One day our Master went on a mission to a far country, leaving a sum of money with each of us to handle as we saw fit. He gave five talents to Adnam, two to Bishan, and one to me, apportioned to each according to the Master’s unfathomable criteria. Naturally, these vast sums were not for our personal use. We knew perfectly well this was a parable, and He was testing us. The question in my mind was, what exactly was He testing?
Adnam, free of doubts, went straight to the temple forecourt, where the best deals in trade and foreign exchange could be struck, especially if you turned a judicious blind eye to much that was happening around you. Five talents sufficed to make Adnam a major player in several lucrative ventures at once: lending cash to prodigals at a wickedly advantageous rate of interest; acquiring cheaply (and selling dearly) loads of skins, amphorae, and olives that fell off the back of a series of oxcarts; buying into a rather clever scam aimed at Samaritans in town to sacrifice at the temple; acquiring shares in vineyards using sweated labour, the desperate unemployed who hang around the marketplace. Even accounting for bribes and the retainer for Caleb Crushnuts, his truly fearsome enforcer, Adnam was able to double the Master’s investment by the time the Master was expected home.
Bishan’s two-talent stake gave him less latitude, but was enough to start him off nicely in the loan collection business. For a modest outlay he could buy up mortgages, say, or business loans in arrears, which some busy moneylender did not want the bother of pursuing; and then Bishan would pursue them with great vigour. He dealt with widows and orphans, mainly, but also with small tradesmen or market gardeners who were struggling to keep up with payments on top of taxes and feeding large families. He liked dealing with them because they were motivated. Nobody ever gave him much trouble, since he shared Caleb Crushnuts’ services with Adnam, another prudent use of the Master’s start-up funds. He managed to pull in quite a tidy profit just on the interest from the loans. Whenever he found himself forced to foreclose on some hapless debtor, he had a cosy arrangement with several real estate and secondhand merchants at the temple, more business contacts made through Adnam. Bishan, too, doubled his investment while the Master was away.
As for me, the Master had entrusted me with only one talent, no doubt an accurate quantitative statement of His faith in me, though still a fair sum. Alas, I do not have the heart for business. In the end I simply buried the talent in a safe place and waited for the Master’s return. I was gambling that it was our ethics He was testing, that He would scorn a fortune built on the backs of the poor, despise the thought of fattening on the labours of others. This is what I was hoping He would say to me: well done, thou good and faithful servant. Was He not, after all, the same Master who told us to take no thought for the future, that our Father in Heaven would provide for all our needs? That treasures laid up on Earth were dross and corruption, the natural prey of thieves, moths, and rust? That only the intangible treasures laid up in Heaven were worth having? You bet he was.
Adnam and Bishan warned me: it’s a ruddy parable, they said to me, the cash is an analog, the treasure is symbolic of souls won for Heaven, or something along those lines. Maybe so, said I, but in that case wasn’t the Master sending out rather mixed signals? By this time I had made contact with characters from a few other parables, and what I uncovered was at least confusing, more often disturbing.
There was the Unjust Steward from Luke 16, for example, who sucked up to the Master’s debtors by helping them falsify their bills. Was that supposed to be an admirable act? Apparently so, since it received the Master’s own nod of approval.
Then there was the vineyard owner from Matthew 20, a self-righteous exploitative snot who paid the same pitiful wages both to the labourers who slaved all day in the hot sun, and those who swanned in at the eleventh hour. I could see the point the Master was making, but it still struck me as unfair, not to mention rather strange economics.
I got an earful from the poor beggar who was, with no warning, yanked off the street to be a wedding guest, and then cast into outer darkness for being improperly dressed; while if I wanted to be reminded what true bitterness was, I just had to drop in on the Prodigal Son’s brother. Oh yes, I was confused. Half a dozen times, I considered grubbing up the damned talent in order to do some hasty investing before the Master came home. In the end I left it harmlessly buried, and if I was not a success in the marketplace, neither was I stalked about the streets by vengeful Samaritans or reproachful widows.
