“For it was as if . . .” That’s how this story begins. Jesus told an “as if” story tucked away in the midst of a lot of other stories, and it has puzzled us to no end. It seems different from his usual story. And you can’t help but wonder if we’ve missed it all these years and if we’ve been emphasizing the wrong things—not seeing it as radical as it really is or as challenging as it really is. Maybe we have been domesticating the story into something more like worldly wisdom: “Do your best with what you have, and you’ll get rewarded.” When in fact, the story was trying to say something much more edgy, much riskier. You have to wonder.
You know that story. The parable of the talents, we call it. It is one of those interesting linguistic things that the Greek word for the unit of money used in the story has now become our word for abilities or gifts: Talent / Talenta was a large sum of money. (No, larger than that. Larger than you are thinking.) It was an almost unthinkable sum of money. It is hard to translate into modern amounts. Most commentators settle for years instead of amount. It is equivalent, they will calculate, to fifteen years of labor. If you worked at your job for fifteen years - and didn’t spend anything - at the end, you would have a talent. Fifteen years.
You load sixteen tons, what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don't you call me / 'cause I can't go / I owe my soul to the company store. Tennessee Ernie Ford. Remember that song? Fifteen, sixteen— an impossible number when it comes to labor, when it comes to money. Yet, in the story, there are three slaves (slaves, mind you) handed fifteen, thirty, or seventy-five years’ worth of wages and told . . . well, what are they told? Nothing. Not a thing. He just handed the talents over and skedaddled out of town. “Here you go boys, a literal ton of money. Gotta catch a train.” Wait. What?
Well, we good, industrious sorts look at what happened, and we look at the reactions of the man when he returned, and we say, “Well this is about working hard. This is about using what you’ve got. Don’t sit there like a lump. Get off your keister and produce. The blessed ones are the ones who make more. Those who get more. Those who have more.” But it’s OK, because, wink wink, it’s not really about money. It’s about the abilities God has given us. And Paul comes along later and tells us that we are given gifts to be used, not to make us better, but to build up the body of Christ. So, when we work hard, we honor Christ. So, get out there and use those gifts.
And you know what? That works! It’s a great story about laboring in the fields of the Lord, a story against the sin of sloth, or the selfishness of the one-talent slave who was worried only about his own skin, about the concept of stewardship and taking responsibility and being accountable, and ultimately about the need to prepare our souls for entry into the kingdom of God. That’s what this is all about, after all. It works. And that’s what 99.9 percent of the commentaries say this story is about.
And yet. Aren’t you even a little uneasy about the portrayal of God, or Jesus, in this story? The master, the man going on a journey, is depicted as a hard man, reaping where he does not sow, gathering where he does not scatter seed. This sounds like a predatory businessperson who skirts the edge of ethical business practice to amass this incredible amount of wealth. And then he hands it over, with no instruction, as a test of those he owns. He gave it to them, in our translation, according to their ability. But in the Greek, it reads that he gave it to them “according to their power” (dynamin) —to the power they could wield in the mercenary world via the connections they have and the palms they can grease. How in the world could they double that enormous amount of money without succumbing to shady business dealings? Even the instructions to the one-talent slave were, “You should have put it in the bank.” But to a first-century Jew, collecting interest was illegal; it was the sin of usury.
What if, instead of the usual interpretation, Jesus wanted us to identify with the one-talent man? What if Jesus was saying that Jesus was the one-talent slave? Weeping and gnashing of teeth was sometimes used to describe the effect of torture and execution. What if the blessing of the others was the blessing of a world that values wealth, and the joy of the master for them was to celebrate the spoils of getting one over on the poor who don’t know any better and are just fodder for usurious financial practices? What if one opened a payday loan business and made the poor poorer by charging incomprehensible interest? What if one foreclosed on mortgages that were out of the reach of most workers no matter how they tried, thus keeping both property and whatever money had been paid? What if the honorable route was to choose not to play that game, not to take advantage of your neighbor, to bury the possibilities of becoming rich so as not to hurt anyone, and having to pay the price for your choices?
Remember, this story doesn’t begin with “the kingdom of heaven is like.” It begins with “it was as if.” What if this story is not about the kingdom we long for, but the kingdom we’ve created, like a Frankenstein’s monster, and now it is shaping our dreams and running our lives? Maybe I’m wrong here, and I’m not the first to see it this way, let me hasten to point out. I didn’t come up with this interpretation. But it has been troubling me. So, I thought I’d trouble you too. And maybe we can go back to our old interpretation and just keep working hard for the kingdom. That would be easier. That would be simpler. That would help us fit into the world we know. Isn’t that better? As if.
So, what does it mean to enter into the joy? Or rather why does Jesus put that in the mouth of the master – if the master doesn’t represent him or God? Because there is joy, and there is joy. We might as well admit it. Trying to proclaim that the only ones who know anything about joy are those who follow Christ isn’t playing well in the world these days. On the one hand, those without Christ seem to be enjoying themselves quite well. On the other, Christians often come across as joyless people or are even considered “killjoys” by those who think we just want them to stop having fun. Yes, we can parse the word and talk about the difference between happiness and joy; we can talk about true joy that comes only from a relationship with God, but it isn’t believable until we begin to live it. If there is no evidence that the joy we want to talk about permeates our lives, leaks out of us, drives how we interact with the world on a regular basis, then our words won’t mean much to those outside, and our invitation won’t be attractive to anyone.
So, entering into the joy of the one we follow is different from the joy that surrounds us. That is the joy in amassing stuff, the joy of getting ahead, the joy of being number one. Our joy is a joy of simplicity, of protection, even of the littlest ones, what seems the least valued.