Adnan Syed and the Parable of the Talents

A reflection on Matthew 25:14-30 originally preached at St. Brigids Vancouver, an emerging Christian community rooted in the Anglican tradition.

I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the new radio drama, Serial, hosted by Sarah Koenig and produced by This American Life. It follows Sarah, the host, as she revisits the 15-year old case of Adnan Syed, a young man convicted of killing his former girlfriend in Baltimore, Maryland.

There’s something about bingeing on this series – a series that is daily discovering holes in the case against Syed as it leaves no rock unturned – that has filtered into my exploration of this parable of the talents this week.

And whether it’s the effects of listening to this addictive series, or starting to read alternative interpretations of this parable that come from a more liberating approach, I’m coming to feel as though we’ve closed the case on this parable too early. And this week I’m left wondering if there’s something about the western church’s exercise of dominance and power for the past 1500 years that has domesticated the wildness and boldness of its truth.

Today, as the church is becoming disestablished from its position of power, and as we recognize the importance of the voices we’ve pushed to the margins, I want to suggest that we need to reopen the case of the Third Slave and give it a new hearing.

Much like this podcast to which I’ve become addicted, I’m becoming convinced that the interpretation of the case of the unfaithful slave doesn’t fit together in the way I’ve often heard it explained. Did Adnan Syed kill his girlfriend? Was it Jay, Don, or someone else entirely? Is the third slave really an ungrateful bastard? Are we really supposed to turn our backs on him while celebrating with the others as they climb one more rung of the corporate ladder? And what do we do with the fact that the master is never equated with God, and that this parable, unlike most others, does not start with “the kingdom of God is like…”

That there are a minority of scholars who come to the third slave’s defense shouldn’t be surprising. This parable has, as I suggested earlier, been largely interpreted by people of privilege in a privileged church. And I think there’s something to be said for the comfort that comes from knowing that we’ve got the Right Answer to the Question At Hand. The only problem is that Jesus’ parables often have more twists and turns than we’re comfortable with. That and the fact that we have centuries of stained glass filtering the raw light of the Jesus Way in the ancient near east, as it emerged in the context of an impressive (and oppressive!) Roman empire.

I think it would be easier to say “the parable means what it means,” and yet we’re always caught up in the question of interpretation. How are we to understand this story, and how would Jesus’ original audience have understood it? Are we supposed to be like the first two servants who doubled their talents – or whatever that’s a spiritual stand-in for – or should we act more like the idiot who goes and buries his talents – his entire future – in a field?

Our domesticated reading of this gospel often tells us to go and play the guitar to glorify the Lord (don’t hide that light under a bushel! don’t bury your talents!) or to take risks and secure awesome gains for the sake of the kingdom. Which is fine, except that Jesus makes no mention of the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God in his account. And I’d argue that this is not about that. It’s more about the way the world is than the way it ought to be.

And so we’re forced to confront today’s story about the distribution of ridiculously large sums of money to the master’s powerful household bureaucrats in its context. And part of that context is that the only way to acquire such sums – then as now – is through individual and systemic exploitation.

With that in mind, let’s get back to the story at hand:

“It was is if a rich man, going on a journey, summoned the elite members of his household bureaucracy and entrusted them with his property. To one he gave the equivalent of 100 years’ wages, to another forty, and to another 20. He gave these to each according to his status and power within the household.”

Each of the first two went and doubled their master’s money. All this would have been welcome news at the shareholders’ convention. But out here on the frontier, Jesus weaves his yarn amongst haggard subsistence farmers. These were different sorts of folks, not the kinds you’d find in the capital, but the kind almost wholly consumed with concern for God’s provision of daily bread. Their lives and their anxieties wouldn’t have had much to do with managing gazillion dollar asset portfolios.

As I reflect on this gospel story, wondering where we might find good news (if there is good news to be found at all) I can imagine Jesus building his story, layer upon layer, with his audience hanging on every word. After everything they’d heard about him. After everything this Jesus seemed to be on about – good news for the poor and the oppressed, the sick, the lame, and those stuck in the prisons of debt – where would the story and its teller going to go next?