In due course the Master came home, loaded down with strange spices, perfumes of the exotic East, and souvenir ziggurats stamped “Made in Babylon” on their undersides. My colleagues and I gathered in the courtyard to greet Him, Adnam and Bishan both leading strings of talent-laden donkeys, myself with one donkey and the dirt still on my hands from digging. I was about to find out whether I’d gambled on the right side of the coin.
Adnam stepped up first and said, “Lo, Master, here’s the fiver you gave me, and another fiver on top.”
The Master, looking impressed, counted the donkeys and slit one sack open to lick his lips over the cascade of Tyrian shekels. He said, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” which I took as a pretty clear indication as to how this parable was going to come out. O Lord, said I, but not aloud, not yet.
The Master continued to Adnam, “Since you’ve proven yourself with this paltry sum, dear boy, I’m going to put you into the big time. Rejoice, for your portion shall be the import license for strange spices, on which you shall surely clean up.”
And Adnam rejoiced, looking so pleased with himself that I wanted to kick him.
Then the Master turned to Bishan, who waved with similar shining confidence towards his cluster of four heavily burdened donkeys; and Bishan said, “You left me in charge of two talents, Lord, and lo! I am giving you back four.”
The Master whistled appreciatively and replied, “Lo indeed, and well done to you, too, good and faithful servant. Your portion shall be the import license for exotic perfumes from the East, which I understand are very hot commodities right now.”
And Bishan, the smug sod, also rejoiced.
Then the Master turned to me, not looking expectant, exactly, because his expectations of me could not have been very high. He said, “All right, bubba, your turn. Show me my money.”
So I swallowed hard, and handed Him the reins of my single donkey. He lifted His eyebrows at the one sack slung across its back, and prodded it, and then He looked coldly at me.
“Well?” He said.
I must admit, I rather lost my head at that point. The sight of the other fourteen donkeys standing patiently in the courtyard got to me suddenly, staggering as they were under a dead weight of shekels. Each of those bags of profit, to my sure knowledge, was the distillation of widows’ tears, orphans’ blood, and the sweat of starving labourers.
I looked the Master straight in the eye, and I said, “You are a hard man, aren’t you, Lord? You reap where you did not sow, you gather where you did not straw. Well, too bloody bad. Here’s your money back, all of it. I buried the talent in the ground so I could return it to you intact, and now I wish you joy of it.” And I turned away, hoping that if I just strode confidently out of the courtyard He might let me go. It was a vain and stupid hope.
“Not so fast, boyo,” He said. “If you knew I was such a hard man, you should have known what to do with all that cash. What do you think the moneychangers in My temple are for, eh? Well, let Me tell you exactly what you’ve lost here. First off, I’m going to give that one miserable talent of yours to Adnam, because he deserves it more than you do, you slothful moron; and I’m also going to give him the import license for souvenir Babylonian ziggurats, which otherwise would have been yours, because to every one that hath—“
“—shall be given, at the expense of the have-nots,” I finished for Him.
“Damn right,” He said, unimpressed, “and now you have nothing. By the way,” He added, “did you really imagine you could second-guess Me? Didn’t you realize the message is meant to be mixed? I’m the Master. I don’t have to be consistent. In fact, I’ve set up the parables to be impenetrable, so only a few listeners will get past them, and the rest will reject Me. And then My Father and I will condemn the unbelievers to outer darkness, which is exactly where you’re headed, bubba.” And He called on the ever-useful Caleb Crushnuts to cart me away and throw me into the aforementioned outer darkness.
Now I share a small patch of perdition with some other Bad Examples from the parables: the unready servant, the five foolish virgins, the man who built his house upon the sand. A fig tree grows here, but it is barren. A mustard seed has taken root, but what it has grown into could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a tree. There are tares, of course, plenty of them, and a mysteriously large flock of goats, but otherwise our surroundings are grim. When we are not too busy weeping and gnashing our teeth, we sometimes look across the great gulf fixed between us and the Good Examples, and we spit in their direction, thinking: You bastards. There, but for the grace of God, go I.