The loss of Trust’

Posted: November 14, 2017 in Uncategorized


Matthew 25:14-30

The loss of Trust’

The story commonly named ‘The parable of the talents’ is one of those stories that has left its mark on our language and culture in a big way. Indeed, so much has it become part of our everyday vocabulary that we tend to miss the ‘fang’ hidden in its tail. And that’s a pity.

Richard Ford in his book The Parables of Jesus and the Problems of the World challenges us to look again at the parables and this morning we look at the so-called parable of the talents with another critique.

Remember that all the parables are proffered as being about the realm of God as opposed to the realm of the present or in Jesus case the realm of the Roman Empire. This parable about talents is like many of Jesus’ long parables such as the Wicked tenants, the Vineyard Workers, The Unforgiving slave, the Dishonest Steward and the Prodigal Son. All these involve the entrusting of money or property across the gaps of inequality. And here we have the source of today’s title. The breakdown of trust that is endemic to such inequality makes these stories descriptions of how powerful people, perpetrating larger systemic injustice under the guise of law actually break apart the fragile integrity of those subjected to exploitation and they without being held accountable, deepen the tragic fissures in human relatedness. The breakdown in trust, isolates, categorizes and marginalizes people who already have very little. And what is particular about today’s story is that it explores the breakdown of trust that occurs within those who seek to bring about change from within or who go along because of apathy or a desire not to make waves.

In all these stories Jesus as a peasant is not so much addressing his own so much as those members of the Jewish retainer class still able to maintain a reasonable living due to their enslavement to the powerful. In our story of the talents we explore the idea that Jesus’ superb artistry enables him to develop a metaphor for the agrarian empire of Rome as it both images and mimics the very imperialist structures it subverts. It images empire by evoking its polarities and thereby framing its vacant middle, namely the absence of any law to intervene. Its claim to fame as a system is that it is the most efficient and there is no other better. Master and slavish subordinates, accurately capture the two complimentary groupings essential for effecting the imperial transfer of wealth from the control of the many to the control of the few. The banks, the money men are in charge because that is the way it is. The exploiting slave master and the well-appointed slaves represent both the Roman overlords and the Jewish aristocracy who include the needed retainer class of bureaucracy and the military. What is implied but not articulated in the parable itself is the mass of exploited peasants required to create the expropriated wealth. The aristocracy then justifies its own dominance by imposing self-serving rationalizations into those unable to fight back. The powerful maintain their carefully constructed belief system and work endlessly to silence the oppressed. A relationship of distrust between those who have and those who have not unfolds.

Those without “are lazy, they could do better if they only tried harder, they have the opportunity to succeed if only they got off their backsides” and so on. The strong steadfastly press their versions of reality into the weaker and then with equal tenacity resist experiencing or even acknowledging the painful consequences of what they have imposed. ‘There is no actual poverty only what someone has created”, they say. The poor are better off today than they have ever been”. They say.

This parable is clever as it mimics this aristocratic imposition of its own self-aggrandizing, self- justifying reality. The master’s uncritical description of his personal behaviour stands as an unchallenged summary of imperial ideology. ‘I reap” he says, “where I did not sow. And I gather where I did not scatter”. What is lawful is controlled by the slave master thus the message is that the aristocratic minority are entitled to whatever they can take from the vast majority. As in the empire itself, so in the parable all other alternatives are ruthlessly excluded. Like the middle class in many societies today, the absent middle ground produces the third slave who is an exploited member of the retainer class and he is called upon to exploit. Play the game or get left behind. Middle management is the third slave doomed if he does and doomed if he doesn’t. Even his refusal though dangerous is by necessity both constricted and disguised. Appearing to be inept he is hiding behind a façade of cowardliness in order to affect a covert opposition. The parable then proceeds to take listeners on a journey to suppose, then to probe, and finally to identify the actual sources of this third slave’s disguised behaviour. What they find is the covered-over and nearly hidden footsteps of a seeming uncertain yet strikingly courageous resistor. The one who wants to change things from the inside, the one who opts for incremental change.

We remind ourselves again that first century Palestine was part of the increasingly commercialized and monetized agrarian empire of Rome. An agrarian empire of any era can be conceptualized as a complimentary hierarchy of exploiters and exploited. Within a misshapen pyramid, resources are sucked up from the large base toward the miniscule apex. It is suggested that some 2 percent of the population probably received a quarter of the national income and the governing class and ruler together received not less than half. This came about because it was believed that the state is a piece of property which its owner can use within broad and ill-defined limits. And that property consists of rights and not of things. Specifically access to the rights of things which are in short supply.