I can imagine them whispering back and forth, this parable of the talents charged with their own experiences of the Money People and their Ahab and Jezebel shock doctrine playbook. These were people who knew full well that like the biblical story they knew all too well, Naboth loses his vineyard every time. Expropriation was the name of the game, and these were people who would have experienced the visceral trauma triggered by the story’s concluding words: “to all those who have, more will be given…and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

Those were the buzzwords of the encroaching empire. And they’re the buzzwords of our own individualistic, self-seeking culture today. When the third slave enters the scene to prophetically bury the money in a field, Jesus’ audience would have known that this does not bode well for him.

It’s almost as if the third slave is saying in his prophetic act:

Let’s see what your money can do. Yours is a messed up world where you can buy all sorts of things with your money, where you can acquire vast tracts of land for your own gain, all the while throwing others out on the street. But will your money fertilize the plants? Will it help food to grow? Will it provide for everyday folks?

And more than this, at what point will you acknowledge God in this whole scheme? With you, oh harsh and cruel master, it’s all about mine, mine, mine. But do you not know that all of this is gift? Do you not remember the injunction at the Exodus to remember the Lord our God who brought us out of Egypt so that we would not be held captive to this way of being? Do you not remember that we are called not to store up for ourselves treasures on earth – where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal? Do you not remember our story, and the story of the people we’re called to be?

No amount of money – even these vast sums – is any substitute for the long, slow intentional stewardship of creation and cultivation of soil that these subsistence farmers would know all about. A bountiful harvest depends on time, attention, and deeply attuned relationship between farmer, soil and creator. It’s not about the money. Or, as Jessie J put it:

Ain’t about the cha-ching, cha-ching
Ain’t about the ba-bling, ba-bling
wanna make the world dance
Forget about the price tag

The third slave may be prophesying boldly, in fear and trembling, but in so-doing, he’s also relinquishing any of the precarious power and position he’s acquired in his master’s house.

After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 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.” 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.”

The same pattern is repeated with the second slave, but not, as you can imagine, the third. The master turns to the slave, only to hear the condemning words that push him over the edge:

“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

It was easy in the power-infused glory days of the church to read this parable of the talents as one glorifying the first two slaves. It was easy to shake off the third slave’s accusations as the sour grapes of a lazy insolent man. But today, I’m hopeful that we’d have the ears to hear this parable of the talents as it might have been heard in its earliest days.

And to do so, I want to offer this final observation before I invite your own reflections to help complete our sermon.

In next week’s Gospel, we encounter the Son of Man’s at the final judgment. And at that time, when he divides the sheep from the goats, he offers these words:

For I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and in prison, and you came to visit.

If the son of man is to be found hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned – seemingly in the places of weeping and gnashing of teeth – what does that mean for the three slaves? And just a little closer to home, what does that mean for us?

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as Director of Ministry Innovation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.

8 Responses to “Adnan Syed and the Parable of the Talents”

  1. Rob Irish

    Fascinating spin. It’s somewhat disingenuous to say it doesn’t mention the “kingdom of heaven” because the “it” in the first line is clearly a reference to the kingdom of heaven having been referenced in the previous section. However, that quibble notwithstanding, the idea of the third servant’s words as prophetic … truth spoken to power has some resonance. While the servant was wrong in leveling that accusation against the Master (insofar as the master is, in fact, God), how true is it of me? In my comfortable life, I fear I am far too often reaping where I have not sown and gathering to myself seed scattered by others. That prophetic servant has called me out.

    Reply
    • Andrew Stephens-Rennie

      Rob – I would argue, and it’s definitely up for debate, that the “it” is not necessarily clear, and furthermore that it’s not clear that the Master is God. The master, for one thing, acts completely inconsistently with the God to which Jesus continually witnesses. That’s my contention, and the catalyst for this particular reading / sermon that draws significantly from William Herzog’s “Parables as Subversive Speech.”

