Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Sermon Help: The (subversive) Parable of the Whistle-blower

You may already know this reading of Jesus' Parable of the Talents. But I came across it first about 2 years ago: That the Parable upholds as a hero a man who creatively subverts the systemic injustices in a corrupt society by burying his talent, rather than making it grow. He is a Whistle Blower.

I'm preaching on this text on Sunday. I'd like your help. Because I can cut'n'paste it, here is the Wiki entry on the alternative reading:

William Herzog offers an alternative interpretation of the parables of Jesus. According to his interpretive scheme, Jesus employed parables in his verbal engagement with his contemporaries for the purpose of getting them to think about God's justice and their social responsibility. His stories expose the social inequities in Palestinian society that violate the teachings of the Torah and motivate the hearers to live and work for peace and justice.

Herzog's analysis of the parable of the talents focuses on the fact that the "man" of the story is not described as an exemplary person. Much rather, this wealthy man does not deny the claim of the third servant: "thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown". The parable suggests that he is an aristocrat, a rapacious absentee-landlord, whose sole interest is maximizing his financial gain. Only the third servant refuses to participate in the game of increasing his lord's financial wealth "at the costs of the poor."

When he upbraids the third servant, the aristocrat's remark shows that he himself is in violation of the Old Testament laws that Jesus seeks to defend: the third servant has willfully refused to invest the money, which would have resulted in the aristocrat regaining his capital "with interest" (Matt. 25:27). This kind of financial transaction is forbidden in the Torah; see the biblical teaching on usury.

The servant's frank remark shows him to be a 'whistle-blower'. He calls the aristocrat harsh and merciless (which are not God-like qualities). He exposes the sham of what has occurred: the other servants have allowed themselves to be used for exploitative purposes, for which they will also be rewarded by the wicked aristocrat.

According to Herzog's reading, the point of the parable is to show how much it can cost for an underling to expose the truth about injustice in society. Jesus' hearers, for the most part poor villagers, would have asked themselves the difficult question about how they would behave toward an aristocrat's former helper who had become a whistle-blower and had been thrown out of rich man's household ("wailing and gnashing of teeth"). They would also learn from the parable the necessity of not isolating themselves, so as not to play into the hands of the ruling elite.

That is, the parable is not, as it is often read, a parable about doing something positive with what has been given to you, nor even an indictment on the scribes who buried what was given them (the word of God). On those traditional readings, the man who buries the talent is a scoundrel who deserved his punishment.

But on the alternative reading, the servant is a hero, the master a scoundrel, and the 'punishment' a further injustice for any who oppose the evil inherent in the system. The servant stands up, by sitting down. He does something, by doing nothing.

I'm not agreeing with the alternative reading. But I want to hear from you as to your thoughts. So...

  • Discuss.
  • And if you disagree, why?
  • What, then, is the parable about?

YouTube is Monty Python's Constitutional Peasant. I am in no way disparaging the view by posting the skit. I just laugh very loudly every time I see this. :)


Laura said...

Fascinating. I'm prepping a talk on personal finances and have been reading this parable as part of my prep. I want to hear comments as well.

Justin said...

I'm with you Laura. Let's hear your thoughts...

byron smith said...

My hunch is that part of the reason for the traditional reading comes from the context. This parable comes between two other parables in which there is a decisive negative judgement passed upon those who are (a) unready for their master's "coming" (verses 1-13) or (b) unmerciful towards the king's brethren (verses 31-46). Thus, when in this parable there is also a decisive negative judgement passed upon a servant who has not done as the master wished, then a reading in which Jesus is understood as the master/king can be assumed as a constant across all three parables. Furthermore, this chapter comes within a broader context (ch 24) in which Jesus speaks of a judgement upon Israel for failing to recognise or be ready for the "coming" of its true Messiah.

Does Herzog offer an alternative reading of these other parables and the "mini-apocalyptic" discourse that precedes them?

Justin said...


I haven't got Herzog. Am planning on finding the book this week. So I can't say.

What do you all think it means that the master is explicitly said to be unjust?

I understand that parallels ought not to be labored in parables. The master in the parable of the Shrewd Manager isn't God etc. I understand that the master doesn't have to be Jesus explicitly for the story to still work.

The idea of the master coming/returning is enough to make this an appropriate Advent reading.

