Life as conversation
“For 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 – NRSV)
This rather long parable in Matthew has a resemblance to a much shorter parable in Mark – see Mark 13:34-37. However, Matthew uses substantial material – perhaps from another version of the parable? – that Mark does not have: “It looks as if Matthew does not use Mk. 13:33–37 because he has a more developed parable that he wants to use that will parallel its primary features, notably a master going away from home who sets tasks for his slaves and is expected back later.” (J Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text, Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005, 1013.)
We also find a somewhat similar parable in Luke – see Luke 19:11-27.
“The parable of the talents (Matt 25:14–30) is the third in a series of parables dealing with the proper attitude to and behavior in the face of the coming Son of Man.* It recommends responsible activity in this situation. Its emphasis is on positive action as opposed to fearful and/or lazy inactivity. There are obvious parallels with the parable of the pounds in Luke 19:11–27, though the precise relationship remains a controverted matter.” (Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 353.)
*The other two parables in this series are the parable of the conscientious steward (24:45-51) and the parable of the bridesmaids (25:1-13).
Although, on the face of it, this parable looks like a straight forward reward and punishment story – perhaps more of an allegory than a parable therefore – N T Wright reminds us of the overwhelming thrust of the Gospels that make such an interpretation inappropriate: “(T)he whole of Jesus’ ministry should make us protest against such a view of Christianity, of the gospel, of God himself. Jesus declared that he had come to call, not the righteous, but sinners. He had come, he said, to seek and to save the lost. He warned the scribes and Pharisees that the tax-collectors and prostitutes—who would have failed any examination that the Judaism of their day would have set!—would be going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of them. And he spent what in Matthew is an entire chapter (23) telling the self-appointed leaders of the Jewish people how dangerous it was simply to think of things in terms of all the rules they had to try to keep.” (N T Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28, London: SPCK, 2004, 136-137.)
The American writer, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) has a short story that I think qualifies as a parable to illustrate N T Wright’s point. Flannery O’Connor lived in Georgia and all her characters and stories are grounded in what she experienced in the deep-South of the United States. One theme that particularly fascinated her was that of hypocrisy – the hypocrisy of self-righteous “Christians” in particular. This hypocrisy was then revealed through some kind of crisis.
The main character in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Revelation”, is Mrs Turpin. She and her husband Claud have a small hog farm. Mrs Turpin is a simple, bossy, big, deep-South, country woman who claims a degree of righteousness that those around her – in her opinion – clearly lack.
We meet her in the doctor’s surgery where she has taken Claud. Much of the story is a private and very judgmental commentary by Mrs Turpin, on everyone and everything. A particular object of her judgment is a truculent young girl in the surgery, who ends up attacking her, saying as she does so, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” With the kind of insight that is reserved for the very simple and the very disturbed, the girl has seen through Mrs Turpin and insulted her in the worst way possible. She feels utterly devastated.
After she has returned home to the hog farm, the humiliated Mrs Turpin is standing on the rails of the hog pen and she has a vision. The vision emerges from the earthy realism of the old hog feeding her young. It is as if an utterly mundane experience of nature lifts the fog of socialisation from Mrs Turpin’s consciousness and she sees life – herself and Claud included – as she has never seen it before:
“ … like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs. They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.
“Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls was rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.” (“Revelation” in Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, 508-9. In a letter to Cecil Dawkins, June 19 1957, Flannery O’Connor wrote: “It’s not a matter in these stories of Do Unto Others. That can be found in any ethical culture series. It is the fact of the Word made flesh.” (In Sally Fitzgerald, editor, The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979, 227.)
For it is as if a man: Matthew does not say explicitly that this is a parable about the kingdom. However, the context demands that we read it that way. This “man” is obviously a person of some wealth. Although the Greek word doulous – literally meaning “slaves” – is used here, they have authority to handle money and make agreements on behalf of the “man” suggesting that they have some kind of trusted place in his organization. “One would normally make investment arrangements for a period of absence in other ways; these slaves are being treated with particular distinction.” (J Nolland, op cit, 1014.)
he entrusted his property to them: Perhaps the “man” is following best practice here and giving some of his better “slaves” a chance to prove themselves and thus become more significant players in the organization? “Though most slaves lived fairly servile lives, able slaves at times became major players in the educational, economic, and political spheres. As will become clear, the slaves of our story are being groomed for important roles.” (Ibid.)
five talents: It is impossible to calculate accurately the precise equivalent in today’s currency. However, it is clearly a lot of money. “Five talents is a substantial amount of money: it would have employed a hundred day labourers for about a year. A serious engagement in business would be possible with any of the three amounts.” (Ibid.) The money is “handed over” rather than “given”. The “slaves” are expected to engage in commerce on behalf of the “man”. The “talents” are distributed “to each according to his ability” – an original touch in Matthew.
To live is to participate in a certain world of people, events and things – “each according to his/her ability”. From birth, that participation is more or less facilitated or obstructed by events beyond our control. It is also facilitated and obstructed by decisions somewhat within our control. The aim is neither submission nor domination. It is an engagement. We might compare it to the way good conversation unfolds.
The English word ‘conversation’ has its roots in two Latin verbs: conversari, meaning to ‘dwell’, ‘keep company with’ or ‘abide’, and convertere, meaning to ‘change’, ‘convert’, ‘alter’, ‘refresh’ or ‘turn’. Both Latin verbs bring something essential to our understanding of good conversation. Conversari suggests that we should take time, be willing to wait upon the moment and listen without prejudice. It invites patience, care, humility, sensitivity, courage and respect. Good conversation is an act and experience of love. Convertere suggests that we should see the engagement with people events and things as an opportunity for personal transformation. Willingness to change through that encounter may be the single most important thing in good conversation.
A modern German philosopher reflects on the meaning of good conversation: “We say that we ‘conduct’ a conversation, but the more genuine a conversation is, the less its conduct lies within the will of either partner. Thus a genuine conversation is never the one that we wanted to conduct. Rather, it is generally more correct to say that we fall into conversation, or even that we become involved in it. The way one word follows another, with the conversation taking its own twists and reaching its own conclusion, may well be conducted in some way, but the partners conversing are far less the leaders of it than the led. No one knows in advance what will ‘come out’ of a conversation. Understanding or its failure is like an event that happens to us. Thus we can say that something was a good conversation or that it was ill-fated. All this shows that a conversation has a spirit of its own, and that the language in which it is conducted bears its own truth within it – ie that it allows something to ‘emerge’ which henceforth exists.” (Hans-Georg Gadamer Truth and Method (Second Revised Edition), trans revised by Joel Weisheimer and Donald G Marshall, Crossroad, 1989, 383.) Good conversation is like living, living is like good conversation.
Today’s parable of the talents – Matthew 25:14-30 – helps us to see how the way of good conversation epitomizes good living. The ‘man’ in the parable expects his servants to participate, to engage, each according to his talents. When we hear the third man say he dug a hole and buried the ‘talent’, our hearts sink. What a waste! Out of fear the servant does not engage with the possibilities before him. He chooses not to become part of the conversation that is his life.