I think I’ve been reading the parable of the talents wrong all this time

Here’s the story from Matthew 25:14-30 in the New Revised Standard Version of Scripture:

14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents,* to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

*My footnote says that a talent is a unit of measuring money that’s roughly equivalent to seventeen years of wages

“Then the kingdom of God will be like this…,” Jesus says as he starts one story in a chain of cryptic parables about virgins and unpredictable bridegrooms who show up without warning at all hours of the night, servants who suddenly come into some money, and a shepherd separating farm animals into two groups. Not the most straightforward conversation in the world.  Most people read these stories as reminders to stay alert and active in their faith, not knowing when they’ll need to justify themselves and their choices before God and God’s people. Brace yourselves, loves, because Jesus could return at any moment. It’s a little bit ominous, this sort of any moment now feeling. It’s a central belief of the Christian faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. But the whole concept stirs up a lot of conflicting feelings for me when I think about it: excitement, confusion, curiosity, hope, and often a generous helping of anxiety bordering in dread, in part because of stories like these.

Parable_of_talents

For years I read the parable of the talents as a story about stewardship and, and sometimes literally as a story about talent. I thought the moral was something like, God (represented by the master in the story) gives everybody a certain amount of talent (skill, gifts, whatever you want to call it) and we have to use our little or our lot well. If you invest your time and energy wisely for others, you get more. If you hoard it for yourself or use it for less than noble ends, you end up losing everything. This seems straightforward enough, but even as I type that I can feel my stress level slowly rising and a niggling little doubt creeps into the back of my mind.

Are you sure this is what the kingdom of God is like? Are you sure this is the God who loves us? Is this really how God our loving Parent operates?

Upon closer inspection, I start to wonder. The guy divvying up the money here doesn’t really look like Jesus. For one thing, Jesus never had that kind of money. Aside from that, he doesn’t give any instructions for how his servants are supposed to use this absurdly large sum–remember, we’re talking about anywhere from 17 to 170 times a year’s salary– so the harsh judgment at the ends seems more than a little unfair. He just dropped more money on them than they could ever hope to earn in a lifetime with no financial guidance, no hint about how long he planned to be gone, and no clear expectations of what he hoped to find when he returned. Basically, they just won the lottery–but no one told them there were strings attached. The same kind of things happens to lottery winners today when people who have never had that kind of money suddenly hit the jackpot. They rarely handle it as well as the servant who received one talent and managed to hold onto it. In fact, most lottery winners in the U.S. end up worse off than they were before they got so “lucky.” The whole thing feels like a set up.

The more I think about it, the less this looks like a story about the kingdom of God as it’s intended to be. It’s too predatory. Too deceptive. Too manipulative. The winners take all and the losers get nothing, but no one really understands the rules of the game. It all just seems very arbitrary and chaotic, creating the uneasiness that makes me think of Christ’s return–if this man is supposed to be our model for Christ–as more of a pop quiz when I forgot to do the reading for class than as a culmination of God’s plan.

So maybe this is something different. It’s sandwiched in the middle of several stories and warnings from Jesus about how this whole thing wraps up, but they aren’t stories about how things are supposed to be. They’re stories about how unbelievably ugly things get before we get to the warm fuzzy part. The predictions get so dire and bizarre in places that people sometimes confuse this section of the Gospel with a passage from Revelation (in all of its trippy, dragon-filled, numbered, symbolic glory), and many go into the same kinds of wild speculative interpretations about Judgment Day and the elect and Rapture (which, by the by, is a term and concept coined by John Nelson Darby in the 1830s, not something we seem to find in the Bible) that we tend to get among people who are particularly fond of the last and strangest book of the Bible. I’m not getting all the end times stuff here (although these folks are if you’d like to read up on four common myths about revelation or get a rundown of the basic vocab and big ideas among Christians about the end of days), but just keep in mind this is the context of the story.

I’m more and more convinced that this isn’t a formula for how to live in the kingdom of God, as I used to think, but more of a bracing ourselves for impact.  Jesus is taking the time to prepare his disciples for the darkest days of their lives just before he dies. He’s getting them ready to lose him, to lose hope, when he’s captured and crucified and the whole Messiah thing looks shot to hell. He’s reminding us all that things get a whole lot worse before they get better, but that God’s still working in there somewhere in the midst of it.

