A reflection on Matthew 25:14-30
I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the new radio drama, Serial, hosted by Sarah Koenig and produced by This American Life. It follows Sarah, the host, as she revisits the 15-year old case of Adnan Syed, a young man convicted of killing his former girlfriend in Baltimore, Maryland.
There’s something about bingeing on this series – a series that is daily discovering holes in the case against Syed as it leaves no rock unturned – that has filtered into my exploration of this parable of the talents this week.
And whether it’s the effects of listening to this addictive series, or starting to read alternative interpretations of this parable that come from a more liberating approach, I’m coming to feel as though we’ve closed the case on this parable too early. And this week I’m left wondering if there’s something about the western church’s exercise of dominance and power for the past 1500 years that has domesticated the wildness and boldness of its truth.
Today, as the church is becoming disestablished from its position of power, and as we recognize the importance of the voices we’ve pushed to the margins, I want to suggest that we need to reopen the case of the Third Slave and give it a new hearing.
Much like this podcast to which I’ve become addicted, I’m becoming convinced that the interpretation of the case of the unfaithful slave doesn’t fit together in the way I’ve often heard it explained. Did Adnan Syed kill his girlfriend? Was it Jay, Don, or someone else entirely? Is the third slave really an ungrateful bastard? Are we really supposed to turn our backs on him while celebrating with the others as they climb one more rung of the corporate ladder? And what do we do with the fact that the master is never equated with God, and that this parable, unlike most others, does not start with “the kingdom of God is like…”
That there are a minority of scholars who come to the third slave’s defense shouldn’t be surprising. This parable has, as I suggested earlier, been largely interpreted by people of privilege in a privileged church. And I think there’s something to be said for the comfort that comes from knowing that we’ve got the Right Answer to the Question At Hand. The only problem is that Jesus’ parables often have more twists and turns than we’re comfortable with. That and the fact that we have centuries of stained glass filtering the raw light of the Jesus Way in the ancient near east, as it emerged in the context of an impressive (and oppressive!) Roman empire.
I think it would be easier to say “the parable means what it means,” and yet we’re always caught up in the question of interpretation. How are we to understand this story, and how would Jesus’ original audience have understood it? Are we supposed to be like the first two servants who doubled their talents – or whatever that’s a spiritual stand-in for – or should we act more like the idiot who goes and buries his talents – his entire future – in a field?
Our domesticated reading of this gospel often tells us to go and play the guitar to glorify the Lord (don’t hide that light under a bushel! don’t bury your talents!) or to take risks and secure awesome gains for the sake of the kingdom. Which is fine, except that Jesus makes no mention of the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God in his account. And I’d argue that this is not about that. It’s more about the way the world is than the way it ought to be.
And so we’re forced to confront today’s story about the distribution of ridiculously large sums of money to the master’s powerful household bureaucrats in its context. And part of that context is that the only way to acquire such sums – then as now – is through individual and systemic exploitation.
With that in mind, let’s get back to the story at hand:
“It was is if a rich man, going on a journey, summoned the elite members of his household bureaucracy and entrusted them with his property. To one he gave the equivalent of 100 years’ wages, to another forty, and to another 20. He gave these to each according to his status and power within the household.”
Each of the first two went and doubled their master’s money. All this would have been welcome news at the shareholders’ convention. But out here on the frontier, Jesus weaves his yarn amongst haggard subsistence farmers. These were different sorts of folks, not the kinds you’d find in the capital, but the kind almost wholly consumed with concern for God’s provision of daily bread. Their lives and their anxieties wouldn’t have had much to do with managing gazillion dollar asset portfolios.
As I reflect on this gospel story, wondering where we might find good news (if there is good news to be found at all) I can imagine Jesus building his story, layer upon layer, with his audience hanging on every word. After everything they’d heard about him. After everything this Jesus seemed to be on about – good news for the poor and the oppressed, the sick, the lame, and those stuck in the prisons of debt – where would the story and its teller going to go next?
I can imagine them whispering back and forth, this parable of the talents charged with their own experiences of the Money People and their Ahab and Jezebel shock doctrine playbook. These were people who knew full well that like the biblical story they knew all too well, Naboth loses his vineyard every time. Expropriation was the name of the game, and these were people who would have experienced the visceral trauma triggered by the story’s concluding words: “to all those who have, more will be given…and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
Those were the buzzwords of the encroaching empire. And they’re the buzzwords of our own individualistic, self-seeking culture today. When the third slave enters the scene to prophetically bury the money in a field, Jesus’ audience would have known that this does not bode well for him.
It’s almost as if the third slave is saying in his prophetic act:
Let’s see what your money can do. Yours is a messed up world where you can buy all sorts of things with your money, where you can acquire vast tracts of land for your own gain, all the while throwing others out on the street. But will your money fertilize the plants? Will it help food to grow? Will it provide for everyday folks?
And more than this, at what point will you acknowledge God in this whole scheme? With you, oh harsh and cruel master, it’s all about mine, mine, mine. But do you not know that all of this is gift? Do you not remember the injunction at the Exodus to remember the Lord our God who brought us out of Egypt so that we would not be held captive to this way of being? Do you not remember that we are called not to store up for ourselves treasures on earth – where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal? Do you not remember our story, and the story of the people we’re called to be?
No amount of money – even these vast sums – is any substitute for the long, slow intentional stewardship of creation and cultivation of soil that these subsistence farmers would know all about. A bountiful harvest depends on time, attention, and deeply attuned relationship between farmer, soil and creator. It’s not about the money. Or, as Jessie J put it:
Ain’t about the cha-ching, cha-ching
Ain’t about the ba-bling, ba-bling
wanna make the world dance
Forget about the price tag
The third slave may be prophesying boldly, in fear and trembling, but in so-doing, he’s also relinquishing any of the precarious power and position he’s acquired in his master’s house.
After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
The same pattern is repeated with the second slave, but not, as you can imagine, the third. The master turns to the slave, only to hear the condemning words that push him over the edge:
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
It was easy in the power-infused glory days of the church to read this parable of the talents as one glorifying the first two slaves. It was easy to shake off the third slave’s accusations as the sour grapes of a lazy insolent man. But today, I’m hopeful that we’d have the ears to hear this parable of the talents as it might have been heard in its earliest days.
And to do so, I want to offer this final observation before I invite your own reflections to help complete our sermon.
In next week’s Gospel, we encounter the Son of Man’s at the final judgment. And at that time, when he divides the sheep from the goats, he offers these words:
For I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and in prison, and you came to visit.
If the son of man is to be found hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned – seemingly in the places of weeping and gnashing of teeth – what does that mean for the three slaves? And just a little closer to home, what does that mean for us?