Talents & Monopolies

The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28), Year A

(Track I)

Jesus said, “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then 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.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two 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.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘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.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Matthew 25:14-30

Of the many ways one can ruin a family game night, the most efficient is to play a game of Monopoly. Among the most iconic of board games, featuring thousands of cosmetic variations, digital recreations, and limitless house rules, Monopoly has the bizarre distinction of being one of the most successful games that almost no one enjoys actually playing. In addition to its paradoxical state of being simultaneously loved and loathed, the way the game has been interpreted over the decades is equally paradoxical. Monopoly has been promoted as a game that teaches shrewd business strategy, the benefits of venture capital and investments, and generally a ringing endorsement of capitalistic competition. Yet at the same time, the game has been interpreted as teaching the cruelty of sound business decisions, the selfishness of competition, and generally a scathing criticism of capitalism.

Though we can never fully understand the meaning of a game designed to generate debate about various economic models, there is another far more pressing question that we can in fact answer: if the most efficient way to ruin an otherwise pleasant game night is to play a game of Monopoly, what then, is the most efficient way to ruin a game of Monopoly? To that all-important question there are two sure-fire methods: the first is to suffer through it as an overly-long and increasingly tenuous sermon introduction, and the second is to play it cooperatively.

For the tens of you who have not endured a game of Monopoly, here is a brief overview of how the game is currently played. The board is designed as a city block, with many squares that are designated as property. Players begin with a set amount of money as a starter and generate a small income each time they go around the board. As they go around the board, players purchase pieces of property that when other players land on, they must pay a specified amount to the owner of the property. The game really comes into its own when a player owns all the properties that share the same color, giving them a monopoly. Once a player has a monopoly, the price of landing on those properties drastically increases, and the prices can become even more astronomical as the owner increases the value of the property by building things such as houses and eventually hotels on the properties that are monopolized. Now there are many other factors that go into the game such as mortgaging properties, making trades with other players, chance, etc. but based on these rules one would think the object of the game is to make the most money. Yet this is untrue, the real object of the game is not to make the most money one can, but to take all of your opponent’s money, “bankrupting” them. A winner is only declared when all other players declare bankruptcy. Games tend to run long, in the range of several hours, and by design the game over time becomes more cutthroat and competitive as the stakes and prices get higher and higher.

If that doesn’t sound all that fun to you, you can see why it is so efficient in ruining family game nights. By design it encourages competition, ruthlessness, and deceit, the joke is that a game can destroy all the trust between even the closest of friends and relatives playing together. The more one analyzes the game, the more disturbing it seems to become.

That same spirit of monopoly has always disturbed me when reading today’s gospel lesson. Known as the parable of the Talents, much like our game, this story by Jesus has been interpreted as both a ringing endorsement, and a sharp criticism, of capitalism. It also features one of the most chilling lines ever spoken by our Lord, “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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In its own disturbing way, that’s actually a fairly accurate summary of a Monopoly game, especially about the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Yes, this is another one of those parables that is strange, disturbing, and outright dangerous if read allegorically. And like our friendly game that gets more unsettling the closer we analyze it, the more we understand about this parable, the more difficult it becomes to understand what Jesus is trying to teach with it.

The most common, and most dangerous, interpretation is to interpret the story through modern capitalist teachings. Some of the sermons that you may have heard go something like this: The landlord is clearly God, and this is a story about how God rewards bold action on His investment, and punishes those who bury their talents. Usually a few things are emphasized, the first is the classic “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, work hard, keep your head low and your nose to the grindstone and you too might become rich one day…or at least in this case, you will become rich with at least heavenly treasure by increasing God’s investment.

Often there will be a seemingly clever connection between the Greek word tálanton (τᾰ́λαντον) and the English word “talent”. The idea being that the story is not strictly about money, but using whatever skills, advantages, or —God forgive me— talents one has to build up the kingdom of God here on earth. This has proven to be an unfortunate transliteration that has been irresistible to preachers, despite how misleading it is. As you know in English, a “talent” is a skill that a person has acquired almost innately, usually referring to a natural ability or a surprising proficiency with a skill that the person has with little or no training, or acquiring a new skill quickly and with seemingly little effort. In Greek a “Talent” is much weightier, referring either to a set of scales used to calculate taxes, or to a unit of weight. Eventually, and the way Jesus uses the word, a Talent came to refer not only to the weight, but also the monetary value of precious commodities such as gold or silver. While it is hard to say for sure what exactly the weight of a Talent was, or its monetary value in today’s currency, we can say with certainty that Jesus is talking about exceedingly large sums of money in this parable. Scholars estimate that a Talent was somewhere between 60-75lbs of gold or silver, and the monetary value would be something like the equivalent of 15-20 years’ worth of wages for the average day laborer. Having one Talent would be nearly inconceivable to Jesus’ audience, let alone two or five. That was the kind of money of emperors and kings, and way out of the scope of responsibility for even the most capable and trusted household slave.

