Toorak Uniting Church

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Every good Story Has Hidden Meaning

Psalm 123   Matthew 25: 14 – 30
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
13 November 2011

There was once an old revivalist preacher who loved to make his congregation squirm in their seats on a Sunday morning. He relished the fire and brimstone type sermon. Well the day came when he could preach on the text of the Talents and its gruesome ending. He wound himself up and thundered from the pulpit, "As for this worthless slave, throw him into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!" As he delivered his words of judgement an elderly woman in the front row smiled her toothless grin at him. He thundered again, "and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Again this woman showed the preacher that she had no teeth. And so a third time to hammer home his point, and shouted, "And there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth," and before the woman could smile he added, "and teeth will be provided!"

Parables are about many things but one of the most important is to get the attention of the audience. In my theological education I was taught that they were morality tales, or "earthly stories with a heavenly meaning." Others may have heard that interpretation. But that doesn’t do justice to these short and often challenging stories.

It shouldn’t be lost on us that it is said in the Gospel of Matthew that it is written, "Jesus told the crowd all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing." (Matthew 13:34) Of course that is a hyperbole. Jesus did teach using various means of communication; the sermon on the mount is an example of a list of exhortations, but parables really are central to Jesus’ pedagogy. There are over 40 parables in the New Testament. They draw for a vast array images and activities from everyday life. Not all of them of course for some parables are projected into future judgement and justice. But even in those parables, it is the sheep and goats that provided the illustration.

The Parable of the Talents
Every teacher knows that 60% of the effort in teaching is getting the students attention. And I don’t mean just keeping them quiet – that can be a task in itself. Rather it’s in engaging their imaginations; making connections between what they already know and the new information being presented in the classroom. At a profound level it’s about coming from left field so as to catch the student of balance so he or she is willing to let go of some of his or her opinions and prejudices and embrace a new vision of life – new information and ideas. And that is what we have come to see is the role of the parable.

The parables often have a sting in their tail. That sting is designed at times to offend the listener. For example, are we really to love, respect and care for our Samaritan neighbours? Now there’s not much sting in that today because there aren’t a lot of Samaritans around. But put it in a modern day parable about a boat full of asylum seekers landing on our shores and the parable ends by telling us that we should love, respect and care for them, then we have put the sting back in the tail.

A good parable isn’t always what it seems to be. In fact it can be seen as a riddle or a question rather than an answer that you, as the listener are expected to work out in your own life. They are not primarily principles to life by but rather parables are stories to live into. That’s the way any good story should be. Anne will tell you that I don’t read as many novels as she does. If we sit together and read Anne will be feasting on Geraldine Brooks’ latest story while I’ll be reading, The Solace of Desert Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality Through the Experience of the Desert Fathers. But the novels I do read and the ones that I most enjoy are those that expose both the ambiguities of life and complexity of living fully in a fractured world. The stories of the Australian author Tim Winton seem to me to be good examples of almost extended parables that often demand a lot from the reader. Umm I think I may have strayed from the parable of the Talents that was read earlier.

What I am suggesting is that our first reading of the parable may not be the only reading we walk away with. Look at this story of the Talents - a favourite parable on "Planned Giving Sunday."

A wealthy man goes on a journey and gives his slaves/servants a large amount of money to invest for him while he is away. The first slave doubled the money and so did the second but not the third. In fact, the third was fearful of losing the money given to him so he buried it in the ground and waited for the Master to return. Then judgement day comes and the Master returns, he lines up his slaves and asks them to give an account of their investments. The first slave presents his doubled investment; "well done!" says the Master. The second is the same, but the third is rebuked and punished for timidity and lack of investment profit. His humiliation is so through that he is ruined by the Master, everything he has is taken from him and he is cast into absolute darkness. I suspect that there maybe a few financial planners that some wouldn’t mind doing the same to! But I stray from my theme.

When you listen to it carefully it’s a pretty tough story and only palatable if we leave bits out or don’t reflect on them too much. The other option is to just stay with it being a morality tale, something like, "don’t be lazy or timid with the gifts God has given you. Put them out there and take some risks and grow God’s Kingdom." If we stay with that interpretation then we don’t have to face the more difficult parts of this parable. Now let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with that interpretation. Parables as I began to say yield a variety of ways of understanding them. In fact there is nothing wrong with investing your talents, your abilities or even your money and trying to use them for good.

But there may be a story within a story here. Remember parables need to be attention getters. So here are a few questions:

  1. How much is a Talent worth? Well we are not sure. Perhaps about 3000 shekels. A Talent is a measure of Gold and may be worth, in today’s terms about one million dollars. So the first thing the listener would hear is that the master gave the first slave/servant, five million dollars to invest.

  2. Where did this man get his money from anyway and why is he giving it to his servants to invest? We know from almost every other parable the wealthy; the rich don’t usually come out on the winning side. I know that some commentators have wondered if this was a kind of money laundering activity. These are likely the questions in the minds of the listener.

  3. Does this Master represent God? If he does he bears little resemblance to the Abba Father Jesus so often talks about. Here we have a harsh man who reaps where he doesn’t sow and gathers where he does not scatter. In fact, it sounds as if he steals other people produce and takes it for his own.

  4. And to add to this, this man’s sense of justice is to give more to those who already have much and to take from those who have nothing. If the role of a parable is to offend the audience, you can’t do better than that.

  5. And finally the audience. Who are they? I suspect they are not merchant bankers looking for some advice on investing. They are by and large the lower class. Some may have been slaves or servants, while others were part of the agrarian society of the day.

So perhaps this parable isn’t a simple "invest your gifts and God will bless you story." What if it is a much more radical story challenging the orthodoxy of the day; challenging the strong man theory of the world? Maybe the first hearers were offended by the harsh and unjust treatment of the slave who buried his Talent. Maybe those listeners even saw that slave as a kind of hero who was punished by a cruel and powerful man who showed no mercy even to the timid.

"That’s not the God of Jesus," some may say. "He does not reap where he hasn’t sown. Our God doesn’t gather where he hasn’t scattered and such violence is not his way and it is not the way of Jesus."

And perhaps the story is a veiled warning to the rich that they can go too far when a peasant without skill or courage is thrown into outer darkness for doing little more than being honest enough to protect his Master’s money while he was away.

Loren Rosson in his commentary on this parable says:

"like many of Jesus’ parables the Talents ends in dark ambiguity…the listeners are left pondering the fate of an unlikely hero."

They very nature of the parables is that they are not linear interpretations of emerging Christian theology; rather they create room for the hearer in which to walk around. The parable finishes at times abruptly and as the listeners leave they talk with each other and ask the question, "What does that mean? Was he referring to me? The parables encourage us to live into the questions of life and not settle too quickly for the comfortable answer.

I will finish with a famous quote from Rainer Maria Rilke who wrote:

...I would like to beg you dear Sir…to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves…Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2011

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.