      I think the parable, beyond the surface, should draw us into an examination of our own lives and the lives of the community insofar as they relate to the various characters in the parable. When am I like the Master? When like the first two slaves? When like the third? And beyond this, how do I read this parable in a way that is either consistent or inconsistent with the way it might have been heard by its original hearers?

      Reply
      • Rob Irish

        Multiple further thoughts:
        First, I’ll continue to push back on the “kingdom of heaven” … there’s no other antecedent for the “it” to be “just like”. Or to take it from the Greek, the “For as” indicates a next step from the previous story. Again, the implication that we’re still talking about the same thing is clear. As with the virgin and the lamps, the implication would seem to be some get it, and some don’t. What’s really interesting about your reading is that it invites the question which ones get it.
        Second, I can accept that the Master in the story may not be God. Mind you, how many nations are telling other nations that “we do not want this [God] to reign over us” (Luke 19:14, in the parallel Brian points out)? This seems so much like our world today as nations trip over each other to insist upon their greater and greater secularization. So, someone as unpopular as the hated Master in Luke could still be God.
        Third, while it’s true that the master doesn’t argue with the servant’s assessment of him, I’ve read that as his being ironic, as if to say, “If that’s the way you think I am, the least you could have acted in accordance.” Perhaps that too, could be God’s response to our own age.
        As to your final point about reflecting on ourselves … I know that in my comfortable realm of power and influence I’m too often the exact type of master that servant #3 complains about. Indeed, even when I’m being a “good” servant like #1 or #2, I may be inclined to gain my 10-to-1 return one the backs of Maybe I’m trying to hang onto the post-Constantinian reading so I don’t have to face my own need to spend some time in the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

        Reply
  2. Brian Walsh

    “While the servant was wrong in leveling that accusation against the Master (insofar as the master is, in fact, God)…” Might I point out, Rob, that the ‘master’ actually affirms the third servants accusation: “You knew, did you, that I reap where I do not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?” If you read the parallel in Luke 19 you will see that even the crowds recognize that this master (though in Luke it is a king) is an unjust and harsh man.

    Reply
  3. Brian Walsh

    An interesting incomplete sentence, Rob. ” … I may be inclined to gain my 10-to-1 return one the backs of Maybe …”

    That is exactly the question that this parable raises. On the backs of … who? In what economy can a 1000% return on an investment ever be just? Where could such profits ever not be on the backs of someone? The 1st century listeners to this parable, and those who are present as witnesses of it all within the parable itself, all knew that the only way you could get that kind of returning was by high interests (though Jews were not allowed to collect interest on each other) and expropriation. Those profits are at the expense of the very livelihood (and literally, the lives) of the most vulnerable.

    Two other things. In Matthew it is a wealthy man with slave. In Luke, however, it is a nobleman who goes away to acquire royal power, and the people oppose him. Everyone knew who Jesus was talking about. This is the story of Archelaus going to Rome to gain the throne after the death of Herod the Great. No one wanted another Herod on the throne. The historical referent here is crystal clear. Jesus is talking about that story as a counter story to how he receives his kingdom.

    Second, Jesus tells this story to contrast the economy of Rome (and their puppet, Archelaus) with his own economy. In Matthew the next story is the sheep and the goats. The economy of the kingdom is one that embraces the hungry, the naked, the stranger and the prisoner. Now who would that be? Why the third slave from the immediately preceding story, of course! And in Luke the parable immediately follows the story of Zaccheus who has manifest the counter economy of the kingdom of Jesus in his conversion. So why tell the story of Archeleus after the Zaccheus story? Because “they supposed that the kingdom was about to appear immediately.” Why did they think that? They had just seen it with their own eyes in Zaccheus. So Jesus tells this parable as a reality check on the kingdom aspirations of his followers. Who is the third slave in Luke? Why Zaccheus, of course. This is what will now happen to Zaccheus when his masters discover what he has done with the oppressive profits that he has achieved through excessive and crippling taxes.