Beyond the more simplistic pro-capitalist interpretations of this parable is the popular Evangelistic interpretation. This interpretation has much more merit, though it too has some difficulties. The interpretation is that the landlord is God, the Talents are the Gospel, and we are the slaves. Like the capitalist interpretations, the emphasis is that God expects us to grow His investment by growing the number of believers. The slave that buries his talent is shirking his responsibilities by hiding the Gospel truth and is rightfully punished for doing so. This interpretation is suggested by Luke, who places this parable alongside other parables about evangelism. It speaks to how difficult it is to interpret this parable when even the Gospel writers seem to disagree on its meaning, as Matthew places this parable with parables about the Second Coming.

These interpretations based on simplistic allegorical reading of the story become less sustainable the closer we look at the parable. The simple interpretations seem to get distracted by the Talents, the vast sums entrusted by the landlord to the slaves. But as Matthew recounts the parable, the crux of this story is not the Talents, but the relationship between the third “wicked” slave and the landlord.

Often Jesus’ parables have very little dialog between characters, and when there is dialog, it is usually brief and one-sided. This parable is unique in that the third slave not only has a substantial argument with the landlord, but makes several good rhetorical points. The question that Matthew seems to be interested in is not how industrious believers should be, but whether or not the landlord can be trusted.

As I noted earlier, this is a strange setup. Not only are slaves being trusted with enormous sums of money, the idea of investment, banking, and expected returns on land that the owner did not work was somewhat scandalous. While all of these institutions existed in first-century Palestine, the idea of making money from money was frowned upon, especially in the Jewish community. Torah explicitly forbids charging interest on loans (Exodus 22:25–27, Leviticus 25:36–37, Deuteronomy 23:20–21, etc.) to fellow Jews, seeing them as easily predatory, and only reluctantly allowing the charging of interest on “foreigners”. Even among the Gentiles the idea of making money only from interest or strictly from investment was seen as “unnatural”. Philosophers as old as Aristotle argued that money should not beget money, but rather be used for something productive (Politics, 1258b). So when the third slave criticizes the landlord saying “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed…” he makes a good point. The fact that the Landlord meets the slave with harshness, casting him into the outer darkness, the slave’s point seems to be proved.

But is the third slave right? Well Jesus doesn’t make that clear. We don’t know if the slave’s claim that the landlord is an absentee profiteer is true. The landlord is described as “going on a journey” is this the first, or just one of many? Though more importantly, this is an incredibly generous and trusting landlord. Not only is he trusting slaves with kingly wealth, he gives them total freedom to use that wealth in whatever enterprise they see fit. Not only that, and what is most surprising of all for a hierarchical society with practically no social mobility, is that upon his return, the landlord raises up the industrious slaves to equal status. The landlord invites them into his “joy”, implying that they get to keep at least some of the wealth, but more importantly, are given an entirely new social status where they are now equals.

So what are we to make of this parable, and especially that chilling line “he who has, more shall be given, he who has none, more shall be taken away”? Given the context of Matthew, where it is amongst parables about waiting for the Second Coming, and the complex web of cultural context and the character’s relationships, it seems that Matthew expects us to use this parable to meditate on our trust in God. We are being invited to explore the question of what we are to do in the meantime while we know that God’s kingdom is coming.

In the context of trust the supposed “lesson” built into the parable makes some sense. If we think of “he who has more shall be given” strictly in economic or “talent” terms, the lesson contradicts the many other teachings of Jesus about generosity, instead endorsing monopolies and other unjust economic practices. However, if we think of trust, the parable makes more intuitive sense. The reason the slave buries the Talent is because he does not trust. He either does not trust himself to have a successful venture, or he doesn’t trust the banks to not lose the money (in those days, before FDIC insurance, burying money was seen as a “safe” option), though most of all, he does not trust the landlord. But it is because of this lack of trust that he angers the landlord and winds up in the outer darkness.

If we set ourselves to trust, we find more reasons to trust. If we give in to despair or fear, we find more reason to despair and fear. Losing ourselves to that despair or fear is how we throw ourselves into the outer darkness with wailing and gnashing of teeth. In these challenging times remember that your trust in God and faith in humanity was not begotten out of nothing. We have been given Talents of Good News in the Gospels, in the communion of Saints, and the strength, love, and good work done in this parish.

And if you wish to really test your faith in humanity, try playing a round of Monopoly with your friends or family. Though with one small caveat: try playing the original rules. You see the game as first invented by Lizzie Magie back in 1906 under the title Landlords featured two sets of rules for players to play through. The first was Monopoly which is the version we are familiar with today. The second was called Prosperity and was designed around players working collaboratively. Under this set of rules, the game can only be won when all players share the most wealth by trusting in one another.

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