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NOTE:  Though this diary has a spiritual focus, my point in posting it here is to advance the larger meaning, which goes beyond a purely religious context.

The Parables of Jesus were spoken in symbolic language which lends them to a variety of different, though often interrelated interpretations.  Indeed, the very structure of the words which form them make any one sole meaning impossible.  It is this fact in particular that has made me skeptical of any church or any faith which stakes a claim to the "real" way.  Biblical scholarship has revealed nuance and even irony in the original text itself, both of which must be taken into account before forming any one-sided reading.  Jesus often spoke indirectly to avoid persecution by both Roman and Jewish authorities, but beyond the obvious, I have always seen the Parables much as I would an excellent work of poetry, one which provides a new, helpful, before unseen resonance with every subsequent reading.  The intrinsic thread remains constant, but new permutations arise as I age and depending on what frame of mind I am in at that particular juncture in my life, I always glean something brand new.

When we talk about our own complicity in a system where those at the top dictate the course of action for those subservient to them, I return to the Parable of the Talents.  In this day and age where we often believe that our own power, income, and sphere of influence owes its existence to making compromises with unethical major players, this Parable address our messy moral dilemmas.  Here, the version in the Gospel of Matthew, which is cited most frequently.    

14 "Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talents[a] of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17 So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18 But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

19 "After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.'

21 "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'

22 "The man with the two talents also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.'

23 "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'

24 "Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'

26 "His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

28" 'Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29 For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

A common interpretation of this parable, indeed the one in which I was schooled, states that dispersing moral lessons of fairness, justice, ethics, humility, and compassion requires one to push past fear and be courageous in spreading the positive message of unity and love.  Though our "talents" might be unequal to others, we can still make the most of what we have in working collectively towards good.  Though each of us have different degrees of skills and spiritual gifts, what matters more is how we use them, not how many of them we possess.  I find it interesting that while few of us, especially religious liberals or secular humanists would call religion an activist movement, we use this same line of logic and ancient tactics in encouraging those of like mind to action and also in spurring ourselves to spread the good news to whichever Gospel of Social Justice we find most to our liking.  In this particular reading, perhaps unsurprisingly, our sympathies are extended to the Master, not to the last of the servants, who we assume is too scared of failure and too cowardly to have invested his master's money.  However, this does present something of a problem when one recognizes the depth and breadth of the master's response, which if we are to take the third servant at his word, is cold and cruel.

Luke includes a similar parable, albeit one where every servant is entrusted with the same amount of money.  In his version, we also know up front that the master is deeply unpopular with some of his some of his citizens and that he is willing to put to death those citizens who oppose him.  Our sympathies, then, are not with the unforgiving master but with the one servant who was unwilling to invest the money entrusted to him.  If the master's business ventures were corrupt, illegal, or unfair then it is only the third servant, entrusted with the least amount (according to Matthew's account) who acted correctly and whose conduct is beyond reproach.    

William R. Herzog II in Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as the Pedagogue of the Oppressed gives an interpretation that shows the risk of challenging the established authorities.

The servant's frank remark shows him to be a "whistle-blower". He calls the aristocrat harsh and merciless, which are not God-like qualities. He exposes the sham of what has occurred: the other servants have allowed themselves to be used for exploitative purposes, for which they will be rewarded by the wicked aristocrat.

According to Herzog's reading, the point of the parable is to show how much it can cost for an underling to expose the truth about injustice in society. Indeed, this parable is the last Jesus delivers before his crucifixion, the ultimate consequence of his own speaking of truth to worldly power.

Without asking Jesus directly as to what he meant, the true meaning of the parable is up for some debate and indeed Biblical scholars have puzzled over it for centuries and may puzzle over it for centuries more.  If we view the parable through Herzog's lens, we recognize that while the master acknowledges that his business ventures may be dirty and unfair, he still insists that some money could have been made if the servant had bothered to invest it in a bank.  A more conventional interpretation, outside of a religious context, might read that even in a flawed system, one should at least attempt to make some profit if one feels disinclined to resort to unethical standards.  By the end, the master vindictively punishes the third servant by giving all of his money to the most profitable servant, the one who he trusted the most in the beginning.  This is a curious way of teaching a lesson and, not only that, quite extreme, almost sadistic in its application.  Still, in keeping with the whistle-blower view, such things frequently happen to those who do question the system, threaten established power brokers, and end up being excommunicated from society or even threatened with death in the process.

