have been peasants. The economic elites would have been a small minority; mostly landowners and a small merchant class. Most people would have had no idea of how to exploit a very large opportunity in the merchant economy.
In the odd case that you would have owned a valuable asset digging a hole to hide it and preserve it was considered an appropriate risk management strategy and an honorable way of holding wealth.
Also, usury, the gaining of interest on a loan, was against Jewish law. Putting your money in deposit with a banker in order to earn interest would have been seen as spiritually illicit and dishonorable for both the banker and the depositor.
Then there are the particulars of our rich man.
He’s a very rich man. A talent in this text does not refer to a God-given or an acquired capacity to do something well. Think of a talent as a currency, a very weighty currency. A talent represents the equivalent of 15 years of wages.
To put it in perspective for us, let us think of 15 times the median annual income of a contemporary American. That would amount to a little over a million dollars!
So, our rich man has, at least, a disposable wealth of eight million dollars to give to his slaves to look after. In Jesus’ time, most great wealth would come from extensive land ownership.
And our rich man, absents himself from his lands for a long time. Enough time, for two of his slaves to double the money he has given them to take care of. We are talking about a landowner that has enough resources to absent himself from his business for several years and has enough able delegates to manage his wealth while away.
Absentee landowners were frowned upon in first century Palestine. They were considered as getting richer at the expense of the wider community, which they were. And that was dishonorable. They became relationally disinterested and disinvested from their community of origin. In the end, they were likely not to care enough for the wellbeing of those communities who supported their enrichment.
So where does that leave us with this Parable of Wealth Accumulation?
I believe Jesus is showing his audience that he understands well the system of economic domination most of his auditors are struggling with. He shows the landowner to be focused on wealth accumulation and not at all on honor acquisition and maintenance.
The landowner reaps harvests beyond the limits of his fields on the property of his neighbors. This is instead of the honorable leaving of an unharvested margin for poor gleaners to come and gather the rests of the harvest. And the landowner supports usury as a passive investment for his money instead of using his disposable wealth to make interest-free loans to those in need in his community.
The slave who was given a single talent, on the other hand, did the risk-free and honorable thing for his master. He preserved the value of the capital he was given. Was he so irresponsible to think that his eight-million-dollar master was rich enough to not need more enrichment? Was he so irresponsible to accept that managing such a large sum of money was beyond his wits?
One wonders what the master’s reaction would have been to the other slaves if their investments had been unsuccessful and they had returned less than the original capital to their master.
In the end, Jesus puts in the mouth of the master the words that describe how the “system” works. The ways of the world are that: “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
Tell me. Does this landowner act as the God who taught us to love one another, to love our enemies and to care for the least of us?
So, I believe this Parable of Wealth Accumulation is an indictment of the economic domination system of Jesus’ time and a contrast to what the Kingdom of God is.
For present-day Americans, we would do well to consider that income and wealth inequalities have been increasing in our own society for four decades. How does our current system make the rich wealthier and not care enough for the poorer ones among us?
A good contrast to today’s parable is another parable in the Gospel according to Matthew. It is the parable of the vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1-7) where a present and engaged landowner keeps hiring workers throughout the day and pays them each a full day’s wages at the end of the day.
God is not an absent landowner. God is a present and engaged grower of community as well as a grower of the fruits of the earth. Sure, God relishes our use of our God-given talents to do our share of the work. But God wants us all to be provided for according to our needs, not our greed. We can trust in God. We don’t need to enrich ourselves at the expense of others to gain independence from God.