The Parable of the Fearful Investor
Barbara Brown Taylor takes a different and very timely look at the parable of the talents found in Matthew 25:14-30. The full text can be found here but an excerpt is given below the video.
“In Jesus’ day, a talent weighed between 80 and 130 pounds and was worth roughly twenty years’ worth of an ordinary person’s labor. The only people who had that kind of money were the wealthy elite, whose households were the basic economic units of the time. How did they get the money? The usual ways: they engaged in trade, got goods to market, ran import-export businesses, lent money to people at interest—especially land-poor people who often had trouble trying to make ends meet at the end of a long drought, or a catastrophic illness in the family.
Wealthy householders were happy to help out in circumstances like those. There was nothing to it: if you were strapped for cash, you got the best interest rate you could, you put up your land as collateral, and you got busy bringing in the sheaves. By the time you noticed what 60% interest really meant, it was too late. Your land went into foreclosure, and quicker than you
could say, “Leviticus” it was not yours anymore–but that did not always mean you had to leave. You could also stay, as long as you were willing to work for your former lender—and if you could stand to watch your family’s fields re-purposed as olive groves, or vineyards—something more easily monetized, that would appeal to a more upscale market at home and abroad.
(Is anything sounding familiar here?)
Since “abroad” was where first century financiers often had to be, they employed household retainers to look after things while they were gone—“slaves,” perhaps, but well placed ones—domestic bureaucrats in charge of managing workers, keeping books, collecting debts—who were also free to make a little something for themselves on the side once they had seen to their master’s interests. Their share in such candid graft reflected their own standing in the household. The higher-ups were entrusted with more than the lower-downs, but as far as the master was concerned, the more the merrier, since that meant they would all keep eye on one another while he was away.
Whatever the servants’ standing, their dependence on the master was built into the system. They lived on his excess. The better he did, the better they did. Their wealth derived from his. If he wanted to spend his profits on expensive comforts and conspicuous status symbols, there was no shame in that. It helped, actually. Like good advertisement, it let his clients know how good he really was. Wealth was its own justification. Wealth brought honor. Its value was—well, redundant. A master who shared a little venture capital with his retainers when he went out of town was not only increasing his potential joy—he was inviting them into it as well.
“Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
But here is what I want to know: when did we decide that the man going on a journey in the parable of the talents was God? I know Jesus told it as a parable of the kingdom, but how does that turn the little “m” master in the story into the capital “M” Master of the world? Haven’t there always been a lot of masters applying for God’s job, and some of them just plain….lousy?
Read the parable like someone living on a lake in Nicaragua—or one of the “little ones” who followed Jesus around—or even like someone camping out in Zucotti Park—and it can be hard to see the master as anything but one more tycoon sitting on a pile of money so high that he cannot see the bottom of it—which is why he has to hire people to keep it flowing up from wherever it comes from without troubling him with too many details. As long as they can double his money, they are welcome to make it any way they like. As long as they can give him back twice what he gave them, they may deduct their “expenses” to the full extent of the law—which has been generously amended so that people like the master can go on stimulating the economy for the good of all.
We are seriously supposed to believe that the first two servants in this parable are the praiseworthy ones, both in this world and the next—for making a wealthy man wealthier, for keeping an absentee landlord in business, for scoring a 100% rate of return for him in exchange for their own pieces of the pie—these are the guys who are doing it right, while the third one—
the only one who buries the talent where it cannot do any more harm, the only one who tells the truth about the master (not behind his back but to his face), the only one who refuses to play the game any longer even if it means being banished from his master’s expensive “joy”—he is the one whose “overcaution” and “cowardice” have cost him “the opportunity for meaningful existence”?!”
To continue reading the complete text of this sermon delivered at Duke Chapel on November 13, 2011 go here.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor is the Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont College in rural northeast Georgia. An Episcopal priest since 1984, Barbara Brown Taylor is the author of twelve books, including the New York Times bestseller An Altar in the World, published by HarperOne in 2009. Her first memoir, Leaving Church, met with widespread critical acclaim, winning a 2006 Author of the Year award from the Georgia Writers Association. The Rev. Taylor and her husband Ed live on a working farm in the foothills of the Appalachians with wild turkeys, red foxes, two old Quarter horses, and too many chickens.