February 22, 2009

One-Talent People

A few months back, we read the parable of the five talents (Matt. 25:14-30) in my weekly Bible study group and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Jesus tells the story of a master who goes away for a while and entrusts three servants with various amounts of money, one with five talents, another with two, and the last with just one. The first two invest theirs and make a profit so the master rewards them upon his return. The third servant puts his in a hole in the ground and thus can return only what he was given to the master, for which he is punished.

Let me first say that when I was younger, I read all the picture-book Bible stories our church had several times each and this one always stood out to me the most. What does Jesus care about our wealth and why should you get punished for keeping something safe? I’ve since come to appreciate a lesson from this parable, namely, we shouldn’t be hoarding our gifts and talents but using them to build up others.

But what I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is Mr. One Talent, who is often dumped on the dust-heap of bad parable characters, along with the Levite, the unforgiving slave, the unprepared bridesmaids, and so many others. “Don’t be like them,” we are taught to think. I’d prefer to put Mr. One Talent in the group of unfairly-maligned parable characters, along with the prodigal’s older brother and a few others. I’ve realized the position of the one-talent servant probably most closely approximates that of the people I encounter in Itipini.

It’s all about relative position. I don’t like to get in the heads of Bible characters too much but consider Mr. One Talent. He sees his fellow servants getting a significant amount of money and him getting the least of all. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of his trustworthiness or ability, is it? He sees his fellow servants starting businesses and raking in the cash. (In the picture book I read in church, the five-talent servant starts what looks like an import-export business and I remember him ending up with lots of camels.) Perhaps he thinks to himself, “There’s no way I can do what they are doing so I’d better do nothing at all.” We naturally compare ourselves to our peers, I think, and when he did that he would have seen that he was the worst off of the bunch.

Obviously, Mr. One Talent is missing the point. His job was not to replicate what Mr. Five Talent had done but to take what he had been given and do what he could with it. That, surely, is all the master expected of him. But we can understand why he did what he did. He was just too busy thinking of his relative position that he failed to see the possibilities inherent in his absolute position. Even one talent, after all, was still a considerable amount of money.

Are the people in Itipini like Mr. One Talent? The comparison may not stand up to intense scrutiny but there are some similarities. I think many of them have spent a lifetime watching people who seem to be more talented than them be a lot more successful. They see these people in town, on the news, and in the dominant cultural messages. I’ve written before about how I think there’s a disconnect between the cultural idea of “do it for yourself” and the ability to actually do that and I won’t rehash it here but suffice it to say that people in Itipini are aware of their relative position. Perhaps they’ve tried to work their way out of it and failed or perhaps the idea of actually getting out of poverty seems so ludicrous they don’t even want to try. Whatever the reason, on some level I think there is a psychological barrier at work. I see this all the time in scores and scores of ways I won’t list here because each story would take so long to explain.

Just like Mr. One Talent, however, they are overlooking that even their apparently limited talent is actually quite large. At the very core, every person is a unique child of God blessed with certain gifts. That’s not insignificant! The challenge is getting people to look away from what surrounds them and look instead to the magnitude of the gift that lies within. That is not easy, especially when those same people may have already given up hope, allowing their talents to lay fallow deep, deep within them.

I haven’t managed to flesh out this idea as fully as I would like in this post and there’s still a lot I can’t figure out how to say. But at least one implication of this view is that much “development” work, especially when it is meant to be sustainable and community-centric, must necessarily and primarily be psychological. The first challenge is not helping people build a new well or getting them the right medicines. The first challenge is helping them realize the capacity and wonder that lies within them and how that can change their lives. I’m obviously biased here but I don’t see how that sort of work can be done without reference to a Creator God, which means that religious (Christian?) education is a necessary part of even ostensibly secular development.

I once quoted Desmond Tutu saying, “For true reconciliation is a deeply personal mater. It can happen only between persons who assert their own personhood and who acknowledge and respect that of others.” It is relatively easy for me to assert my own personhood because I’ve been raised to think that way. (Asserting it graciously is another matter, mind you). But what if the people we encounter are incapable of expressing their true personhood as God created them? We’ll have to overcome that hurdle before we begin to see reconciliation.


mongomatt said...

Hi Jesse,
This is Matt Goldfield from back in the states. I was just putzing on the internet and found your blog. I've been really enjoying reading it, and as always am very impressed and excited to see what you're up to!

I'd love to get on your email list and start corresponding again (I'll send you an email with mine in it), but for the moment I was wondering if you would expand on the comment you made, "I don’t see how that sort of work can be done without reference to a Creator God, which means that religious (Christian?) education is a necessary part of even ostensibly secular development" ?

It seems like this idea is related to your previous post Check It Out . While it does seem clear that Religion is very capable of helping others find growth and understanding in personal capacity and wonder, I'd be interested to hear how your experiences have lead you to believe it is required for it (if I'm reading your post right).