Since this was the last parable told before the Crucifixion, the ultimate placement of this allegorical story might have been designed to instruct all believers to keep the teachings of the Master (Jesus) and spread them throughout the world and/or to serve as a lesson that all who challenge the system will run the risk of being persecuted.  Refusing to engage in worldly sins while simultaneously turning the mirror to reflect the hypocrisies of the powerful is as needed as adherence to a code of ethics, though this degree of sacrifice does frequently create confrontation and conflict.  Either interpretation one cites is worthy of contemplation in this age where we understand, now more than ever, the importance of organization and the great need for a common voice to institute reform measures.  We note soberly that a great risk still exists for those whose weapon of choice is the unvarnished truth and whose target are those who swear by lies and rationalizations instead.  It is written that the truth will set us free, but though it is the path to liberation, truth often comes with consequences, deserved or not.  

Originally posted to cabaretic on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 06:36 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (5+ / 0-)

    I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

    by cabaretic on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 06:36:01 AM PDT

    •  I've often wondered about this parable... (0+ / 0-)

      It is seductively simple the look through the eyes of the master and view  the story as praise for gathering wealth.  

      It makes much more sense viewing as you have presented it.  I will remember this the next time I hear it related otherwise.

      I am here to represent the democratic wing of the Democratic Party. Roar louder!

      by Josiah Bartlett on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 08:48:52 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Interesting take... (0+ / 0-)

    Need to ruminate on this a bit...

    "Ridicule may lawfully be employed where reason has no hope of success."

    by QuestionAuthority on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 06:51:30 AM PDT

  •  Very interesting diary, with one caveat: (0+ / 0-)

    "speaking truth to power" has become a cliche.  

    "[R]ather high-minded, if not a bit self-referential"--The Washington Post.

    by Geekesque on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 07:02:13 AM PDT

  •  this is a great interpretation of this parable (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I too was raised on the first interpretation, that it meant the servant was lazy because he did not want to go out and make more money for the master.  I mean the guy was already a servant,and many he didnt want to rise to management. but I did notice that the first interpretation fits in with greed, what seems to be the dominant emotion.

    The story is a parable so I see why that first interpretation prevailed, it is the most obvious, part of the reason jesus was said to have spoken in parable was to hide the true meaning.  I can see why he would like to hide the fact that he was telling his disciples that they must speak truth to power(the ruling class or rich), but he was also letting them know there would be consequences in doing so.  

    makes sense to me.

    "The United States does not torture" - President Barack Obama

    by the Pollitikat on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 07:21:43 AM PDT

    •  Also, in a way... (0+ / 0-) makes sense that adults would want to teach the lazy-servant interpretation to children and save the honest, conservative  speaker of truth interpretation for adults.

      HR 676 - Health care reform we can believe in - national single-payer NOW.

      by kck on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 07:30:26 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Seriously? (0+ / 0-)

        The parables are muddled and confused for a reason. They were badly written centuries ago by barely educated goat-herders. They have all the validity and force of Harry Potter in terms of instructing us how to live. Which is to say not none, but not much.

        I'm afraid I feel compelled to point out that the fact that any parable can be interpreted to support one's personal desires (even one diametrically opposed to someone else's interpretation) is strong evidence you're all just pissing in the wind.

        "...if Barack Obama were somehow able to cure hunger in the world the Republicans would blame him for overpopulation" - Rep. Grayson

        by the tmax on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 09:20:11 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Seriously (0+ / 0-)

          The whole idea is that there is no one single meaning. These parables are meaningful to children as well as adults, young and old. They will, of course, have different meanings as you bring to them a different "reader" regarding age, wisdom (if any), experience, lessons learned, openness, etc. The parables (and the Gospels, as well as other scriptures) precipitate new ideas from the mix so they can be seen for the first time, almost like peeling an onion, so that they can be read anew over and over.

          Like the fragments and phrases of Confucius, introduced to European Christians by a Jesuit, the parables have a timeless value when experienced by an open, willing reader.  As a scientist, I don't read the parables for a recipe or for an iron clad formula on how to live, but to  increase the span of my view.

          HR 676 - Health care reform we can believe in - national single-payer NOW.

          by kck on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 01:43:46 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Delving into the Good Samaritan... (0+ / 0-)

    ...has a timely value, as always, I suppose, being a parable. Good diary. Thanks.

    HR 676 - Health care reform we can believe in - national single-payer NOW.

    by kck on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 08:09:15 AM PDT

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