The most common reading of the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30) goes something like this: the Master (i.e. God) gives his slaves (i.e. human beings) a certain amount of talents/money (i.e. gifts or literally talents). The one who gets the most does well in the Master’s eyes because he goes off, trades the ten talents and ends up doubling the amount. The guy in the middle does the same: his two talents become four because of his clever bargaining (or gambling; we’re not told specifically what it is these guys are doing to increase their money). But then comes along the poor dumb oaf who only got the one talent. He went and hid it in the ground, which didn’t do anybody any good, and worse yet, when the Master finds out, he’s pissed off, takes the one measly talent and gives it to the guy who has the most talents, and then, just to be sure the slave realizes what a horrible, wicked swine he is, he gets tossed “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Sounds pretty creepy out there.

I guess we’re supposed to assume the “outer darkness” is hell. The moral of the story? If we don’t use our talents/gifts (i.e. engage fully in this world with our God-given gifts), if we just stick our head in a hole and vegetate all our life, we’ll end up either going to hell, pissing off God or earning some pretty hefty bad karma. It’s the same old “do good and you won’t get punished” scenario that seems to be our interpretation of so many Biblical accounts of God’s dealing with humanity.

But behind the veil of the obvious, like in so many of Jesus’ parables, sits another story. The Shadow Play, if you will. Why would Jesus tell a story that supports the status quo, those who are on top in so-called ‘normal’ society, when throughout most of his ministry and teachings he’s forever championing the underdog? When we look a bit closer into the story, we begin to see some cracks that don’t make as much sense as the obvious interpretation of the story would suppose.

“Master,” says the poor fool who hid his one earthly talent, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” This is the man’s reason for hiding his talent. Grant it, his action was driven by fear, but in the end, he was the only one brave enough to stand up to the Master and tell the truth. He then gives the talent back to the Master saying, “Here, you have what is yours.” He doesn’t want any part in it.

Now this obviously doesn’t please the Master. Not only has his wealth not been increased (as it was with the other more worthy slaves), but he has been exposed as a fraud, a swindler and not a very nice person. Hmmm. Not a very nice image of God, is it? And, amazingly, the Master doesn’t even deny it! “You knew did you…?” he fumes, and we can begin to see his blood boil at this brazen exposé of his true character. He handles the situation in a way we are accustomed to in our punitive, authoritarian society: he casts him out and makes him suffer.

Ouch. This doesn’t sound like a God I’d be very happy about worshipping. Cowering under, maybe, but not loving and adoring. In all truth, this “God/Master” sounds more like a Devil.

So let’s turn the tables for a moment. Let’s assume this could have been Jesus hidden meaning: the Master isn’t meant to be God, but rather our errant conceptions of God, or those things (such as materialism, economic prosperity) that we worship as gods in this world. Let’s assume that, like the Pharisees and the other so-called ‘righteous’ people that Jesus is forever challenging, that the slaves with the most talents, who behave like “good and trustworthy slaves”, are the ones who are deceived, living far from the truth of the real spiritual values which Jesus was always on about. Let’s suppose the ‘worthless’ slave who hid his talent was actually the one whom Jesus was promoting as the ideal, in terms of those who would have access to the Kingdom of God.

How can this be? Interestingly, the imagery Jesus uses for the parable is taken from the marketplace. The “upper class” slave is given a good portion of money, with which he cleverly engages with the marketplace in right and appropriate ways (according to the values of a healthy, capitalist, consumer-oriented economy), and viola! He becomes rich (or at best makes his master rich and he gets a few brownie points for it)! The “middle class” slave does similar. But the “lower class”, the one with little to begin with, doesn’t engage with the economic machine this way. For whatever reasons, he has the insight to see it as unfair, unjust and serving only those who have plenty, while ignoring those with little or nothing. So, instead of engaging with the marketplace, he hides – that is, he goes inward, takes an interior journey that both isolates and protects him from that glamorous world of commerce and popular society. And in the eyes of that world, that dominate way of seeing, he “earns nothing”. He is held in disdain and banished from good and upstanding society. For in the values of that capitalist world, it’s true: “all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will taken away.” The myth of capitalism exposed! In the final analysis, it is a system that serves the privileged, the ‘haves’ (who, through clever bargaining, commercial interests or investments can easily double or quadruple their wealth), while the ‘have-nots’, the poor, underprivileged and disadvantaged don’t have a hope in hell of ‘making it’ in this world. On the contrary, they’re marginalized and forced to live on the fringes of a hostile and callous society -- where I can imagine there’s a lot of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (think New Orleans!).

But there’s even another layer we can delve to in trying to understand this story. For all intents and purposes, getting thrown out into the outer darkness where there’s a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth doesn’t sound like a very pleasant option in life! Who’d want to go there? Yet this image comes up again and again in Jesus’ teachings (cf Matt 8:12; 22:13; Lk 13:28). And we must remember, this was the final fate of Jesus in his life: being nailed to a cross, ostracized by mainstream society, lots of wrestling with his pain and with God. The struggle, the pain, the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” seemed to be a pre-requisite for Jesus’ ultimate ascension. Indeed, it seems an integral part of the Paschal Mystery: crucifixion leads to resurrection, in whatever myriad and esoteric forms that may take in our individual lives. For perhaps it’s only in the outer darkness, away from the glaze and distractions and addictions of the material world, that we truly encounter the Divine Presence. There’s a lot of pain involved in ripping ourselves away from the lure of this world, however. Alienation, depression and rejection being perhaps the most difficult to overcome.

In the esoteric path of the via negativa, where one experiences God (comes into the Kingdom of God) through surrender and letting go of all worldly attachments (and inner states and projections), the clincher of this story takes on a different meaning: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Jesus warned that wealth and abundance of material possessions and comforts were one of the greatest obstacles to the spiritual life, to meeting God or the holiness within ourselves. The contemplative life, where one draws away from the active engagement with the material world and embarks on an inward journey, requires simplicity, detachment and surrender. The mystery behind “letting go and letting God” suggests that there is a freedom, a joy even in emptiness and non-attachment. In the via negativa path to God, Jesus’ promise that for “those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” thus becomes a blessing.

Page Updated October 25, 2020