    Reply
    • Rob Irish

      Brian, yeah, sorry about the incomplete sentence, but maybe not. You’ve perhaps interpreted into the gap my reluctance to have to give account. I won’t deny it. Perhaps, I am too much the “good and faithful servant,” mimicking the master of my age and yielding good returns. Perhaps silenced on the edge of the story are the oppressed labourers whose efforts have enabled those yields, but who themselves have seen little reward. If I allow them to speak in my life, what do they say? This week, I will aim to break one chain. That is my starting point.

      Interpolating the story of Archelaus is also fascinating context that reshapes the reading. The stuff they never teach in Sunday School.

      Reply
    • Andrew Stephens-Rennie

      This is the piece that always gets me: we often nod in assent when they Master says “at least you could have put it in the bank…” and then forget the Jewish laws forbidding the collecting of interest off of one another. Obviously your money should make interest, unless of course, the law prohibits it, something we often forget of the context. It doesn’t mean I like the implications of this reading. It just means there are implications of the gospel that I try to domesticate, even as I need their wildness to confront me.

      Reply
  4. Paul Despault

    This Mathieu 24-14verse was the subject matter of a recent service at my church. Unfortunately, the homily seemed (incorrectly) to reinforce the concept of our needing to be sure, for ‘the kingdom of God is like…’, that one should ‘provide for’ the unreasonable, inconsistent demands of a ‘seeking power, selfish, dishonest, disliked, Nobel’.
    I too see serious problems with this parable if it relates to the ‘way to get into the Kingdom of Heaven’ by needing to appease a God who takes what He wants, when and where He wants’, and punishes those who dare stand up to his power seeking!? I tend to want to strongly defend the 3rd servant, given his knowledge of the nobel’s personality (also ref. Luke, where everyone else doesn’t like him either)
    It certainly contrasts with the ‘sensitive’, ‘compassionate’, and ‘forgiving’ God presented everywhere else in the New Testament, and in particular in several neighboring chapters and verses of Mathieu and Luke… ‘Those who are rich will find it infinitely more difficult to get into heaven’…. and ‘forsake wealth and money as your god; instead give all you can to the least of My people’, ‘those who are first shall be last….’ and the final ‘Law of Love’, as being supreme.
    Particularly in today’s day and age, we obsess ourselves with greed, seeking wealth and seeking power for our own gain. Money and having more valuable possessions, is our God! We justify that (financial) profit must be made; the more, the better. We seldom question ‘who or what suffers, when we gain’.
    I have lived long enough to have thoroughly appreciated that the greatest happiness comes in giving, and in forgiving, as has been requested by Jesus. We live in a modern society that attends first to satisfying our employers (or ourselves) whose goals are far too often, to find every way, and every marketing scheme possible, to increase one’s own, and/or one’s shareholder’s profits. This is usually done without much concern for those whom one profits by. There is little of a ‘win win’ approach; rather, just ‘me me’. Sounds like the noble in the parable? And in verses beforehand, in Matthew 23, Jesus has just been chastising the Scribes and Pharisees as frauds and hypocrites for those very same selfish lifestyles!
    My God is not that God. I believe strongly in Jesus’ calling us to live in the Spirit that He left with us. Let the Spirit guide us in all we do, to embrace a ‘loving and just’, balanced for all, lifestyle, and to correctly interpret His messages in the Scriptures.
    I believe that the scripture messages here should not be confused with God’s calling us to find our talents (gifts) that are unique to each of us, and to be sure that we develop them, to complement everyone else’s. We will have to answer to that, I am certain. That is what He really calls us to. There is nothing selfish about that request.
    Accepting that challenge leads one to a very deep feeling of contentment, happiness, gratitude; and provides direction, that one is taking the right path, and which has a meaning, to betterment of ‘the whole’ of mankind, in God’s eyes. And the messages ‘to be ready for the Son of Man’s return’ are then very sensible, and one will not fear that time when it does come.

    Reply

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