Martin Goodman in writing about the first Jewish revolt suggests the relentless aristocratic aggrandizing of wealth lay behind the 66-73 CE revolt. Reaping where they had not sown was the reason, and this was done by means of taxation and then land appropriation being achieved through defaults on high interest loans and the natural vagaries of agricultural production. The overall view of the Herodian period is that elites coerced an increasing peasant alienation from the land. Goodman sees the economic stresses as much more intense in Judea as opposed to Galilee, maybe because of the Galilean access to a fishing industry. This could also go toward the reasoning that Jesus was not observing a level of injustice so blatant as to provoke both rebellion and the consequent Roman retaliation.

The challenge of this parable for us is about our perceptions of the Master and what we see as the message. How did the peasants in Jesus time see the Master? To them he would have been criminal because he chokes off any peasant protest, then he raises his single, powerful voice to impose his own, self- assured entitlement, and then, through his seemingly authoritative denigration of the whistle-blower, proceeds to mislead listeners down through the ages. The question we face or the twist in the tail of this parable is, ‘how is it that we have become so unable to recognize the precision with which Jesus here represents the endless process of elites and their co-opted retainers accumulating wealth at the expense of the vast majority from whom they take?’ How is that we so readily locate ourselves on the side of those who steal?

Richard Q Ford in his book on these parables suggests that we should look carefully at how Jesus has constructed this parable. We should then see that he biased his narrative in favour of our not recognizing. With an artistry he imitates elitist control and his parable functions in exactly the same way as did the aristocracy of his day. It elevates the voice of the oppressor. It obliterates the voice of the oppressed. It supports the aristocrat definition. It allows into awareness no other perspective. It admires the masters final crushing of dissent. What better evidence he says could be had of the effectiveness of the parables mimicry of imperial control? How better to envelop us in the irony of our own identification with the very persons who oppress us?

To further explore this is to see the metaphor ‘slave’ as representing both the Jewish aristocracy and the Jewish retainer class, the latter consisting of bureaucrats, scribes, soldiers, tax collectors, and other prospering clients of the elite. Lured by financial and social rewards this group had relinquished the egalitarian understandings of land distribution and debt alleviation inherent in the values of ancient Israel. The linchpin of empire is the collaboration of the retainer class, because without them the governance could not function. Dominic Crossan suggests that peasant resistance, lacking retainer leadership cannot succeed. In creating this parable, where the first two of these retainers are unabashed collaborators but the third is not, Jesus is concentrating precisely on the line between those who owed their loyalty to the authority of the existing government and those who owed their loyalty to the authority of divine mandate. In devising the character of the third slave, Jesus appears to be addressing those Jewish retainers in urban Galilee who might still possess some allegiance to the social egalitarianism so central to ancient Israel’s values.

The third slave, along with those listeners who are willing to follow him, appears to move either uncertainly or deftly within a disguised resistance that aptly reflects the imperial domination of definition. His constricted, perhaps deliberately inarticulate, perhaps skillfully hidden, seemingly cowardly, apparently mocking, and always dangerous resistance becomes a necessarily misleading, but nonetheless precise and courageous counterpoint to the dominating strategies so fundamental to the functioning of empire. Each of his subordinate’s confusing moves in turn reflects varied threats to the integrity of imagination and to the wholeness of body – threats that can so readily distort, disorganize, or even destroy independent thought and action. By choosing to locate themselves either against or with the third slave, parable listeners themselves adopt these same distorting strategies so essential to imperial control.

Barbara Reid puts it this way: She says: “From this perspective, the man who expects his money to be increased is the wicked one, one who is unfettered in his greed…  The third servant, then, is not wicked (or incompetent), except in the eyes of those who are greedy and making acquisitions or those who are co-opted by them, as are the first two servants.  The third (servant) is the one who acted honourably by blowing the whistle on the wickedness of the (owner)…  The parable is a warning to the rich to stop exploiting the poor and is one that encourages poor people to take measures that expose such greed for the sin that it is” (Reid 2001:207-208).

I would add; it is one that also highlights just how complex collaboration with evil can be and how without critique we can all sustain a destructive empire, human system, and ideology that maintains oppression. Some questions that arise out of this challenge are; Is the church a collaborator or a challenger? When we stay silent are we supporting that which oppresses? Sometimes another reading can turn what is thought to be a reasonably OK treatise, upside down! Parables are stories which turn our world views upside down because which world we view can make all the difference to how we live in the present and claim the future. Amen.

Reid, B. E. 2001.  Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press.

Ford, R. Q. 2016 The Parables of Jesus & The Problems Of The World Cascade Books Oregon


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