Our youngest child finished primary school today. Earlier in the week, I attended his Leavers’ Assembly. The theme was Journeys—physical, emotional, and spiritual, with their years at the school being presented as a journey in each of these senses. At one point, every child said something about their talents or passion, something they had discovered about themselves along the way, something that reflected both their unique make-up and what they had in common with others. It was heart-warming.
And then one of them read out the parable of the talents, from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27 also tells a version of this parable), and my heart sank.
My heart sank because I have heard this parable presented so many times, with the message that God has given each one of us gifts which we should use to the best of our ability. I don’t dispute that this is true. But I don’t believe it is the message of that parable: and when we teach the parable in this way, the deeper message we present is that God is harsh, a self-serving despot, exploitative, prone to anger and violence, quick to view us as worthless if we do not perform for him. Our motivation, then, in relation to God, is rightly fear of judgement, fear of punishment.
If you tell this parable as God giving us gifts, you cannot separate that from the message that our deepest motivation before God should be fear. You just can’t. Children pay attention to everything, understand the implications of what we tell them better than we do: and that is the message our children will hear and store away in their hearts.
And I don’t believe that this is the good news Jesus brings.
Yes, this parable is presented by Matthew as one that tells us something about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. But where is the kingdom of heaven hiding in the parable? We so often jump to conclusions far too quickly; we assume that the parables tend to say the same thing in a variety of ways (so, if God is presented as a king in one parable, every time we come across a king in a parable it must be God) rather than recognising that the parables might tell us many things.
In Luke’s account, Jesus tells this parable as a corrective, on his way to Jerusalem to die, because his followers assumed that the kingdom of heaven was about to arrive—and do so in a triumphalist manner.
I want to suggest that the ruler in this parable is not God, but a description of the way in which earthly rulers operate (per Matthew) and indeed a thinly-veiled dig at Herod (per Luke). The first two slaves make profit for their master, presumably by operating in the same unethical manner he has schooled them in, and are rewarded. This is a description of ‘the world’: that is, the political-militaristic-economic matrix, that invests in us—unequally—and demands a multiplied return, or declares us worthless, even brands us a problem to be eliminated. And it is equally true of right-leaning, centrist, and left-leaning takes on the political-militaristic-economic matrix.
I also want to suggest that the slave who, despite being afraid of the consequences, refuses to play the world’s game, and as a result is thrown outside the city wall, put to death, and allotted a place among the dead where the weeping of the relatives of those put to death never ends, is Jesus speaking of himself.
What this parable says about the nature of the kingdom of heaven is that it resists the unjust ways of the world. Even when it feels like it will make very little difference. Even when to do so comes at great personal cost.
The very opposite of triumphalism.
Hear, then, the parable of the talents: the world invests in you to further its construction of reality, in which the powerful rule over the rest, and your best hope is to advance yourself within the system (though you might not sleep at night, for fear if not for guilt). We all live in that world, but we do not need to be of that world. Another kingdom is present, subverting the world: or, rather, restoring it to how it was meant to be. Removing the resources of injustice, little by little.
Relying instead on the resources that God has, indeed, planted in you. And trusting in God, with whom even death is not the end of our story .
Parables, of course, are not morality tales. The moral of the story is not ‘walk away from what others have invested in you’—in the context of a Leaver’s Assembly, is not, ‘throw away your education’. There is no moral to the story. It is far wider and far more wild and free than any such tale. But it does whisper:
What will you do with what you have been given?
What kind of world will you invest in?
And what kind of world will you refuse to invest in?
Our society is as unjust as it has ever been. We need to sow an alternative imagination in our children . Politics cannot do this. But, I believe, the gospel can.
My prayer for my son, and for his cohort, is this: that as they continue their journey through life, they might see the world for what it is, and see the kingdom hidden in its very midst—and that they might divest themselves of the one, and invest in the other.
 In Matthew’s account, as the story-telling continues, the ‘worthless slave’ returns from the outer darkness as the true Human, appointed judge. The people of the nations are judged according to what they have done to care for ‘the least’ among them. Those who have attended to the needs of the least inherit the kingdom of heaven—only now fully revealed—while those who failed to do so, despite their attempts to justify themselves, find themselves cast out, judged by their own measure and sharing in a punishment never intended for humanity.
 The worthless slave in Jesus’ parable is surely the precursor to the resistance in fictional dystopian republics such as Gilead (The Hand-maid’s Tale) or Panem (The Hunger Games). It is no coincidence that Jesus told stories.