The parable of the talents has nothing to do with pretending you can’t dance, or not following your bliss into your true calling. It’s a parable about money in trust, and applies directly to today’s breaking news: Freddie Mac Bets Against American Homeowners. Matthew turns the parable into a judgment against people who don’t have enough faith to wait for Jesus to come again. But Jesus’ over-the-top joke is actually a blueprint for Occupy Wall Street action.
“You know,” Jesus says in the Scholars translation, “It’s like a man going on a trip who called his slaves and turned his valuables over to them.” The master leaves the first slave 30,000 silver coins. Assuming each coin is an ounce, that’s about $100 million, according to today’s New York spot price. It’s also not a great deal of money for the 21st Century, given the rate at which the Adelson’s are pouring money into the Gingrich campaign, not to mention Citizens United. But in the 1st Century of the common era, the first two slaves received a fortune, and the third received what amounts to about 20 years of wages.
By this time the disciples – who had been with Jesus long enough to know what’s coming – must have been listening closely for the punch line. Unfortunately we don’t really know what the punch line may have been. The story certainly reflects the unjust economics of Empire, but as it stands – whether in Luke’s version (Luke 19:12-27) or Matthew’s – the disciples must have just shrugged. So what? The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Matthew resorts to stating the obvious, then adds insult to injury by having the master throw the slave – who was afraid to invest in the stock market on his behalf – into the utter darkness where, as the NRSV puts it, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Somehow “faith” or “belief” in Jesus acquires some means of being measured, and those who have more will get more, and those who have less will be thrown under the bus by a vengeful God.
But suppose the slave was not acting out of fear, but was refusing to participate in a clear violation of Mosaic law (Leviticus 25:35-37)? Suppose – in an action prescient of Occupy Wall Street – he pulled off the ultimate insult? The real story Jesus told as he and his band camped beside the Sea of Galliee, not far from Tiberias probably went like this:
“There was a rich man who was planning an extended marketing trip to the Roman colonies in Syria. Before he left, he turned over his business operations to three slaves.”
One of the women is cleaning fish poached from the lake and throwing them into a cauldron steaming in the fire. She pauses a moment and says, “I heard something about this from Mary’s uncle Mordecai not two hours ago.”
Jesus looks around at the company. They have seen that look before. “To the first he gave 30,000 silver coins . . .”
Several snickers are heard as several more fish find their way into the soup. The woman starts shaking her head. A child runs into the group, screaming about some outrage his brother has perpetrated. Another woman catches him, and quiets him down to listen.
“He gave 12,000 silver coins to the second, and to the third, 6,000 silver coins. The first slave immediately used his master’s name to buy the most lucrative farm within miles, and sure enough, when the crops were harvested he had increased his investment ten-fold.”
“Sounds like that thief Jered,” grumbles one of the men. “Put my whole family off the land and here we are.”
“The second tripled his money by seizing all the land bordering the lake and charging the fishermen for access, and requiring that they buy back the fish they caught before selling them in the market.”
Nothing is heard now but the bubbling stew. This is too close for joking. They wouldn’t be throwing contraband fish into a pot liberated from someone too rich to miss it if not for the recent edict handed down by Herod Antipas.
“The third slave took his 6,000 pieces of silver and buried them in the master’s kitchen garden.”
Jesus smiles a private smile, reaches for a loaf of bread, breaks off a hunk, chews, and waits.