Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest (The Parable of the Talents)

I love our Collect for this morning. It’s a very familiar one, quoted regularly by Episcopalians. And it reminds us of the centrality of the Bible for Anglicans. It encourages us, not only to “hear” the Scriptures read (as we do on Sunday mornings – more Scripture than almost any other Christian denomination as a part of regular worship) — not only to hear them, but we are to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures. I take that to mean that we are to study them!
Like any other work of great literature, the Bible is a demanding set of documents. It is not only a book; it is a library of books. And, in that library, are works of history and law, poetry and song, story and myth, biography and wisdom. And, despite what some fundamentalists might say, the meaning of Scripture is not always completely self-evident to the reader.
Our Gospel today is a perfect example. It’s one of the parables, or stories, of Jesus usually called the “Parable of the Talents.” Again: a very familiar one to us, telling of a wealthy man who tests three of his slaves by giving them various amounts of money to manage in his absence.
The first two double their money and win the master’s approval; the third – fearing that he might lose it all – buries his treasure and can only return to the master what he was given. That incurs the master’s wrath and this servant is thrown out of the village as a punishment…where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Most of us grew up hearing this as a kind of moralistic story encouraging us to make the best use of the talents we’ve been given because, if we don’t, God will be very angry with us. At least that’s how I grew up hearing it. The problem with that is that most of Jesus’ parables are not “moralistic sermons” but open-ended challenges which try to give a glimpse or insight into the Kingdom of God, the kind of world this would be if God really were acknowledged as Sovereign.
The “talent” referred to in the story is intended to get everyone’s attention because it is a “fairy tale” amount of money. A talent of gold weighed about 30 pounds and was worth 6,000 denarii with a single denarius representing a laborer’s daily pay. In modern terms the first slave was given $2 million! Clearly, something other than history is at work here!
Secondly, the master is sometimes seen as God giving out talents to people. But a strange kind of God that would be in this story – described by the servant as “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” The master even agrees with that description of himself. Is this the God Jesus would have us serve?
And finally, the master chastises the third servant for not having at least “invested (his) money with the bankers” so that upon his return he could have received his money back with interest. The problem with that is that we are talking about 1st century Palestine, not 21st century Wall Street. Jews were forbidden to charge, or earn, interest on their money. It was called “usury” and Psalm 15:5 sums up the teaching of the Torah, “do not lend your money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.” So, what’s really going on here?
Well, in a new book entitled “The Power of Parable” by the Roman Catholic biblical scholar, Dominic Crossan, this was a “challenge parable” told by Jesus against the occupying Roman Empire and their practices. He suggests that parables which take us a couple of minutes to read were stories that might have taken Jesus an hour or two to tell. And there would be discussion and debate among his hearers…which was the way Jewish rabbis taught. The people would be challenged to think for themselves and to engage the story from their own lives.
When Jesus originally told the story, he may have been trying to create a debate in the audience between the pro-interest traditions of the Roman Empire with the anti-interest tradition of the Torah. The question he may have been asking was “What about interest and profit? Whose law do you follow? Do you live by the Torah or the practices of Rome? Do you live in a Gentile or Jewish world? Can you do both, or do you have to choose?”
Well, whether you agree with Dom Crossan’s interpretation of this story or not, I share it with you to point out that there is more to the parables of Jesus, indeed more to the entire Bible, than a cursory, first-glance reading might reveal. The meaning of the Bible is not always self-evident, and that is why our Prayer for this Sunday encourages us, not just to “hear” the Lessons read on a Sunday morning and let it go at that, but to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.
That means at least getting hold of a good, modern translation (like the NRSV) which you actually understand and which includes the benefit of the latest archeological and linguistic discoveries in the Middle East. Get an edition with introductions to each book and footnotes to explain some of the context and background. There are inexpensive, paperback editions of the NRSV which do just that – even available through Amazon. I found over 20 used copies each sold for about two bucks – with free shipping if you have Amazon Prime!
Dear friends, many people out there today (and perhaps even some of you in this congregation!) have given up on the Bible. They hear it used and misused, quoted out of context, literalistically understood and often wielded like a weapon to beat up on women and gays and lots of other folks on the margins.
I’m here to tell you that there is another way to read the Bible, a way which is much more consistent with the way the church catholic has historically engaged these texts, than the “modern” 19th century fundamentalism we so often experience. So, beloved (and perhaps especially those of you being confirmed, received, or reaffirming today), don’t just “hear” these sacred words…
Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them.
Study them…because only then will you be able to “hear what the Spirit (may be) saying to the churches!”

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