At first glance, this week’s Gospel seems to have many connections with our “Green” agenda. After all, this parable is one of the sources for the idea of the “Stewardship of Creation”. Human beings are seen as “stewards” who have been entrusted by God with the natural world, which we hold in trust for him. We are to look after it/use it wisely and one day we will be held accountable to God for it. So far, so good!
Except…I have a few problems, firstly, I don’t think stewardship is the best model to describe the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation, but we shall deal with that on another occasion. Secondly the traditional interpretation of the parable of the talents presents a very uncomfortable view of God. It's not easy to understand the master as God, because he's not a very pleasant character. He has slaves, and and no matter what your translation says, make no mistake about it, the Greek means slave. He's either a thief or at the very least exploitative and greedy, why does he reaps where he does not sow and gathers what he does not scatter? What happens to those who did reap and did sow - what happens to them? The description of him reminds me of those multi-nationals who make billions yet avoid paying tax, and as if that isn't enough he casts his slave into outer darkness.
Such a master-god would hardly be good news for anyone. He would be a tyrant. Can this master who suggests lending at interest possibly be equated with the God who commanded in Deuteronomy 23:19-20
You shall not change interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest.
Can this master who takes from those with least and gives to those with most possibly be equated with the God who has a preferential option for the poor?
Can this master who owns slaves really be equated with the God who led the slaves from Egypt to freedom in the promised land?
It is possible then, that we have misunderstood this parable? Perhaps it is not about using wisely that which God has given to us at all, but rather about what happens when people stand up to the systems that create inequality, or when slaves stand up to their masters, or how in an unfair world those who have get more and those who start with little so often lose even that. In our use capital-to-make-capital society, it is easy to see the first two slaves as the virtuous ones and the third as lazy, but what if the real hero is the slave who stands up against the master’s bullying and dares to incurs his master’s displeasure by doing the right thing.
If this is the case then this parable is not a great model for creation care, but instead becomes a devastating critique of a world where those who already have a great deal get even more, whilst those who don’t have much get even that taken from them, which seems to be an accurate description of the world in which we live today. A world where the constant accumulation of possessions on the part of those who already have, has devastating environmental consequences for who have so very little.
In 2010 Gary Gardiner issued the following challenge to Christians, especially those of the “Green” persuasion.
"Many religions are in fact rapidly embracing the modern cause of environmental protection. Yet consumerism- the opposite side of the environmental coin and traditionally an area of religious strength- has received relatively little attention so far. Ironically, the greatest contribution the world’s religions could make to the sustainability challenge may be to take seriously their own ancient wisdom on materialism. Their special gift – the millennia old paradoxical insight that happiness is found in self-emptying, that satisfaction is found more in relationship than in things, and that simplicity can lead to a fuller life – is urgently needed today. Combined with the new-found passion of many religions for healing the environment, this ancient wisdom could help create new and sustainable civilizations."
Is it too challenging to imagine that the demands of the ecological emergency require us to be like the third slave and resist the demands of ever-increasing economic growth? And if not, do we have sufficient courage to face the cost of doing so?
I am indebted to Anthony Reddie, for his interpretation of this parable from the perspective of Participative Black Theology. Readers interested in Anthony Reddie's reflection may wish to click this link.