by Dustin Hite
One of the biggest struggles we often have as we encounter the parables of Jesus is our penchant for assuming a one-to-one correlation between story and meaning. Specifically, we often approach these parables as if they will easily yield their fruit to us for easy application in our lives. Our desire for the kind of return on investment promised by many self-help hucksters will always be thwarted by Jesus, the storyteller. New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine in her book Short Stories by Jesus says it best: “The parables are open-ended in that interpretation will take place in every act of reading…good storytellers adapt their tales to the needs and interests of their audiences.”
This open-ended nature of the parables may cause anxiety for some and yet freedom for others. This is no more true than when we consider one of the most controversial parables Jesus ever shared. It comes from the Gospel of Matthew and deals with a master giving money (or “talents” in some translations) to his servants with no explicit instruction about what to do with them. He goes away for a time during which two of the three servants put their allotted money to work and achieve a return. The other servant buries his allotment in the ground. Only upon the master’s return do we realize he had an expectation that ALL of his servants would achieve a return. When he discovers that the third servant simply hid his money in the ground, he becomes indignant, taking back the money from the servant and giving it to the one who gained the biggest return.
So, what are we to make of this parable? For some, like biblical scholar Ched Myers, the meaning is quite easy to assess. The third servant was actually the one who behaved in line with the values of the kingdom of God, for in the ancient world the kinds of returns the other servants achieved would only be the result of cutting corners, cheating others, and stealing from fellow kinsfolk (something in Jewish culture that would have been scandalous). For others, our Western capitalist context leads us to read this parable as one of two industrious servants achieving returns for their master that were expected, and it challenges us to ask the question of whether or not we are achieving results, not for gains in capital, but rather for the kingdom of God. Each of these interpretive communities sees little room for the reading of the other, and I think that’s to our detriment.
Which one is the correct reading? Well, dare I say, both! In reclaiming a reading strategy that prioritizes the storyteller, we could side with folks in the former group and understand that Jesus’ intent is to call into question our notion of assuming market-driven values (or at least the commiserate values for a first century Palestinian Jew) in an age when those values do not line up with the values of the kingdom of God. For many of us in the heart of the capitalist West, we need to hear this parable with fresh ears and ask how it might be challenging not just our economic values, but our very way of living in the world–considering our rate of consumption outpaces our population drastically. We ought to hear in the words of Jesus a challenge to our hegemonic systems of exploitation and ask ourselves if we can truly “love our neighbor as ourselves” when the very foundation of our economic lives is built on the backs of those whose voice is absent from our decision-making processes.
So the challenge from the position of the reader becomes whether or not we are being stingy with the gospel. Have we so narrowly defined those whom God loves so as to avoid being challenged by those we fear? Is the reason our churches are so racially homogenous because we struggle so mightily to love like Jesus loved? When you approach the parable from this perspective, you realize that each of us must face our basic fears and prejudices. Jesus is challenging us, forcing us to see who we have excluded from the body of Christ.
In closing, I’m reminded of the famous quote by Hannah Arendt: “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” The parables of Jesus are open-ended, and they are so for a purpose…for each of us is given the chance to be challenged, not just once, but many times over again.
Dustin Hite lives in Indianapolis, Indiana and is pastor at Promise Road Campus at Geist Christian Church