Parables are like puzzle boxes. There are no easy answers, no straight readings. You can take a parable in several directions: how you interpret it depends on your faith community, your social location, your Biblical knowledge, your image of God, a good dose of the Holy Spirit, and—let’s be honest!—your mood. Now, most people have heard spiritual interpretations of the parable of the talents. In such a reading, those Christians who don’t use their money, time, gifts, and abilities to advance the kingdom of heaven will face God’s anger and judgement. But it’s interesting that nothing in the story says that the angry boss is God. So let’s swap the lens from spiritual to economic, and assume that Jesus meant the talents literally. A talent was a colossal unit of money, over a million dollars today: how might knowing this affect the reading? Listen as I riff on the story, and re-tell it in a modern context. Perhaps it will lead to a different place. And if it does, then, like all good parables, where you go from that place is up to you. So make yourself comfortable: it’s time for a story.
Once upon a time, there was a billionaire. What with the collapse of an overseas stock market, and several congressional hearings, and a great deal of lobbying to protect his interests, he’d had a hard year. He decided he needed to take some me-time, and relax. But before he went away, he called in his chief investors. They met in the boardroom on the top floor of his skyscraper. There he turned to the first, and gave him five million dollars to play with. He turned to the second, and gave him two million dollars to play with. He turned to the third, and gave him a million dollars to play with. ‘You know what to do,’ he said. ‘Don’t disappoint me.’ Then he headed down to the wharf, boarded his private yacht, and sailed for the Bahamas.
Now, the first investor was a real wheeler and dealer. Thanks to his timely donations to major political parties, environmental controls were relaxed. Companies began extracting oil from tar sands, and fracking near schools, and building an enormous coal mine near the Great Barrier Reef. His energy investments shot through the roof. Thanks to his canny lobbying, governments were locked into contracts which guaranteed profits for energy companies; and so despite a downturn in usage, he continued to profit. Thanks to his careful manoeuvring against wind farms and solar power, small energy producers were driven out of the market, and so in this way, too, his investments in big energy continued to pay excellent dividends. And thanks to his creative accounting, he was able to send all profits offshore and pay no corporate tax. Over time, he doubled his investment, and he made another five million dollars.
The second investor put his money into manufacturing. Since the relaxation of import tariffs and the migration of work to special economic zones, his investments had been performing well. In Cambodia, when workers fainted and even died from exhaustion, there were always others willing to take their place. In Bangladesh, when one factory collapsed and killed a thousand workers, another factory and another thousand workers took their place. In China and Guatemala and India and Mexico, floods of workers made t-shirts and jeans and sneakers and smartphones for less than a dollar a day; and the branded products were sold in the West at enormous profits. His astute approach to investment soon paid off. Over time, he too doubled his money, and made another two million dollars.
The third investor: well, he was afraid. He was a man of the world; he knew how money is made. As a young man, energetic, ambitious, he had done very well for himself. But something had changed. He continued to invest by day, but with an increasing sense of unease. And at night, well, at night he was haunted. In his dreams he heard the groans of those who worked all day all week all month all year, and were still hungry, and poor, and wretched. In the mornings, when he checked his portfolio, he found himself thinking of the garment workers in Indonesia, and the tomato pickers in California, and the technology workers in Shenzhen; all those who slave for other people’s gain. And the words of the prophet Isaiah kept coming to mind:
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their own fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat … my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain… (Isaiah 65:21-23a)
So when the third investor received the million, he felt a bit sick. He thought back to the global financial crisis. His boss had taken a government bailout, and used it to award himself a forty-million-dollar bonus. Meanwhile, he had let thousands of workers go, and foreclosed on hundreds of thousands of homes.
Only last week, while being driven to a meeting, the investor had glanced up from his smartphone and noticed tents on land zoned for redevelopment. Children were playing among the broken bottles and plastic bags, and he had realised this was their home. In that moment, a fragment from the Torah had come to mind: ‘For the Lord your God is not partial and takes no bribe, executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing.’ (Deut 10:18). And he had felt ashamed.