But still, the master is unjust: he reaps where he did not sow! He gathers where he did not scatter! The other two slaves help him to reap and gather unjustly, right?

Just trying to process this...

Justin said...

And along the same lines re continuity: Jesus comment in Matt 25:29 would have to have some parallels to Matthew 13:12.

In Matthew 13, the same line appears to be used positively for those who listen. On the alternative reading of Matt 25, it would have to be negative.

In any case, they are almost the exact line by the same evangelist:

"For those who have, more will be given, and they will have in abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away."

I can't reconcile these two on the alternative reading.

Murray said...

Long time no see Justin! I hear you're returning to Sydney - this is great news (for us at least!).

Thanks for raising such an interesting question. For what it's worth, although I appreciate what Herzog is trying to do, I'm not convinced by his reading of this one.

The main strength of his argument is that he seeks to locate the parable in first century Palestine. This is certainly the right impulse. I’m not sure, however, that Herzog has correctly located the parable in that context. The parable does not presuppose the agrarian village economy of Galilee, but the mercantile economy of Jerusalem (note where the parable is told). The slaves are not the powerless landless poor, but civic merchants involved in the trade of large sums of money. Moreover, the ‘man’ in the parable is not so unjust as Herzog suggests. The property he entrusts to the servants is his property, and there seems to have been a tacit agreement that the slaves are to invest it for profit. Those who do so are not merely exploited by the ‘man’ on his return, but are granted, if not a share in the profits, then at least reward commensurate with their service. ie. it is a mutually beneficial arrangement.

However, even if the man were as unjust as Herzog suggests, I don’t see that this is necessarily an argument against identifying the ‘man’ of the parable as God. Elsewhere Jesus seems to have been quite happy to use images of God which do not wholly do him justice. As you noted, the parables only provide an indirect purchase on reality, so it is inevitable that the ‘God’ character is ‘flawed’ in some ways. In this connection it is interesting that the parallel in Luke presents the ‘man returning from a journey’ in terms which clearly evoke the return of Archelaus to Jerusalem in 4BC. The allusion is unmistakable; but there is also no question that Jesus intended to connote that God is like Archelaus in every respect. The fact that the images Jesus used carry a range of connotations doesn’t necessarily mean we need to reject the idea that God is still the primary referent of the ‘man’ in the story.

If that is how the parables work, then the historical details become less important to their interpretation than the overall thrust of the parable in its narrative context. And there I think Byron is exactly correct: Matthew 24 and 25 are all about the return of God to Zion, which will simultaneously involve judgment on national Israel and vindication for true Israel = the son of man. In this context it would be strange if Matthew 25.14-30 was to be read in an entirely different light …

amalapropos said...

I'm not exactly a theologically trained person, but this was what I got from the parable:

By the servant's standards, it does seem like the master reaps what did not sow and is a "hard man", and by the world's standard he's probably right. His understanding of what the master is asking for is flawed, and I would equate this to our very human understanding of "justice" or "mercy", compared to God's justice and mercy. We often see the world as unfair, mostly because our comprehension is flawed, not necessarily because God is. This is why that verse, "For those who have, more will be given, and they will have in abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away" seems so contradictory to us.

...I don't know if that answered anything, or if it even made much sense...

Clifford Swartz said...

I thought you presented the dominant views on the passage very well, including the notion that the alternative reading is attractive, but untenable within the passage and, more so, within the chapter/gospel as a whole. It thus strikes me that it is tempting to take hold of an alternative reading simply because it's cooler, fresher, newer, more appealing to my priorities, etc., even if the plain reading of the text is against it. That's something I find -- the desire to come up with something new can lead me into strange hermeneutics, twisting and turning to gain the eccentric!

So it was neat to see you walk out to the edge, look over the precipice and then walk back, saying "nah, doesn't work."

Justin said...

Thanks Clifford for your thoughts.

And Murray -- I didn't thank you for your extended comment. Really, very helpful for my work. To him who has, more will be given, and he will have in abundance. God bless, brother.

Martin said...

Wow, a New York Times columnist is pondering what you're pondering:

gbroughto said...

I came here to make the same post as Martin... read the Cohen piece. It is well written and always interesting to hear the perspective of one describing himself as a 'stranger to faith.'