Monday, 14 November 2011

Reading or revising the parables

I have been wondering recently how wide our scope is for interpreting and reinterpreting scripture.

This weekend I was visiting family and so attended a different church. The sermon was on the parable of the talents, one of those parables which can be rather troubling. The exegesis that I am familiar with concerning the talents is that it is a warning against not using one's gifts to the glory of God, not making the most of the  talents in every sense that we have been given. However, in Sunday's sermon, it was suggested to us that the master, far from representing God, was in fact an embodiment of the Pharisees, a heartless and oppressive taskmaster who unjustly set the third servant up to fail and cruelly condemned him for his understandable fear of failure.God, we were told, does not set people up to fail or condemn them for being afraid and Jesus intended to rebuke the Pharisees through this parable.
Now, I certainly agree that God does not set people up to fail or that he condemns us for fear and I do not like to see scripture preached in ways that are damaging or insensitive - but I was not sure that I felt comfortable with such a major reworking of the traditional understanding of this parable.  I do not agree that the third servant  was set up to fail simply because he was given  one talent because  I believe this was quite a high measurement , apparently one talent of silver was worth nine man years of skilled work and burying that in the ground does seem a collosal waste! Furthermore, the beginning of the reading tells us that it is a  about the Kingdom of Heaven, "Again it (the Kingdom of Heaven) will be like a man going on  a journey" and one of the constant themes is that finding the Kingdom of Heaven requires risk, like a man buying a field to find a pearl, and taking care over the small things which matter, like a woman working yeast throughout the "dough" of daily life, or someone planting a tiny seed which grows into a flourishing tree.  I think the message of the parable is not just that the lazy servant failed but that his attitude was such that he did not try and he did not risk and he did not search to find a purpose for his life or his talents and for that he was rebuked.
  To be honest the parable of the talents is not my favourite. I too find it challenging and difficult - but then there is nothing wrong with challenge or difficulty. As a literature teacher I am aware that alternative readings can have validity, it is good to bring different perspectives, I do certainly do not think scripture always means one thing and one thing only. At the same time, we have to consider the motives behind any reading and I don't want to see messages reduced to safe dimensions but losing their force and power. I wondered if the interpretation I heard  wasn't a running away from the challenge that this parable offers into safe territory - the sort of safe territory that the third servant sought when he buried his talents instead of risking them courageously?
What do people think?


  1. I agree that the interpretation you encountered this weekend was a rather odd one, and like you, I think it is a misinterpretation.
    But of course, there are as many different opinions of the true meaning as there are people to express them.
    My own understanding of it is that it refers to our own individual gifts and what we do with them, or fail to do with them.
    I firmly believe that everyone has one God-given gift, talent, ability, call it what you will, and that if we fail to make use of it we fail not only God, and our fellow man, but more significantly ourselves.
    For many who never use their God-given gift for their own or others' good, a suitable epitaph might be "bovvered"?

  2. I think I would have had very much the same reaction as you to this particular re-interpretation of the parable, Sue. It sound like the approach to child-rearing, which implies that no child should be ever told s/he has failed or his/her self-esteem will be irreparably damaged. Failure is part of life and we can and should learn from it. Talents are given to use to use, not hide or neglect. Yes, this isn't an easy parable and the ending can sound harsh, but a preacher's task is to wrestle with the text, not rewrite it.

    I'll get off my soapbox now and go to bed...

  3. You have obviously and inadvertently attended an evangelical church, which I why the exegesis is barking mad. The parable concerns God's wish that we show off our great abilities. Like Frankie Cocozza on X-Factor, for instance.

  4. The songs were certainly quite evangelical, Fr Ivor Biggin - and I have no idea who Frankie Cocozza is (other than that he is clearly a contestant on the X-Factor.)I sense that in this case ignorance may indeed be bliss.

  5. Actually the interpretation you encountered is a very common one in this age of being afraid of scripture being seen to favour the rich and powerful. I read it as a story about the Kingdom of God being entrusted to the pharisees who figure the little they have is enough and they'd rather protect it than risk it. I like your interpretation which links it to other risky, see the potential, go for it parables. Quality post as always!

  6. I hadn't heard the interpretation before.
    I suppose it might be driven by a fear of the parable rewarding the rich and powerful, but I wonder if there might not be other motives, such as the reluctance to face the concept of having to account for our lives, or a fear that it might be interpreted as a parable about winning salvation through good works rather than faith alone?
    I read another interpretation of the parable of the wedding feast (on the web.) In it the guest who is thrown out is Christ and the King is not God but - yes- the pharisees.
    I know that Jesus did strongly condemn the pharisees, but I get a bit depressed at the thought that all the warning parables are about them. For a start, it stops us thinking how they are relevant to us - unless we consider ourselves to be pharisees - and I haven't met many people who do that! Sue

  7. Above is me BTW - my own blog is rejecting my comments! Tut! Sue.