Posted by: HAT | November 17, 2014

Cui Bono?

Image of a relief showing a king separating a group holding stacks of money from an individual holding a coin

Which of these is not like the others?

Hi, Gang!

When it comes to “doing enough,” how much is enough?

Here is where that question comes from: I go to church. I teach Sunday school. These are cognitively engaging activities – a person can’t help thinking about them, before hand and afterwards. I can’t help thinking about them, before hand and afterwards. That’s not always … comfortable.

Yesterday in Sunday school we had our extended reflection focused on Matthew 25:14-30 – “the parable of the talents.” For those who haven’t spent their whole lives in and around church, “the parable of the talents” is a story Jesus tells, in which a wealthy man goes off on a long trip. He leaves three of his servants in charge of a hefty sum of money. In Bible language, he gives them “talents,” a Biblical unit of currency: 5, 2, and 1, to be precise, “in accordance with their abilities.” In today’s money, according to the background materials for the lesson on the text, a talent would be something like 15 years’ wages – I don’t know whether minimum wages, or higher, but anyhow, A LOT of money. He goes off, the servants do their thing, and after an indeterminate amount of time the man returns and demands an accounting. At this point, the 5-talent servant says, “Here, I invested the 5 talents you gave me, and I earned 5 more, and here’s double your money back.” Well done, good and faithful servant. Same with the 2-talent servant. Invested, doubled his money, well done.

Last comes the 1-talent servant. The 1-talent servant didn’t do so well. He buried the talent in the ground. He acknowledges to the master he was afraid he would lose it. This turns out to have been a VERY BAD IDEA. The master is angry and chews him out: oh, you knew I would be hard on you, did you? Well, then you should have taken the money I gave you to a money lender (scandalous idea!) and gotten some interest back on it, at least. So he orders the money to be taken away from the lazy servant, and given to the industrious one, and has the lazy one thrown into the outer darkness.

Did you see what I did there? The biblical text doesn’t actually call the 1-talent servant lazy. But according to Mom’s Bible Commentary, which is the one I grew up on, the point of this parable is that the 1-talent servant was lazy. He didn’t do enough. He didn’t want to do enough; he didn’t want to do what he could have done with his God-given talents. Because something else everyone knows is that the wealthy man/master is a stand-in for God, and this is really a story about God and us. God gives us talents, and we are supposed to use them, for heaven’s sake, and not just do nothing with them. Doing nothing is not just a bad idea, it’s not just bad for the economy, it’s a sin.

People talk like Protestants don’t know how to have guilt. Those people are wrong.

I told the folks in the Sunday school class that this is a “text of terror” for me. I don’t think anyone believed me, or if they did, it didn’t register. But I am not just making that up. The way some people feel about the lake of fire, I feel about this story. Because something else I know from Mom’s Bible Commentary is that I have always been right on the edge of being that 1-talent servant, of not EVEN DOING anything with all those God-given gifts. These days, being more unemployed than not, I feel I may have gone over that edge altogether.

Interestingly, that is not how the curriculum materials we use presented this lesson. (The curriculum is Feasting on the Word, for those who do spend their lives around church, and have that kind of question.) The quality embodied by the servants wasn’t framed as being “industry,” it was framed as the willingness to take risks. We still know the wealthy master is God and the servants are people. But according to Feasting on the Word and The Message version of the Bible, the 1-talent servant is risk-averse and afraid of failure and loss. The servant’s fault is that he doesn’t take a chance with the money and put it out there, the way the other servants do.

I am not sure this solves the problem I have always had with the text and its relationship to my life. I believe I am at least as risk-averse as I am lazy.

But for some reason, in light of the reading I have been doing in Soelle’s Silent Cry, I now wonder whether something else could be going on here. Maybe it’s because I have just finished the section on “ego and egolessness” and Soelle’s discussion of the need for both mystics and resisters to set aside ego in a certain way to pursue their paths. I wonder whether the parable is really much about the psychology of the servants – they are stick figures, after all, as befits the parable format, rather than fully-developed three-dimensional fictional characters. I wonder whether the point of the story is not more about what is happening to the talents.

Of course the talents are not actual money. Presumably they stand for something – possibilities, opportunities, resources, goods – things that might be beneficial to others, beyond the narrow household circle in which the servants interact with one another, and occasionally the Big Guy. What if the idea is that this money, whatever it represents, is supposed to be doing a whole lot of good? Getting it out there into circulation is what coulda-woulda-shoulda do that good – as Dolly Levi says in Hello Dolly, “Money is like manure. It’s supposed be spread around, helping things grow.” That view doesn’t let the 1-talent servant off the hook, but it does change the hook. It makes the problem not the 1-talent servant’s character, but his relationship to his world.

On this reading, the problem is that the 1-talent servant doesn’t benefit anyone else. Maybe the reason for that is an ego problem; maybe 1-talent servant is too self-absorbed, not sufficiently alert to the good that even the one talent he has could be doing. Burying that talent might represent, not so much laziness, as an inability or refusal to take seriously what that might mean to others; he thinks only of himself, and the personal consequences (which, as it turns out, he mis-evaluates). Or maybe not. Because the point may be less what 1-talent thinks or feels, and more how 1-talent is oriented: toward self and self-preservation, away from others and the possibilities of exchanges with them.

I don’t know that this way of thinking about the story eliminates the terror in the text for me. But I feel it does change the terms in which I have thought of it for a long time. Maybe “am I doing enough?” with its chronic self-absorption is the wrong question; maybe a better question would be, “who is this helping?”



  1. What an interesting perspective and well-written post! I’ve also been pondering the mindlessness of simply filling one’s schedule without thought to the end goal. Food for thought – thank you!!

    • Thanks, Lisa – I’m glad to hear this. Thanks for stopping by.

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