He thought of his boss, a man who holidayed on his yacht while his staff worked ninety hour weeks; a man who pushed down wages and cut costs at every turn; a man who undermined or ignored environmental and workplace safety laws; a man who took government handouts but paid not a cent in tax. He thought of the times when his boss had been angry and screamed obscenities at his staff; he remembered watching the spittle fly as he called them slackers, and worse. And he wondered, why do I work for him?
He thought of the work itself. He was tired of being on the treadmill, slaving at the office all day and wining and dining clients all night. He hated the person he was becoming – ruthless like his boss, cruel to his underlings, merciless in his investments, seeking only money, status, power. Yet no matter how hard he worked, he never seemed to have enough. He was never satisfied. And he wondered, what am I really hungry for?
He thought of his wife. He was tired of the spending: the houses, the holidays, the fancy food and drink, the haircuts, the jewellery, the smartphones, all the stuff that seemed to be taking over their lives. And he wondered, is this the only way to live?
But what else could he do? He knew how to be an investor. If he left this work, this career, how would he pay for the mortgage and the holiday house, the nice suits, the fancy shoes, the skiing, the trips? What would he eat? Where would he live? What would his wife say, or their neighbours, or their friends? And how would the boss react?
His head was spinning; his stomach churned. He felt weighed down by responsibilities, and sick at heart. Unable to think straight, he stood up. He left the office and went for a walk, for it was in walking that he often found peace. He paid no attention to where he was going; he let his feet guide him.
Eventually, he wound up on the other side of town, near the lake. And at the barbecue area he saw a ragtag bunch, a mob of tired women and snotty children, and weather beaten fishermen, and hippies and hoboes with long and straggly hair. And they were all listening, listening to a storyteller.
As he came near, he heard the storyteller say,
You cannot serve two masters; for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life about more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matt 6:24ff)
The man paused. The words were balm. And as he paused the storyteller looked up, and their eyes met. In that instant, all the love in the world poured into his soul. But it was too much. He rocked back, and his eyes filled with tears. Then he turned on his heel, shook his head once, and strode home.
That night in bed, he tossed and turned, trying to get comfortable. He punched his feather pillows, he twisted in his linen sheets, he adjusted his silk pyjamas. But the problem was not the bed. He was being kept awake by thoughts, by a self at war with self, by questions which spun around and around: ‘Who is my master?’ he asked, ‘What do I serve?’
He tossed and turned, his mind racing; but as dawn broke, things became clear. He rose, showered, and dressed with a strange sense of calm; then he went to the office. And there he arranged to remove his master’s money from the stock market. And he took the money, and put it in a safe-deposit box, and hid away the key.
A great weight lifted off him; and he realised there was nothing he need do. With the money locked away, he did not need to manage it. He didn’t need to watch the stock market or keep an eye on his investments or read the financial news. He looked around the office, at his colleagues staring into their screens, their foreheads frowning anxiously; shouting into their phones, red-faced and panicky; checking their accounts, eyes glittering with greed.
He looked around, and shook his head once; and then he walked out. He went to his house, so quiet in the middle of the day. He kicked off his nice shoes, and he threw off his tailored suit, and he left his watch with his keys and his smartphone on the nightstand. He pulled on his gardening shorts and a ratty old shirt; he found his shabby sneakers, worn and comfortable. He left the house and headed to the other side of town, where the other side of us all live. He walked among the homeless and the hookers, the druggies and the drop outs, the alcoholics and the asylum seekers. He walked among the chronically ill and the chronically unemployed and the chronically convicted, and as he walked he looked. And he hummed to himself as he went walking and looking, a man in search of the storyteller. Ω
A riff on Matthew 25:14-30 by Alison Sampson, Sanctuary, 19 November 2017 (AP28). Picture courtesy Winkelman, Roy. European Banknote Montage. 2 December 2011. ClipPix ETC. Retrieved November 19, 2017, from http://etc.usf.edu/clippix/picture/european-banknote-montage.html.