Sun, Nov 19, 2017

Paying the price


Up until recently--

when old age began to take its toll and seriously curtailed our walks--

it's been an interesting experience taking Liam out.

For those of you who don't know...

Liam is an Irish Wolfhound.

He weighs about seventy-five kilograms.

He stands eighty-eight centimetres at the shoulder...

and he's one and a half metres long, not including his tail.

He's a very, very large dog.

Now, leaving aside the "where's your saddle?" comment-

which we used to get at least once a day--

many people find him imposing.

Terrified children would suddenly turn and cling to their mother's leg.

People walking small dogs would pick them up...

or give us a wide and suspicious berth...

assuming that he was going to attack their dogs.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.

Liam doesn't have an aggressive bone in his body--

unless you're a possum or a koala--

and he thinks that every other dog is his friend.

To be honest, we're always wary of small dogs... 

because, inevitably, they are the ones who snarl and snap... 

and try to attack him.

As with so many things in life...

appearances are deceiving.

Things are not always what they seem to be.


Many of us probably know the Parable of the Talents very well.

No doubt, we have heard countless sermons on it--

sermons reminding us to use faithfully our God-given abilities.

But things are not always what they appear to be.

Appearances are deceiving.

So, I invite you to take a fresh look...

both at the story within its socio-cultural context... 

and at the details of the story itself.

This story centres on a wealthy, aristocratic landowner...

who would have had numerous estates and holdings...

probably spread throughout the country and abroad.

As such, his household would have comprised a large commercial bureaucracy.

For a servant to rise in that bureaucracy, he would've had to prove his loyalty and his competency.

The three servants mentioned here are clearly among his most trusted.

And this landowner would have travelled extensively--

visiting his various properties...

and further afield, trying to make connections.

In the story, as he prepares to leave, he entrusts management of his estate to his servants...

according to their position in the hierarchy.

And, in addition, they receive amounts of money.

In comparative terms, a talent would be worth about one point five million dollars today.

So they each receive quite substantial amounts.

That he gives them so much, shows that he trusts them.

He expects the money to be used wisely, to turn a profit.

But the first century economy was not largely based on money--

unlike ours.

There were no banks-- 

despite what our translation claims--

and term deposits...

no stock exchanges...

and no multi-national corporations.

The manufacturing of goods occurred on a small-scale, in a cottage industry.

This was a predominantly agricultural world.

As such, the first century economy was based on land--

to make money, you had to control land.

The aristocracy made money by lending money.

But they didn't do it directly, so as to get a bad name.

Their employees did it on their behalf--

men like these three servants.

They lent money at extraordinary rates of interest--

sometimes in excess of one hundred percent.

And they lent it to peasant farmers--

to those who struggled to survive...

and who needed support when their crops failed or else they would starve.

They lent it to peasants who used their small land holdings as collateral.

Of course, they often failed to meet their repayments. 

So their land was forfeited. 

And the indebted peasants then worked as tenants on the land...

growing cash crops for the elite landowner...

so that he could make a quick profit.

In short, the elite made profits by exploiting the peasants.


Both of the first two servants would have worked the system. 

They turned huge profits... 

which they could have done only by exploiting and plundering many peasants.

Of course, not only did they make large profits for their master...

they also would have become rich by what they skimmed off the top.

And these two were rewarded. 

They're promised greater responsibility in the future... 

because they had proved themselves trustworthy.

Not the third servant--

he buried his allocation to protect it...

and he returns it intact.

In so doing, he refused to work the system.

He refused to participate in injustice.

He didn't use what he had been given to exploit the poor.

But, worse than that, he has the cheek to criticise his master.

He publicly identifies his master as strict, harsh, and merciless. 

In reaping what he hasn't sown, the servant identifies him as an exploiter.

Now, these are not things one normally would have said to one's master--

certainly not in public.

And note, the master doesn't deny these claims.

In fact, he all but admits that he does exploit others.

But he's been embarrassed--


he's lost face and he needs to recover it.

So he abuses the servant and he exacts revenge.

Banished from the hierarchy, the servant would have had few options.

He would have had little choice but to become a menial farm labourer--

all because he took a stand...

because he chose not to use the money to dispossess more peasants...

to cripple them with large debts...

and to turn a profit at their expense.

This servant refused to collaborate with exploitation and injustice.

And he exposed the exploitative practices of his master.

In so doing, he took a risk.

He knew the likely consequences.

He knew what he would lose and what it would cost.


Appearances are, indeed, deceiving.

This parable is not an exhortation to use our God-given talents--

not when understood within its socio-cultural context.

Nor can such an interpretation be maintained given the details of the story itself.

There's no way that this ruthless, exploitative, amoral landowner can be equated with God--

not the God that we encounter in Jesus Christ.

Rather, this parable is meant to challenge us about how we live in the world...

about how we use our power and influence...

about how we use the resources at our disposal.

Will we use them responsibly-- 

in a way that liberates and creates justice?

Or will we participate in exploitation? 

Will we simply go along with 'the system' because it ensures our comfort?

Will we invest in large multi-national corporations that ravage third world countries?

Will we buy clothes, chocolate, and coffee from companies that pay a pittance or employ sweatshop labour?

In the end, the parable challenges us to refuse to cooperate with exploitation...

to take a stand...

to advocate for justice...

even when doing so is costly and has serious consequences.


Furthermore, immediately following this parable is the parable of the sheep and the goats...

when, we're told, that whatever good we have done for the hungry...

the homeless...

the poor...

and the sick...

we have done for Christ himself.

Perhaps, taken together, the two parables offer different sides of the same coin. 

Honouring an incarnational God doesn't just mean offering a handout...

or providing welfare to the needy;

it also means challenging the structures and the causes of poverty and injustice...

naming our collusion...

and being willing to pay the price for doing so.

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