And to think it all began with The Church Without Pants

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Parable of the Buried Talent

This story may remind you of a parable recorded in Luke 19:9-26. In that story, the heroes are the nine servants who earn large profits using their master's money. As interpreters have taken the parable and allegorized it (I know "allegorize" may not be a word, but remember, we're allowed to make up words in The Church Without Pants), the nobleman (Jesus) is appointed king by an absentee king-maker of some sort (God) over the objections of his subjects (those who reject Jesus). This Jesus figure rewards those who are faithful and executes those who tried to get in his way. The moral to story (i.e. What we learn about the Kingdom of God) as we've been traditionally taught it usually sounds something like: "God will give more responsibility to those who demonstrate responsibility in small things," or put simply, "God helps those who help themselves." This story is also used as grounds for the idea that in God's Kingdom "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." This story is commonly known as the Parable of the Ten Talents (or Minas).

But what if we've got it all backwards and inside-out? What if the king/master in the story is really what he appears to be: a complete and total slob; a Jabba the Hutt kind of a guy who is rotten to the core? And instead of many heroes who gain profits, there is but one hero: the only one who dares to speak out and pull the veil away from evil, revealing its stench and ugliness in such a way that no one can ignore it any more. This version of the story might be called The Parable of the Buried Talent and if we read between the lines (as all good readers do) it might sound something like this:

The Parable of the Buried Talent

Jesus, having just dined with Zacchaeus, a tax collector and notorious sinner, was asked by his followers to explain himself and his actions.

They questioned him saying, “How could you lower yourself to do such a thing?”

“Why do you question me on this?” he asked. “Surely you can see that this man was lost but that now salvation has come to his house. He is once again a son of Abraham and has been restored to his people. This is why I came.” And Jesus continued on his way saying, "Let us go to Jerusalem now, and do the same there”

Thinking upon this, his followers wondered: Surely now, Jesus will restore our kingdom to its former glory.

But knowing their thoughts, he took pity on them and told them a story so they would understand their rolls in unraveling the kingdoms of the world.

He said: “You remember Herod’s son? The man who went to Rome to be appointed lord of the realm? Well, let me tell you the story of another man of noble birth, who, like Herod’s son, was ambitious and wanted to be Governor of the land. And like Herods’ son he too was very unpopular with the people and his subjects hated him. Fearing the crowds, he went to the emperor to secure his appointment as governor and gain the backing of the might of the empire. He was confident the emperor would appoint him because he had already proven himself worthy by greatly expanding his holdings and he now controlled not only all commerce in the cities of the realm, but he also commanded many powerful and ambitious barons who served him and did his bidding without question or hesitation.

"But before leaving he called ten of his most trusted barons and giving them each a large sack of gold he put them to the test saying, ‘Put this money to use while I am away.'

"Meanwhile, his subjects sent a delegation to the emperor to protest saying, 'We don’t want this man to rule over us!' But while the emperor heard the protests of the delegation the would-be governor arrived for his audience and the emperor invited the nobleman to sit with him and make his request.

"'Faithful friend,' the emperor began, 'I have heard of your success and your record speaks for itself. You are a man much like myself. You reap where you do not sow and you take for yourself what is not yours. You reward those who service you and you punish those who stand against you. I need resourceful men like you as my deputies and governors.'

"And so in spite of protests by his subjects the emperor appointed the nobleman to be governor of the realm.

"When the new governor returned he called his ten trusted barons to account for the gold he’d left with them.

"The first baron reported that he used his gold to purchase the services of mercenaries who seized a trade vessel. After paying the mercenaries he sold the goods from the vessel at market and also sold the ship’s crew into slavery. He earned 10 sacks of gold with the one the nobleman had left him.

"The second baron reported that he used his sack of gold to purchase 10 young slave women and a large well appointed villa at a seaside resort. The baron set up a fee-for-service menu for the villa's "guests" and in the short time his master was gone his small home business had returned five more sacks of gold.

"The story of each baron was similar and for every sack of gold the barons deposited at the feet of the newly appointed governor, he rewarded them in kind by putting new lands and new cities under their dominion.

"That is, until the last baron came before the governor with just one sack of gold. He told the governor, 'I once admired you but in your absence I’ve realized that you are a cruel man and possessed by an insatiable greed. I know now that you are a hard man and that you reap what you do not sow and you take what is not yours so I buried your gold and let it sit while you were gone. Now I’m giving you only what you deserve.'

"'How dare you!' roared the governor. 'A ‘hard man,’ indeed! And knowing this you still held back from me? I will judge you by your own words.' And calling his soldiers he ordered them to take the sack of the gold from the rebellious baron and give it the baron who earned 10 sacks.

"The barons and even the soldiers were surprised at this and whispered among themselves, 'But he already has 10 sacks of gold.'

"Overhearing the whispering in his own halls the governor raged, 'Listen carefully, everyone. This is how things work in my kingdom. To everyone who has, more will be given, but as for those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. Now, bring to me the delegation and all those who did not want me to be governor. Bring them here and kill them in front of me.'"

And Jesus said to followers, “This is where we are headed. This is what our Jerusalem is like. The kingdom here is nothing like God’s realm. This is why I weep for Jerusalem. But I have spent my whole life in preparation for this. We will be a bright and searing light entering a dark and corrupt world. Now, be steady and follow me. It will not be easy." Then, with a gleam in his eye and a flicker of a smile he said, "Let's go stir up the hornets’ nest ...”