“For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Well, that’s the truth about privilege if ever I’ve heard it. In our society, there are certain markers of advantage: wealth, white skin, education, heterosexual orientation, Christian affiliation… These things build on each other, snowballing into bigger and bigger success, making it easier for those who have one of these traits to acquire all the others, insulating us from the burdens and realities of life for those without them. For someone with low-income, dark skin, low access education, a different faith or no religious tradition, a non-straight sexual orientation … the snowball rolls the other way. These things become “risk factors” for all kinds of obstacles, and they’re like magnets with one thing pulling in another. There are a million examples. Kids who are born into families in poverty are more likely to struggle in school and suffer from poor health. As school becomes more difficult and they need money from working themselves, they’re more likely to drop out to go to work now, making it harder to find a job that actually pays enough to avoid repeating the cycle with their own families down the road. Kids who are placed in foster care have usually experienced some kind of trauma, leading to severe mental health challenges. In fact, children who’ve gone through the foster care system suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at two times the rate of American military veterans. Do you hear me? TWO TIMES THE RATE OF VETERANS. Foster care can be more traumatic than military service, causing kids to struggle academically, physically, and emotionally. Because of this and the lack of consistent support kids in the system get, this often leads to kids aging out of foster care and into homelessness or prison. Re-entry into life after prison can seem nearly impossible, as our laws ban people with felony convictions from housing, employment, parental rights, getting a driver’s license, even attending church in some cases. We cut off all avenues for healthy participation in society, forcing people back into dangerous situations and unhealthy patterns that lead them back to prison, where we don’t have to deal with them. Tragically, I could go on and on.

To those who have, more is given. To those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.

The problem is, we assume these markers–these things that were given arbitrarily to some and not to others–are a reflection of character and ability. “You worthless, lazy servant!” we cry,  assuming the people who don’t fit our perception of privilege must be lazy or stupid, or maybe even both–otherwise they would succeed like those the system favors. One talent is as good as 10, if you just had the good sense and gumption to use it correctly. That’s the American dream isn’t it? If you work hard enough, you can make something of yourself. If you don’t make something of yourself, you must not have worked that hard. The poor, the hurting, the outsider, well they must not be as smart, as driven, as good as those of us who have made something of ourselves, we think, not recognizing the role our privilege has played in making our hard work pay off so well at every turn.

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Friends, this is a dirty, rotten lie. It’s a myth that people without these markers of privilege are somehow qualitatively different than people who have them. Our circumstances aren’t a reflection our moral character or worth.  They’re a reflection of chance. Your ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps has a lot to do with the quality of your first pair of boots, and I’m sorry to tell you, you don’t get to pick those out yourself. They’re just given to you, like one talent or ten, without your input at birth.

So this us and them business that keeps us divided and judgmental of one another, this is no way to live.  This is not the kingdom of my God, who proudly hosts the most despised members of his community for dinner and praises the bravery of prostitutes. It doesn’t reflect a community who follows the risen and returning Christ. It’s a sign of a society stuck in the crucifixion, assuming the God who loves us all equally and takes a special interest in the down and out still lies dead in the ground. I hate to break it to you, kids, but that’s bullshit. In fact, I’m calling bullshit on this whole messed up system, and I think that by telling this story, Jesus is too.

So what’s to be done about it? Let’s talk about privilege–let’s really talk about what it is, what it isn’t, how it plays out for us and for people we know, and what we can do to reduce the harm it does. Let’s confront it, and let’s choose to be different, a family of brothers and sisters dedicated to love that shows no partiality based on wealth or status or any other kind of privilege.

I won’t pretend to have this all figured out, but let me suggest that we start by looking at what others have already shared on the subject. In doing a lot of searching around the web, I kept coming back to one author who addressed this prickly issue from a faith perspective with clarity to explain the big ideas and offer practical steps in response. Here are some helpful resources from author and blogger Christina Cleveland to get us started thinking about all this, whether this is the first you’re hearing of privilege or you’ve been struggling with how to respond to it for a while.

Lastly, for a little comic relief as a reward for making it through this very long and daunting post, take three minutes to watch comedian Aamer Rahman talk about how a long history of white privilege makes “reverse racism” a myth. It never ceases to amaze me how comedians manage to take such serious subject matter and speak truth about it through humor. It might seem like an unlikely source, by I think comedy is a prophetic voice all its own.

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