Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
Jesus tells a parable about his second coming, indicating that it is not sufficient merely to maintain things as they are. Those who await his return should make good use of the gifts that God has provided them.
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then 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.’
21His 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.’
22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His 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.’ 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ”
The traditional interpretation is to assume that any parable with a king, a landowner, or a man on a journey leaving slaves behind is automatically a parable about features God as the protagonist male authority figure. With this traditional interpretation in mind, even before a preacher utters a single word, everyone in the room has heard Jesus come before us in the gospel and berate us for being lazy and wicked.
Matthew’s Gospel is urging us to be watchful in preparation for the day of the Lord’s Coming. The problem, as others point out, is that this landowner doesn’t seem like much of a candidate to serve as allegory for this Lord – with his cold-hearted approach to business, and violent response to what some would call prudent financial management in uncertain times. This master is not the God I know.
How you interpret a parable has a lot to do with how you understand who God is and who Jesus is. And if there’s one trick to reading parables is that there’s not one right interpretation – but there is always a catch. A moment the parable makes you stop and think, be surprised and perhaps see yourself.
Here’s my shameless plug to attend Seminarian Lindsie’s adult discussion group on Advent, based on a great book by New Testament scholar, Amy Jill Levine. In her book on the difficult parables of Jesus, Levine asks us to consider what parables “do” rather than what they “mean.” What is this parable doing? Right here in the story line about the good news of Jesus Christ. What’s it doing? What’s its purpose?
I see this story as a continuation of the previous parable, and an example of why it’s important to “Keep Awake”. In the previous parable, the five girls who don’t have enough oil ask for the other five with oil to share, and the five with oil refuse. But why? When the rest of the Gospel screams “GIVE IT AWAY!” I think today’s parable answers why they won’t share, and the answer is sobering: those who have more will always keep it to themselves and seek to accumulate more.
The story of the bridesmaids and the story of the slaves and talents is only the prelude and the back story to the parable of the sheep and goats coming up next week. What if the parable is not about a punishing God at all? What if it’s about us? What if it’s about life on earth as it is, here and now? What if it’s about OUR broken systems of justice and wealth?
It is key to know there was no upward mobility in 1st century Mediterranean culture . No opportunities to buy stock in your company and start your investment portfolio young. No changing your social status. No free public education, or scholarships, to follow your dreams. If your father was a farmer, there’s no way you are going to be a doctor.
In the thinking of that time, wealth was already all distributed – and if you made money off someone else, you were literally taking money away from someone. Honorable people didn’t try to get more for themselves, only the dishonorable would risk that absurd amount of money and would likely be thought of as thieves.
But how did the elite amass that kind of wealth? They aren’t investing it in the stock market. They lent money to the farming poor at exorbitant interest, and systematically stripped those debtors of their land. Those who owed a debt would be thrown in jail until they could pay, and how are you supposed to earn money to make payments from jail?
The story depicts a system of economic exploitation. In a culture and society that views everything, from money to goods to honor, as a zero-sum game, one cannot get richer or gain more honor unless it is taken from someone else. In this interpretation, the third slave is then the one with honor. He recognizes this system of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. He recognizes the cheating and thieving that happens and knows the character of the master and makes a choice to not participate in the system at all.
All of Jesus teachings about the End Times leads to next week’s sheep and goats parable, starting at the beginning of Matthew 24. Jesus tells his disciples the end is coming, using the destruction of the temple as an example. And when they say, tell us when this will happen – he warns them of false teachers and all sorts of signs that are not the end, but just the beginning, like birth pangs. He tells them they’ll be handed over and hated too, and things will look very bleak, but the good news will still be proclaimed. They need to stay alert and watchful for signs, but no one knows when but the Father. Be ready and keep doing the work you are called to, preparing yourself and preparing your heart for his coming.
But if you don’t prepare, you’re like bridesmaids whose sole job in life is to be ready for the bride and bridegroom and welcome them and celebrate them. No one will share their preparations because the inclination of people is every man for themselves. Or in the bridesmaid’s case, every woman for themselves. But even if people have more than enough, they will seek to make more, have more, and exploit more in their greed.
But at the end of that long section, the parable of the sheep and the goats finally tells them WHAT their work is supposed to be while they wait (25:31-46). These entire two chapters are one long speech without interruption, all with one theme. The end is coming, here is how you know; be ready, and here’s how you get ready. You’ve seen what happens at the coming of the bridegroom and the return of greedy landowner. Now Jesus will tell you about the coming of the Son of Man.
Taking this parable by itself, Does the God you worship participate in this system? Based on your reading of scripture does God act like this and join in with those who would abuse the poor and privilege the rich? This is not the God I know, nor the Jesus I know. What if this is a parable about our complicity? A parable about opting out of systems of oppression and exploitation — even and especially when we are accustomed to benefiting from such systems. A parable about the rejection, impoverishment, and loneliness we might suffer if we take seriously the call of God.
Does the work sound too difficult? Too risky? Does this interpretation of the parable “do” too much — provoke too much? Prod too hard? Maybe. But consider this: Jesus asks nothing of us that he has not done himself. Just days after telling this parable, he was “cast into the outer darkness” of crucifixion, torment, and death. Like the third slave, he was deemed “worthless” and expendable by the people who wielded power and influence in his day. Like the third slave’s costly talent, he was buried in a rock-hewn tomb. But reversal is yet to come – the catch comes 3 days later – when the whole system is turned on its head. Amen