And having said this he went on ahead of his disciples, going up to Jerusalem.

In this parable our hero discerns that the governor is nothing but a criminal who champions corruption, cunning, greed and cronyism over generosity, hospitality, justice and compassion. He stands alone with the buried talent as evidence before the lords of the realm and names and exposes the evil in front of him. In so doing the mask that hides the governor's true nature begins to unravel.

Simply stated, Truth undoes evil. This, I believe is a powerful lesson about the nature of God's Kingdom that is too easy to ignore when Jesus is left in the role of the appointed king.

However, in the Buried Talent story, we see this clearly as the governor's temperament devolves from that of a "hard man" who merely steals from his subjects and exploits his land to a vengeful beast and malicious executioner. We see that once the curtains that shield evil from our eyes are peeled back, evil can no longer disguise itself. The "hard man" is a murderer. There is no place evil can hide.

I was lucky enough to spend a few days with a man named Os Guinness (not sure he's related to Obi Wan, but yes, he is the great, great, great, grand something or other of another famous Guinness) many years ago. We took a drive together in Santa Barbara and I remember a few of the many things we talked about. One idea he shared is that truth, by its nature, is self revealing (like a city on a hill that can't be hidden?). A corollary to this might be that just as truth can't be hidden, once a lie is exposed or begins to unravel there is no way for it to remain hidden either. Ultimately, as the Blue Fairy says to Pinocchio, the lie becomes "as plain as the nose on your face." It becomes impossible to ever put a kind face on the monster again. There is no place for untruth to hide and the full depths of evil are ultimately exposed for all to see.

So, when we look to the parables for some enlightenment about the way things are in God's Kingdom, will we read Luke 19 and continue to rationalize why the king/Jesus character is portrayed as a petty thug who rewards his cronies and executes those who stand against him? Is the Kingdom really about the rich getting richer? Or is Jesus the one who tasks us to stand with him against evil and call it out, exposing it, making it harder and harder for evil to disguise itself until finally there is no place anywhere in God's realm where evil can abide or hide?


  1. The popular interpretation of this parable (Jesus as the governor, the servants as Christians and those protesting his appointment as those who are against Jesus's "rightful throne", the talents as our souls/the Good News (!?)/God's blessings (??), and the governor's return as the Second Coming) serves to be more of a warning to the mainstream. It relies an awful lot on the usual Heaven and Hell establishment. When looked at through this lens, how those rich in righteousness become richer and those of little faith become cast aside in their fruitlessness, then the parable makes sense... but not in a feel good kind of way. I think that same things that make me squeemish about this parable and other aspects of mainstream religion & Jesus Culture is the casual brutality of it all. Through in the doubts about conventional hell, and I get all kinds of tied up.

  2. Well, you've successfully interpreted the bible according to how you see it. Even if that is not what the words on the page say.

    I'm more of a literal interpretation kind of Cattle.

    You might as well just interpret the whole bible, but you'll not likely find a great new job at that new church across town.

    Women and leadership, beer and wine, STAR TREK and Jesus, some things just shouldn't be mixed.

    Just ask the Megatootists.

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  4. Thanks, Suggah. I always suspected you was a liberal interpototion kind of guy. As for me, I always interrupt things according to how I interrupt them. I used to interpotato everything according to how this guy named Snoopy Jack (not his real name) interpretated things because he said he was interpretating everything the way Jesus meant everything to be interpotaterated. But since he didn't like beer, wine, or women going out of the house except to grocery shop or feed the dog (I'm guessing he thought Star Trek was a dis on Jesus, too) it seemed, according to how I see things (which is the way I see things), that he was merely interruptagating everything. (I hope his woman kept feeding the dog, though.)

    And Pirate, I have also been troubled by the brutality in this story. But I think this way of reading it puts that whole thing in a totally different world. Take out my amplified stories of how the barons got their wealth and it will read essentially how the Luke parable reads. However, it gives us the opportunity to not force Jesus into the role of the newly appointed and shadier than hell king and allows us to see the possibility that maybe the real hero (the one who represents the qualities of God's kingdom) is the underdog guy who stands alone, holding up a grimy sack of gold to confront the king with his corruptness. This seems (according to the way I see things) much more like the Jesus we see confronting the religious/political leaders of his day.

    I appreciates bof you and bof your comments (even if Suggah insists on making fun of me).

  5. I could never make fun of you. So, in terms of tonight's mention of the five talents and how each person is given a certain amount of talents based on their capability to use it...

    I kinda maybe sorta didn't follow that particular interpotation, because you've ruined me.

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  7. Hey Pirate, could you tell I was biting me tongue (arrgh). But don't let me totally ruin you. There's probably still room for that interpotatotion somewhere, and it's probably not a totally bad concept. (I think the problem comes when we misuse the scriptures to flaunt a "rich get richer" theme in order to justify satisfying ourselves rather than serving others.) Jesus, and the prophets, talk plenty about gardens and how under the right conditions amazing things can come out of them (They also talk about how unworthy people have no business in them.) There's also a similar "talent" parable in Matthew's gospel but I think that the way Jesus tells the story and the different context it's in demands that we read it as a unique parable rather than as merely a sanitized version of the story found in Luke. (Does Jesus ever mince words?)

  8. Well, Jesus didn't mince words, but I think you could argue that the disciples did.


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