The parable of the talents - a subversive children's reading

By Jonathan Bartley
November 16, 2008

It was a great joy to find myself taking the Sunday school at our local Anglican church this morning, particularly as the story we were looking at was the Parable of the Talents.

This is the story which down the centuries has been interpreted by churches as being about taking what God has given you, and making it grow - quite often money. Indeed, when certain figures in the Church of England spoke out against the actions of some city traders recently, the letters columns of national newspapers were filled with people quoting the parable back at them.

We acted out the story according to the Biblical text. But if you are true to the text it makes for quite uncomfortable reading if you hold the traditional interpretation. The story is of a very rich man (usually seen as representing Jesus) who was considered pretty exploitative in his financial practices, and ruthless, by one of his servants/slaves.

His servants/slaves are give some money to look after while he goes away, but not in equal amounts. He selects the ones who he thinks are the most gifted, and gives them the most.

When he comes back he demands to know how much more money they have made him. The first two have doubled their money, making a 100% profit (probably by using the same exploitative financial practices as he uses as he calls them "faithful"). He rewards them both, and gets them to make him more money. But the third servant/slave was so scared, he buried his money in the ground and didn't make any money for the rich man.

Rather than be compassionate the rich man, takes the money back, takes all the other (personal) money that the poor servant has away too, and sends him away destitute.

"Who is most like Jesus in the story?" I asked the Sunday School. The chidren all felt that the frightened servant probably was. Jesus certainly wasn't like the rich landowner who kept slaves, treated then unequally on the basis of their ability, had a reputation for exploitation and ruthlessness, had no compassion, and was only interested in increasing his wealth.

The children's interpretations fit in with those of some more radical theologians, who point out that Jesus' hearers, themselves exploited and oppressed, would have also identified far more with the poor servant/slave than anyone else.

It is probably the Church's historical identification with power and wealth that has led it to change the meaning of the parable into something different, and in fact entirely opposite. The kids however, who do not carry the same baggage, probably have a more faithful reading of the text. But then of course, it was Jesus who pointed to the children and said that "The Kingdom of God belonged to such as these."

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