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Saturday, November 18, 2017

An intolerable parable



This is one of those parables that threaten to drive you to despair.  I find myself angry with it and that maybe because I am frightened by it – that at the end of the great game of life, I never quite did what I should have done.  Too late then to complain: “It isn’t fair”; to point the finger – the others had more , better genes, better circumstances, a happier disposition; or simply you expect too much.  But who wants at the end of the course to be haunted by the dreadful thought, ‘I never did quite enough?’  It’s a parable with a dreadful sting in its tail:

So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

25:29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

25:30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

This poor last servant misses the point, and the poor clueless man finds himself in the outer darkness for clinging to the supposed safety of burying his talent in the ground.
John Wesley commented, "So mere harmlessness, on which many build their hope of salvation, was the cause of his damnation."  How might we craft his epitaph: “I did no harm but that wasn’t enough?”
Then there is the ethical and economic question of the parable: this looks like a triumph of capitalism and the market forces – if you have more than others you will succeed and success is rewarded by even more; whereas the poor, the marginal, the one talent multitude will be stripped of all they have.  Is this a parable cheering on the mega rich and the entrepreneurs?

You may remember at some stage being required to read and learn John Milton’s famous sonnet (19) on his blindness ; you may remember how he writes about his blindness and his vocation to be a poet; he questions God’s justice and in the end resolves the debate – by arguing that the scope of God’s purpose is greater than any can imagine and “They also serve who only stand and wait”.  It’s a great example of an artist arguing with the parable; stretching and testing it.

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
'Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?'
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, 'God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.'

-John Milton 1608-1674
Sonnet XIX


You will realise that this is a parable that invites you argue with it.  Is God fair?  But is that simply as irrelevant as if we were to complain about water being wet!

The parable however probes us.  It prods us where we are most vulnerable – where we are most fearful and uncertain.   The rhetoric of the parable casts us into the role of the unfortunate servant – the one who is afraid – and there the parable confronts us, challenges us, with where our fearfulness can trap us.  If the currency of the talent is about our capacity for love; in other words our capacity to be free and to reach beyond ourselves, beyond our preoccupation with ourselves; then what happens if we bury love, it we hide it away?  Something in us dies …

So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

25:29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

25:30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”

That is why we are here: for the art of love which requires endless practice, a constant rehearsal…


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