Misinterpretation 101

open-bibleAt one time in my life I believed that the manipulation of scripture for selfish purposes was the distinct purview of fundamentalist religions. I recently found out that it’s not limited to fundamentalists, at least as most of us define them. The Bible certainly has its fair share of obscure stories and confusing riddles that hardly seem to relate to life in the 21st century. Other stories and parables, however; are quite clear. For example, the parable of the talents. Here’s a recap if your biblical scholarship is as rusty as some I’ve recently heard offered up:

14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 

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In this story Jesus is highlighting talents, or gifts, skills and abilities. The master goes away, presumably for a long trip, and leaves 3 servants with five, two and a single talent. A talent is an amount equal to a good bit of silver, in ancient terms so we can think of these talents as money.

The master entrusts the 3 servants with money, “each according to his ability”, which suggests that the one that only received 1 talent hadn’t proved that he could handle much more (a point worth remembering). In this scripture, it’s clear that the talents are not gifts for the servants to use as they see fit, but are investments that belong to the master. When the master returns, the servant who was given the 5 talents had “invested”, or traded them and earned double, rendering 10 talents back to the master. Similarly the servant given the 2 talents made good on his gifts and returned to the master 4 talents – doubling the initial amount.

The servant who gets in trouble is the one who basically said, “I’ll keep it safe for the master, but I’m not interested in doing any work to make it grow.” In other words, I won’t steal it, but I’m not interested in working to make it any larger, either.

Many interpretations of this particular parable use the 3rd servant’s example to highlight laziness, and indeed in the example above (from the English Standard Version) the term “slothful” is used to describe the servant who basically buried the talent and went about his business (not the master’s business).  The third servant tries to bargain with his angry master, offering several excuses: he was afraid (“I knew you to be a hard man ,…”) and he suggests that it should be OK since at least he didn’t lose the original talent (“I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours”).

So, in modern parlance, what is this parable saying?

The master in Christian interpretation is always viewed as Jesus and the work done by the 2 servants always seen as using one’s gifts for the glory of God. In less strict religious terms, a similar interpretation could be that the natural talents and the abundance we have demonstrated through Spirit expressing in and as each one of us represents the talents, and the master is simply our higher consciousness. If we live in gratitude and embrace the abundance that is offered to us without limit, and employ that abundance in living greater we will be rewarded with even more abundance. If, however; we take the bounty we are given and bury it, or hoard it for safe-keeping, we are in essence denying the Truth that we are always provided. We are paying lip service to “God is our Source” and hiding our talent (abundance) because we’re not sure if we’ll ever get any more.

It is for this reason that the parable ends with verse 29: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” **

When we live in the knowledge that God is our Source, and that we are always provided, we don’t have to cling to the little that we have; we don’t have to be stingy with our time, our money or live a miserly and fear-based life. We know (KNOW!) that we are provided, always and in all ways. BUT, if we stray from the knowledge of that Truth and believe that we are the ones in control and that we need to micro-manage the little that we have, else it will disappear… it is as good as gone. “…even what he has will be taken away.”

The final verse of that passage, verse 30 ends with an ominous tone: “And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The visual of  hell and eternal damnation is not what I see in this last statement. If the kingdom of heaven is within us, then indeed the outer darkness exists within as well. When we live in fear, doubt and worry about being provided for, and our actions are those that serve only ourselves – for the reasons noted (fear, lacking or misguided faith), then we are creating our own darkness. This darkness is the out-picturing of what we are creating with our actions. While we foolishly try to convince ourselves that “I don’t need to do any more” or “at least I’m conserving what I have,…”, the bounty of life unfolds to those who are meeting life halfway; those who are getting out and trading in the market of today – not hiding something from the past to keep it safe. The wailing and gnashing of teeth we will hear is not of demons in some infernal cave, but the misery we create right here and right now by living in lack, due entirely to our own actions/inactions, lack of faith and unwillingness to do the work with the 1 talent we have been given.

So, what will you do with the talents you have been given? Will you “show up” and prove that you’re ready for more so that the next time “the master leaves you in charge of his talents”, more is provided to you on account of your proven increase in ability? Will you roll up your sleeves and go into the market to trade them, whereupon you will be given even more? Or will you dig a hole in the ground, and cling desperately to that original talent, believing that as long as you hold on to that 1 talent, you’ll be OK; fearing any travails into the marketplace that might result in you trading that old talent for 2 new ones?

This parable is one of my favorites, whether from a Christian or New Thought perspective. It’s straightforward and relevant regardless of the circumstance or century. And so it is.

 

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** if someone has used this verse to admonish you from “giving to need” feel free to ignore their counsel. It’s clear that this is not what it (the verse) means. When it comes to giving, I encourage you to think for yourself and follow your heart. Stay tuned for more on what the Bible really says about giving to the poor (it might surprise you…)  –> coming soon to this blog site!

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