"A New Spin on an Old Story" - Matthew 25:14-30
[Jesus said,] “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
The one who had received the five talents, went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
"After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then 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.’ And 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.’ His master replied, ‘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.’
"Then 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; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But 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? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So, take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"
Though I had a sermon written and prepared and ready to go on Thursday this past week, it’s not the one I ended up delivering this Sunday. Late Saturday night I happened upon a Facebook post in the ELCA clergy page – a closed group for pastors - that showed up in my newsfeed. It had a blog attached to it and the status warned, “If you already have your sermon written for Sunday, don’t read this or it will mess with our head.” So, of course, I read it. And it messed with my head.
But I already had a sermon ready and I was determined to preach it.
When I got to church early Sunday morning, that post showed up on my newsfeed again. And I read it again. And it was such good news – and such a different way of understanding Jesus’ parable of the talents, for me – that I couldn’t preach the sermon I had prepared. Instead, I did my best to write another sermon (starting at about 7 a.m. for our 8:30 a. m. worship), and this is what I came up with.
Because this has always been a tough one for me – all because of that bit about the “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For years I’ve preached the way so many have preached and are likely preaching this very day – that this parable is in praise of the way capitalism relates to our practice of faith. Take what God gives you and make more of it. Take God’s blessings and turn them into more blessings – for you and for others and for your Master – and you’ll be blessed in return. Which isn’t all bad. It may not even be all that wrong, in the end, which is why it’s worked, theologically for so many generations.
But the catch comes with the weeping and gnashing of teeth. This isn’t the God I know. This isn’t the God I worship. This isn’t the grace Jesus proclaims in every other way through his life – his healing and teaching and preaching, and more. This isn’t the love of God we see on the cross. And this isn’t the hope that comes to us on the other side of the empty tomb. So how do we make sense of this “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The change for me was obvious and simple, once I read the suggestion that this parable may not be what we call a “kingdom parable.” Like so many other parables of Jesus do, this one doesn’t begin, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” or the “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” And Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a net thrown into the sea, and a treasure hidden in the field, and a merchant in search of fine pearls and all sorts of other things.
But here there is none of that. And I was so glad to see that this week, because then the weeping and the gnashing of teeth may not have to have anything to do with the way of Jesus; the Master in this story may not be God, the creator; the outer darkness may not be some kind of a threat to our eternal salvation.
But than what could it all mean?
It turns out, the reality of the parable Jesus tells still isn’t all that warm and fuzzy. It turns out, that if Jesus isn’t painting a picture of God’s kingdom with this parable, he must be painting a picture of the world as it was for those who were listening to him. And, and usual with Jesus’ teaching, the world as it was is still very much like the world as it is for the likes of you and me.
And sadly then, as we look to find ourselves in the middle of it all, this understanding of the parable means that Jesus is railing against the ways of the world around us and of our misuse of and reliance on money.
See, the Master in the story isn’t “the Lord,” he’s just a man. And he’s a mean, selfish, abusive, greedy man at that. And that changes everything, once we’re allowed to consider him that way. That means that the slaves who please him aren’t to be commended, they’re to be questioned – and pitied. Yes, they take his money and make more of it, but it is by unfair, unfaithful means – and everyone listening in Jesus’ day would have known that.
See, the truth about society and the cultural norm in Jesus’ day – especially for the faithful, Jewish peasant – was that people weren’t upwardly mobile capitalists, like you and me are trained to be. They understood that anyone trying to “get rich quick” or to accumulate inordinate amounts of cash were seen as messing with the equilibrium of the world around them. Whereas we are inclined to look at these first two slaves who doubled their master’s money with admiration and a pat on the back, Jesus and his listeners would have looked at them with suspicion and judgment for likely defrauding someone or lending money with interest, like some sort of tax collector. (And we know how people felt about tax collectors, right?) In fact, the Old Testament scripture of Jesus’ faith is full of warnings and prohibitions against storing up more than you can use, lending money for interest and the like.
So these slaves who “enter into the joy of their master” weren’t entering into the joy of God. They were entering into the joy of someone like Tony Soprano or Marlon Brando’s “Godfather” – this money- grubbing swindler who sends others to do his dirty work; this Master who reaps where he doesn’t sow and who gathers where he doesn’t scatter seed. And, remember, for their work in the end, these slaves were still slaves, after all, being put in charge of more of dealings and dirty work that would have made the average, law-abiding Jew cringe.
And all of this means that the poor sap who buried the money, who didn’t invest wisely, who didn’t make more of what he’d been given, who ends up cast into the outer darkness with the weeping and gnashing of teeth – is actually the hero of Jesus’ story.
This slave bucks the system, as it were. He’s a revolutionary rebel. He might be seen as one of the 98%, to put things in 21st Century language, protesting the elite powers-that-be . With fear and trembling, he stands up to the Master and he refuses to play the money-grubbing mob-boss’ game. He buries his money in the ground rather than try to make more of it by cheating others, by charging interest or by growing wealth just for the sake of growing wealth and – again, with fear and trembling because he knew what the result would be – he returns to the Master the one talent with which he started. Maybe because he simply didn’t want to be that kind of wealthy.
So, what does this have to do with you and me and Cross of Grace and with our lives as followers of Jesus in the world as we know it?
If we understand the parable in this new way, we see Jesus – not as painting a picture of God’s kingdom where dirty deeds, done dirt cheap are praised and rewarded in heaven. But we see this parable as an indictment of the way too much of the world was and is for so many. In that last slave – the one who gets thrown into the outer darkness? – Jesus may even be painting a picture of just what’s about to happen to him soon enough, when he refuses to play the game of the religious and political masters; when he, himself, is handed over to the outer darkness of the cross and crucified.
And here, then, lies our hope and our invitation. We are invited, as ever, to live more like Jesus. When we talk and pray and invite one another to use our money for the good of God’s church in the world, for the sake of the kingdom among us, we are doing nothing more and nothing less than challenging the ways if the world as we know it. We are standing up for generosity in the face of greed. We are choosing to be faithful instead of fearful with our resources. We are trying to figure out what is “enough” in our own lives so that we can help others have “enough” for themselves.
This is hard, holy work, I know. But it’s why faithful stewardship and being mindful about our money and using it as a tool for spiritual growth and worldly service are one of the greatest gifts of the church in the world and one of our greatest blessings as disciples. So, as we make our commitments today and as we share our offerings in the days to come, I hope we see it all as a spiritual discipline that speaks truth to power.
Yes, it will pay the mortgage and reduce our debt and serve lots of people in so many wonderful ways. But even aside from all of that, I hope we see our giving as a way of life that challenges the world’s attempt to convince us that to have more means to be more. I hope our giving releases us from the Master that money and greed and “more” want to be in our lives. And I trust that when we give – with gratitude for what is already ours – that we will be filled with the joy of a different Master – that we’ll be filled with the joy of the Master of grace and mercy and peace and new life – that is Jesus Christ, our Lord.
(You can find a more academic, learned commentary of what I tried to convey, by checking out the blog I mention, here. It was written by Ched Myers and Eric DeBode, in May, 2010.)