Matthew 25:14-30 November 19, 2014
Rev. David J. Clark
This is one of the more tricky passages of the New Testament to figure out. A master has three slaves, and before going away for a long time, he gives each of the slaves some money according to their status in the household. I always felt sorry for the poor guy with his one puny talent until I learned that a talent isn’t a natural ability, but a unit of money and one talent was equivalent to 15 years wages. One slave received 5 talents, another 3, and the other one received one. In today’s wages it would be $3,700,000; $1,500,000 and $750,000. Eventually, the master returns and settles accounts. The men who had the 5 and 3 talents both doubled the money and the master was very proud of them and rewarded them with even more responsibility. You have been faithful in little things, I will put you in charge of much.
The man who had 1 talent says, “Here’s your talent.” The master is outraged, “What’s this? Why didn’t you invest this with the bankers and double my money?” He said, I knew you were cruel, reaping where you did not sow, so I did nothing. The master says, “You knew I was harsh did you? I’ll show you! Throw him into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Traditionally we’ve assumed this is an allegory that talks about how we will be held accountable for what we did with all the money, natural abilities and time that Jesus has entrusted to us. When Jesus returns we will be judged according to what we did with our abilities. If God gave you a brilliant mind and you only used it for your own selfish purposes, then you will have to account for it. If God gave you the gift of compassion and you only sat around and nursed your own grudges, then God will not be pleased. If you are given the gift of listening and you actually listened to people in need instead of gossip; or if God gave you the ability to pray and you prayed for something outside of yourself, then God will reward you.
I’ve been part of stewardship programs that have taken this passage seriously and the church gave people money. They said, here is 5, 10 or even $100. Invest it or make a craft project with it or buy seeds and plant a garden and sell the produce, whatever you want. If you just need the money, for your use, then keep it. Do whatever and watch how God multiplies the effort—it’s amazing, fun and makes the parable come alive.
The 1 talent servant reminds us of the importance of taking risks in faith; he did not risk his talent, so he gets sent to the outer darkness. That makes sense: if you are going to buy into this whole Jesus thing, you’re going to risk looking like a fool, you with your belief in a better world, you with your sacrificing time, talent and treasure without demanding returns. Just about anything worthwhile in life is going to take a measure of risk and you wind up like the 1 talent man who lived his life in fear of the cruel master who reaps where he does not sow.
There are so many points and life lessons that we can derive out of the traditional interpretation that it boggles the mind. Millions of sermons, thousands of books and much good has come out of the traditional interpretation.
But, there are some things that just don’t add up. If Jesus is talking about himself as the master who gives the gifts and will demand an accounting when he returns, then why does he describe himself as “cruel” and as a thief who “reaps where he does not sow.’’ In the parable, the master never denies the charge. Is that how Jesus really sees himself? If so, it seems to be at odds with everything else he says and does. Wasn’t it Jesus who said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy?” Didn’t he teach us that God is loving and forgiving?
How we think about God is important. If we assume God is cruel and has a finger on the giant zap button in the sky, we will shrink back and live out of fear rather than gratitude. If we assume God is violent, capricious and hostile, we find ways of incorporating those traits into our lives, too. What is your image of the divine? How does it shape your life and faith?
The second odd thing about the parable is that the master tells the one talent servant, “You should have invested the money with the bankers.” What’s odd about that? It’s good advice; it’s what we’ve been taught to do our whole lives. But this was a different age and time. The Old Testament commands against the principle of usury or charging interest for money. The scriptures indicate that upon being entrusted with money like this, the man literally was supposed to do what the man in the story did—bury it.
Some of the most respected biblical scholars scratch their heads on this too, and say that maybe something else is going on that we haven’t seen when we don’t put the message into the context of what was going on in the lives of the people Jesus was originally talking to. The fact is that the economic situation of Palestine where Jesus was preaching was filled with masters who had indentured servants. They were trying to work off debt by farming their own land. The economic system was corrupt and kept people in a cycle of dependency on the bankers and the landlords. Interest rates were about 60-200% and the land was given as collateral, once there was a bad year, the investors foreclosed on the land and accumulated great expanses of land. What happened to the servants who produced great sums for the landlord? They were promoted and rewarded. It’s like the Donald Trump reality show where people were given some resources and whoever produced the best went on to the next round and those who didn’t were “fired.”
The economy in the time of Jesus was one that exploits the poor and keeps poor people trapped in a cycle of dependency under a corrupt banking system.
Jesus wasn’t criticizing capitalism. It wasn’t invented yet, so that would be impossible. But I do believe he was criticizing exploitation. And saying that we shouldn’t participate in systems that exploit people. Maybe for us it means for us to make sure that we don’t do business with predatory lenders, that we pay attention to the ways our funds are invested, and even how what products we choose to buy.
One pastor got in trouble with some of the women in her church because they had a program night where a speaker presented a program on human how much of the world’s chocolate is produced in the Ivory Coast and children are kidnapped from other countries so they can be sold to the cocoa bean producers. Some women complained against their pastor for upsetting their nice little evening with disturbing images. I don’t know what they expected when they went to a program on human trafficking. One said “I don’t come to church functions to feel bad.” Fortunately, most of the women came away from the program disturbed, but grateful for having their consciousness widened and vowing to research the companies they purchase from and look into fair trade products like we offer here. Maybe that’s the kind of thing this passage urges us to do.
What if Jesus intended the hero of the story to be the man with one talent because he has integrity; he refuses to participate in the corrupt system. When the master returns, he turns into a whistle blower, pointing out the corruption of the system and the theft by the wealthy from the poor—you reap where you do not sow.
What if the master is the bad guy (Jesus never said that we should believe that he was the master in the parable). When the whistle is blown, he punishes the servant. This is nothing new. We have whistle blower laws implemented in our country today and they are fairly recent because that is how corruption thrives. It intimidates others into silence.
The poor servant is cast into the outer darkness. He is rejected. In fact, this is exactly what happened to Jesus when he stood up against the corruption of both the economic and religious systems of his day and they took him to the cross and the sky turned black and then they cast him into a dark and cold tomb.
Jesus had integrity and you must have integrity, too. That seems to be the message. But you should know that the powers of this world will not look kindly and there will be a price to pay—maybe your own life. Jesus wasn’t playing around when he said, “Blessed are you when you are reviled and persecuted.” Jesus said there is a great cost of being a disciple, “Those who would follow me must be willing to pick up their cross and follow me.”
But where is the good news in this passage? The parable of the sheep and goats that Jesus tells right after this one we find that Jesus is with those who are outcast and suffering. You are not left alone. There will be folks who support and reach out to you. When you help someone who is suffering, when you help the least and lost, when you help those who are in the darkness, you are helping Christ. And you will be rewarded for your faithfulness.
Here is the good news, that should you stand up with integrity and blow the whistle against what is wrong around you, then you will not be abandoned, there will be a church who responds to you. The good news is Christ sends his church to be with the people in darkness and pain.
No matter if you go with the traditional or newer interpretations of the parable, we wind up at the same place. Being a person of faith is risky. You have to risk using your talents for God’s glory and you have to risk being a person of integrity and standing up for what is right no matter what it may cost you.
And ultimately, our risk taking for God’s kingdom has to be on the side of those who are the least and lost of Christ’s brothers and sisters. We have to risk ourselves in providing acts of justice and mercy. We have to risk looking like the fool. We have to give of ourselves to find Christ’s presence and love in our lives. The one thing that is clear, is that there is no room for playing it safe and sitting on the fence. If that is you, jump off and get in the action. Amen.