This morning at mass I experienced a remarkable example of how a well-known story can change its meaning when its historical context changes.
This week’s Gospel was Matthew 25.13-30, the story of the talents. Here it is in full:
13 “Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour. 14 For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work270 and gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. 18 But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it. 19 After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. 20 The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ 23 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with 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 came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting 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. See, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? 27 Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! 28 Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. 29 For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’”
As the perfectly familiar story was being read out, you could sense the congregation getting increasingly restless, perhaps incredulous about what they were hearing, although the story can hardly have been new to anybody there. Remember that a Talent, in the ancient sense, is a very large sum of money, namely about 25kg of silver (sometimes considerably more than that, depending on the region). This story is all about people doing some pretty risky investing of very large sums and getting rewarded for it: doubling your capital can only come at a risk, and the one person who seems to be prudent about the fortune he was entrusted with is told that at least he should have deposited it with a bank in order to gain some interest. It is clear that the master who reaps where he doesn’t sow prefers more risky investment strategies to a simple bank account, let alone a hole in the ground. “The one who has will be given more…”
This, many of us instantly realised, is not a passage of the Gospels you’d choose to read outside St Paul’s right now.
While the story has gained a new poignancy, it can never have been a very comfortable one to preach on – checking the Oxford English Dictionary, they don’t explain how an ancient word for a weight unit has come to describe the personal qualities we usually think of when we use the word ‘talent’ today. But I have always thought that this particular parable in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (19.12-28) may have had something to do with the development of that word, not least because the same shift of meaning has taken place at least in German, French and English. Is it a result of centuries of embarrassed preachers finding more cosy metaphorical explanations?
Let’s be clear – when the Gospel stories were written, the Greek word meant a weight of silver and a very large amount of money. The story is a parable, so presumably was intended to have a different meaning – I’ll leave it to theologians to explore the possibilities in a more or less anachronistic fashion, but it seems to encourage risk taking and a proper use of one’s resources (today’s sermon suggested that Jesus perhaps wanted to encourage an active, creative engagement with the scriptures and with society).
Whatever its intended meaning, I think the story only works as a parable if the listeners or readers actually have sympathy for the idea that risky investment ventures to increase capital are acceptable and perhaps even desirable. That became particularly clear today, when, for the first time when I heard the story, this tacit agreement between narrator and audience completely broke down, because the audience, thinking of the banking crash, was too busy to question the wisdom of engaging in this kind of risky specuation in the first place, and found it harder than ever to identify that ruthless Master with any concept of the Christian God.
As so often in the Gospels, there is also an interesting angle if you agree (as ancient historians do too rarely) to approach the passage simply as an ancient text talking about ancient lives. In spite of the stereotype of Jews as expert bankers – a role forced upon them in the Middle Ages – various aspects of financial speculation were actually forbidden by Jewish law (although interpretation of what exactly you can and cannot do is a matter of interpretation and presumably was in antiquity, too). In fact, the only person in this story who is definitely acting according to the law is the man who received one talent and returned one talent. Yet, clearly, the master finds this less than satisfactory.
I have always wondered about the cultural context of this story, and its intended target audience. If you start looking at the Gospels with the eye of a historian, you realise pretty quickly that Jesus and his disciples were not exactly poor: property, monetary transactions, servants and hiring workers play a crucial role in many of the parables, and the narrator in the story expects an audience to understand the perspective of the land owner or employer. There is also a sense that this story was perhaps more plausible in the early Roman Empire than ever before, with steadily developing markets and connections around the Mediterranean. An investment that doubles the capital is quite remarkable, even if we are dealing with a longer time period - we might think of investment in shipping and overseas trade ventures: fairly risky undertakings but potentially lucrative. It’s not that the Gospel specifies such details, but the story’s premise has to be plausible for a contemporary audience. Here, like in many other places in the Gospels, I like to wonder about the considerable Graeco-Roman cultural influence on the lives of these ‘middle-class’ Jews, and I remain fascinated about the range of activities we see in the Gospels which most ancient texts never mention.
In any case, I went home wondering where this leaves Jesus the hero of the Occupy Wall Street/the City protests… Is this passage a banker’s Gospel, a ‘get out of hell free’ card, or should we indeed allow ourselves a metaphorical intepretation to entertain a rather more popular image of a left-wing, anti-banking Jesus who drives the money-lenders out of the temple?
Ancient texts, and especially the Gospels, never stand still: if they are to remain relevant, they have to be subjected to new interpretations which will mean something to people. This process is often subtle and difficult to observe in action, but this morning’s reading felt like a semantic earthquake, as political reality clashed with Scripture and made us do a collective double-take.