Monday, 14 November 2011
Reading or revising the parables
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?