Talent and Economics

This past weekend, our first reading was a passage from the book of Proverbs on the value of a good, talented, diligent wife. I listened to that reading and wondered what gospel passage it could possibly be pointing to.

I did notice the final line, “let her works praise her at the city gates”, and remembered that last week we had Wisdom at the city gates and the wise and foolish virgins waiting at the gates for the bridegroom.

When the gospel reading turned out to be the parable of the talents, I thought about the passage from Proverbs in terms of economics, also.

Nowadays in our society, people marry for love, and the norm is that they will form a “nuclear family” and raise children. In biblical days, and through much of human history, marriage was as much an economic partnership as it was a sexual, emotional, or reproductive partnership. The man (or men, including relations and servants) of the house worked outside to produce the raw materials for living; the woman (or women, including relations and servants) of the house worked to fashion the raw materials into the stuff of life: cooked food, baked goods, cloth, clothing, bedding.

A woman who wouldn’t labor at these crafts was not only failing to uphold her side of the bargain; she was also letting her husband’s efforts go to waste, by failing to invest her labor in them. It doesn’t matter if he spent all week shearing sheep: if the wool isn’t spun into thread and woven into cloth and sewn into garments, if it just sits there in a pile, it doesn’t do anybody any good. It might as well be buried in a hole in the ground.

The parable of the talents is a text that I internalized early and deeply in a common allegorical reading. I am convinced down in my bones that whatever gifts and talents I may have, I have them by the grace of God, not for my own benefit but to be used for the good of the world. (I don’t always live up to this, but I always believe it.)

I knew a “talent” was money, but I didn’t know how much – I figured it was a coin of some denomination. Our pastor this weekend opened his homily by explaining that a talent was a unit of measurement that could be used to describe an amount of anything (eg, a talent of grain); when used without additional description, it typically meant a weight of silver that would have been, in Jesus’ time and place, approximately equal to twenty years worth of a typical laborer’s daily wage.

Twenty years?? Twenty years’ worth of salary!!

Wow. Somehow the parable feels a lot different when I know it’s talking about 100 years worth of wages, 40 years worth of wages, and 20 years worth of wages. That is some serious money! What could you do with 100 years worth of salary?

And think about the social dynamics here. In contemporary terms, this is Jesus preaching to the kind of folks who typically work as housekeepers and gardeners, telling a story about a Wall Street CEO and his three vice presidents.

I don’t know about you, but that thoroughly changes the way I hear this story. I’m not particularly inclined to be sympathetic to any of the characters now — they’re all fat cats, from the perspective of the woman who takes the bus downtown to work all night cleaning their offices.

Which is interesting, considering that I overheard a little bit of discussion after Mass among people who were wondering why the master, who we are presumably supposed to see as God — after all that’s how we all tend to interpret all these parables with masters in them, right? — why this master was described as, well, a pretty bad guy:

Master, I knew you were a demanding person,
harvesting where you did not plant
and gathering where you did not scatter;
so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.

And he admits it!

His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant!
So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant
and gather where I did not scatter?
Should you not then have put my money in the bank
so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?

Really? We’re supposed to see this person as God? Really??

(And by the way, remember that charging interest was against the religious laws of the time.)

I didn’t know what the explanation was, but I had a suspicion that the folks who contribute to the Girardian commentary on the lectionary would have some ideas; and sure enough they do.

There are two suggestions as to the explanation. One focuses on the mimetic nature of relationship, suggesting that if we are determined to see God as demanding and vengeful, then by golly, that’s the God we’re going to encounter: not because God is vengeful and demanding, but because we’ve projected our expectations onto God so strongly that we can’t see who God really is.

(A number of years ago, I was thoroughly startled by an inspiration that included pretty much this exact idea during the Good Friday liturgy, as I was prayerfully listening to the Suffering Servant reading from Isaiah. I worked for the next few weeks to capture it in a poem. I was almost as surprised years later, when I found the idea in the writings of theologians working in a Girardian framework.)

The second explanation is broader and more challenging, but I find it compelling. Paul Nuechterlein, following Marty Aiken, suggests that none of the “parables of judgement” in Matthew are intended to identify God with the master or bridegroom; instead, he suggests, that the kingdom of heaven is represented by the person in each of the parables who suffers injustice and is thrown out: the wedding guest who lacked a wedding garment, the foolish virgins who were denied entry, and the servant who buried his master’s money rather than investing it.

Consider the context of these parables. Jesus has foretold the destruction of the temple, and then while sitting on the Mount of Olives, described the many violent calamities that will attend the end of the age, and compared the coming of the Son of Man to a thief in the night.

Then we get the parables: the unfaithful servant who will be assigned “a place with the hypocrites, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth,” the foolish virgins who are locked out of the wedding feast in the darkness, and the useless servant who will be thrown “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

After this chiasm, we get the story of the sheep and the goats — not a parable, not introduced with “The kingdom of heaven will be like”, but a foretelling that emphasizes, Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.

Doesn’t that sound like the judgment that would be pronounced on the master, in the parable of the talents?

And immediately after this, Jesus says, “You know that in two days’ time it will be Passover, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified,” and we get the conspiracy against him.

Three stories about people who are handed over for harsh punishment at the hands of powerful people; a story about recognizing the Lord in the least among us; and Jesus about to be handed over for harsh punishment at the hands of powerful people.

Nuechterlein and/or Aiken make too much, in my opinion, of Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” as meaningfully distinct from “kingdom of God” — I don’t find that argument convincing. What is convincing, though, is a pointer to Mt 11:12:

“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”

In this interpretation, Jesus isn’t telling these parables to describe what the kingdom of heaven will be like. He’s telling these parables to describe what the world is like now. He’s Martin Luther King, telling the stories of oppression to the people who are oppressed, who know those stories, who recognize those stories, who live those stories their own selves every day.

Jesus has identified with the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed throughout his ministry. He’s healed them, preached to them, and eaten with them. He is one of them; they are his people.

He tells them their own stories. “This is what it’s like, amirite? The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the powerful screw over the poor folks, that’s the way of the world.”

And then he goes off to live that story his own self, to be screwed over by the powerful, to be dragged off in the darkness, accused, brutalized, taunted, and killed…

…to blow that same old sad old story apart from the inside,

and change the world.

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2 Responses to Talent and Economics

  1. thewaterisfine says:

    Love this! There is such a message of good news, even in the hard gospels. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Talents, Bishops, and the Signs of the Times | Gaudete Theology

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