Reflections on The Parable of the Talents
33D Sunday in Ordinary time (16.11.14)
Readings: Judges 4:1-7; 1 Thess.5:1-7; Matthew 25:14-30
Last week an email conversation on this gospel text began in our Dunedin archdeaconry: Canon Claire Brown raised the possibility that the third servant, the one talent servant, was a ‘whistleblower’ on the unjust and exploitative behaviour of the master. I was delighted to hear the question asked because it so ran against the tide of traditional readings of the parable that it created a mental space in which we could engage with the story again; engage with it afresh.
The danger of traditional readings is that the story can become so encased that our readings are reduced to a formula of ‘this is what it means’ – by which point the story has ceased to engage us and you can almost feel the scriptures being drained of their power to speak. A strong question, something that threatens to turn our understanding on its head, can revive the story and we turn to it with renewed curiosity and openness.
The question asked about the one talent servant – is he a whistle blower against an unjust master – alerts us that our feelings are engaged: we recognise that we feel some sympathy with this servant. What has this servant done that is so wrong and that merits such harsh judgement? We feel sympathy. We feel what Aristotle described as the basis of tragedy: he called it ‘pity and terror’, but for us ‘sympathy’ will do just fine; we recognise a common humanity in the tale, a capacity for making a mistake. In this we recognise ourselves.
Think then of this parable as a little tragedy – one to be grouped with similar parables – such as those we have followed in earlier weeks where mistakes have been the issue; stories where understandable errors (‘Oops, no wedding garment’ or ‘Oh dear, not enough oil’) have led to disaster.
When one thinks of tragedy you might recall those first year classes in English Literature and the occasional Shakespearean tragedy, usually Othello and the question of what caused his downfall. Critics sometimes spoke of the ‘tragic flaw’ in a character; something that made that person vulnerable to making a mistake. Aristotle spoke of this as Hamartia, ‘missing the mark’; the same word later used by St Paul for sin – so describing it so as a predisposition to ‘miss the mark’ or make a mistake.
So then, this morning imagine yourself as if sitting in the Chapter Room among the Wednesday afternoon ‘Thinking Through the Scriptures’ group and ask yourself about this one talent servant – what is wrong? What is his tragic flaw? Is there one?
I think Matthew is quite clear that there is: never mind the rationalisations he provides; just focus on the condition he names. The one talent servant says to the Master, ‘I was afraid’.
‘I was afraid’: that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That is the same phrase we hear from Adam back in Genesis after the Fall where a guilty Adam admits to God, ‘I was afraid’. Contrast that with the constant command we hear in the New Testament, especially after the resurrection: ‘Don’t be afraid’.
The more I think about this, the more I recognise how fear is such a limiting and destructive presence in our lives. It can keep us silent when we should speak; it may make us draw back when we should move forward to help. Maybe we are afraid of losing our job or losing someone’s good opinion of us; maybe we are afraid of being stretched beyond our resources or ability; maybe we are afraid of too much public attention or of our limitations being exposed. Everyone will know something of fear and we can all make our own list of the things we are fearful of.
The one talent servant is so paralysed by fear that he does nothing and takes no risk, undertakes no venture in faith, presents mere harmlessness. Sadly this servant, merely by doing nothing, by playing it safe, loses everything.
I have on my computer’s desktop a quote from a priest and writer – she sums up the issue in the most personal terms, saying from her perspective as a writer:
“You are on your death-bed. What do you regret? If I don't write, I will die. That is, my body may live, even comfortably, but my soul will die.”
To read this parable and be reminded of what God calls us to in life is alarming and yet behind this parable the risen Christ calls to us, ‘Don’t be afraid’.