Is this figure God, or an unjust king?
This week in the lectionary, we got the opportunity to hear the the same story, the parable of the talents, from two different writers, used in two different liturgical settings. Found in both Matthew and Luke, it is a very familiar passage, and the sermon that follows is often just as common: God gives each of us gifts, and we are expected to use them for his glory. It’s a nice message, sure. But is that what Jesus is actually trying to tell us? I would like to offer an alternate interpretation for discernment.
Today’s first reading from 2 Maccabees helps to frame the story in a different light. Having already tortured and killed six of a woman’s seven sons because they refused to renounce the LORD, Antiochus turned to the last son: “As the youngest brother was still alive, the king appealed to him, not with mere words, but with promises on oath, to make him rich and happy if he would abandon his ancestral customs: he would make him his Friend and entrust him with high office.” Ultimately, the youngest son declines his offer and accepts death rather than denounce his faith in the LORD; all of the money, power, and status in the world are not worth the price of supporting evil.
Using this message as a foundation, I think the traditional interpretation of the parable of the talents is largely insufficient. Take, for instance, the role of the nobleman. If he is a symbol for God from whom we receive “talents,” why do his servants send ahead to say they wish him not to be king? Why does he “take up where he does not lay down,” or “harvest where he does not plant?” Why does he condemn the servent for not engaging in usury, an act clearly condemned by God in the Law? Why, just before the parable of the sheep and the goats in which Jesus rewards those who help the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), would a God figure say, “For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away”? These are all qualities of an unjust ruler, greedy and merciless to his people; they are not the qualities of God.
When we begin to understand this, the handing over of talents is almost a perfect parallel the story of Antiochus. Wishing to further himself, the nobleman entrusts his money to three servants with the hopes that they will carry out his unjust business while he’s gone. Two of the men decide to accept the offer to take part in the unjust system, and the nobleman rewards them with money and friendship based on their profitability. But the third servant, similar to the youngest son, does nothing. He recognizes that the king is a wicked person and refuses to take part in his unjust system. Because of this, he is denied, suffers greatly, and is put to death for his insubordination.
Taken together, I see the message of these passages to be that the world and God have different expectations, and it is impossible at times to follow both. The world will offer us many things, fulfill many of our temporal needs, even make us very happy and comfortable, but sometimes it will require us to compromise our faith. It’s also a reminder that truly following God is not an easy task, and that even Jesus endured suffering because he challenged the evil of the world and sought to bring justice to all. But for those who follow in his footsteps and endure the trials of the world, there is hope for redemption and just judgment in the God’s Kingdom.
I offer this not as a condemnation of the common homily or the priests that give them, but rather as an alternate interpretation for prayer and discernment. Hopefully it is grounded in some truth and it may be helpful for my prayer and discernment process moving forward.