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Parable Deconstruction

November 23, 2011

I was dragged to church last week (to help with my demonic tendencies). Still demonic, though.

I have heard the famous parable of the three servants and the talents before. It’s a weirdly heartless story. Briefly, for the he-dons who read my blog — A master gives three of his servants varying amounts of money: 5 talents, 3 talents and 1 talent (biblical currency). [Aside: During the mass I attended, the priest went into the mathematical details of the currency exchange rate, boring us all to near tears. He then asked us for money repeatedly. True thing that took place in life.]

The first two servants double their money, but the last guy buries his talent and returns it un-spent to his master.

Supposedly, Jesus represents the harsh, punishing master who hires out his servants as bookies. In the parable, the poorest man is punished for not turning a profit and he is plunged “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Who doesn’t gnash their teeth when in despair? It seems it’s been true since biblical times.)

As Christians everywhere will tell you, this story is all about how we should use our talents. The poorest servant, inert with the fear of failure, was wicked for his insecurities.

What typically gets overlooked is the far more intriguing bit where the servant accuses his master of profiting from what he did not earn. Which is what the master is doing, of course.

“Lord, I knew you that you are a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter. I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the earth. Behold, you have what is yours.”

But his lord answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant. You knew that I reap where I didn’t sow, and gather where I didn’t scatter […]
— Matthew 25:24–30, World English Bible

The master calls the servant lazy, and goes on to shout at him for not putting the money in the bank and earning interest (an unambitious use of talents, but which profits the master nonetheless). And finally there is this:

For to everyone who has will be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who doesn’t have, even that which he has will be taken away.

The rich will have more, and the poor will have everything taken from them. It’s all very Ayn Rand.

It’s strange (and unfortunate) that religious text is so often proselytized as hard truth. When it’s so much more interesting to dwell on the twists and contradictions. In fact, there is no real clue that Jesus is surely the master and that the poorest servant was wrong to bury his money. In general, poverty and scarcity are typically virtuous tropes in the Bible. It is as possible that the parable is describing something essential about the economic system and notions of fairness. And critiquing it. But I have never heard any priest or Sunday school teacher tell it like that or even suggest that we should note the strange resistance of the poorest servant as anything but a weakness. It need not be, though.

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