Alternative views of the Parable of the Talents

The Gospel text for today (Matthew 25:14-30) is one I’m sure we’ve all heard several times. Throughout my life, I’ve always heard and read into the story the same interpretation–we need to be like the “good and faithful servants” who invest the talents given to them and earn more for God.

But lately I’ve come to read this parable in different ways. For one thing, what if the rich man who doles out talents to his servants isn’t a metaphor for God (which is pretty much every interpretation of this parable I’ve ever heard)? What if Jesus uses this parable as a way of opening our eyes to the unjust systems in our world that allow people to amass huge amounts of wealth on the backs of the poor and vulnerable? Why would this one man have so much money in the first place?

As Ivy Beckwith and I wrote Children’s Ministry in the Way of Jesus, she introduced me to an alternative interpretation that the children in her church shared with her. Here’s an excerpt from our book:

Earlier in this school year Ivy was sharing the parable of the talents with children in her church. Most times that we’ve seen a curriculum or Bible study explicate this parable, the implications have always been about not wasting the gifts and talents that a person has been given. In the story the investors are seen as industrious, and the servant who protected the gift is seen as cowardly and foolish. But Ivy decided to simply tell the parable to her group of grade school children and see where things went. She was astonished to see that every child in the group questioned the motives of the servants and sided with the one who buried the treasure. According to them, this servant made the prudent and responsible choice while the others engaged in risky behavior with the master’s money. They felt that the master was wrong to berate the one who protected his money.

Ivy was astounded and confused by the children’s interpretation and the questions they brought to the story. But after taking a minute to think about the cultural context in which these kids are living, things started to make more sense. These children attend a well-established, affluent church in Manhattan, and they’re growing up in the aftermath of the global financial meltdown that resulted from a lot of risky behavior with other people’s money. They’ve probably seen firsthand the protests involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement and heard protestors berate financial institutions for playing God with other people’s money. With this in mind, no wonder they saw the more prudent servant as the one with the right idea.

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