Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ten Talents and What God Says...

I relied heavily on the scholarship and insight of Sarah Dylan Breuer and Mark Sandlin this week. Though I do take the latter to task a bit in this sermon, I really appreciate his words and his insight.

And apropos of nothing at all, here's some really cool music:

MATTHEW 25:14-30
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 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.’ 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.’”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I am absolutely convinced that a parable is never, ever one thing. Not when it comes from the mouth of Jesus, anyway.

The classic interpretation of this parable focuses on the third servant's – slave's – unwillingness to use what he has been given in a productive way. The idea that the man who has gone on a long journey, whose return was a long time in coming, and who reviewed the performance of those he had left behind, is a representation of Jesus at the end of time is unavoidable.

And, I mean, it works. I've preached it that way, right here, three years ago.

I suggested, back then, that the real error in what the third slave did went deeper than just burying money... because of course the parable isn't really about money, and it isn't really about special skills or abilities that (thanks to this parable) have come to be called “talents,” only as soon as I say that, I realize that I and everyone else I can recall preaching on this parable from this interpretation ends up talking about money and talents in some manner, but I digress.

Anyway, I noted that in the next pericope, when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, the criteria he uses to divide the groups is whether they fed him when he was hungry. When he was thirsty, did they give him anything to drink? Was he shown hospitality as a stranger, or clothed when he was naked? When he was sick, when he was imprisoned, did they visit him? In the economy of the Kingdom of God, these are the investments that yield the return the Master is truly interested in.

In the common interpretation of the Parable of the Talents, if that third slave had been around today, he would have been the person who was all about making sure his needs were met, he was comfortable, had a reliable retirement strategy and a nice car, decent clothes and plenty of food. He would have fretted about giving money to a homeless person, because they may spend it on booze. He would have relied on government agencies or nonprofit organizations to provide assistance with rent and utilities, all the time complaining about those agencies and organizations, and never actually daring to face the needy on his own. They might be lying, after all. They may cheat him. Worse, once you start caring, once you start giving, once you answer that phone, well, where does it stop? What if there isn’t enough left for the bills?

That third slave would have buried himself in his work, and in his activities, and played it safe, and probably would have been pretty respectable in everyone else’s eyes.

But playing it safe never changed anything.

Ultimately, the Parable of the Talents is about being present. About doing the things that need to be done without fear, with the same extravagant, joyful abandon with which God has lavished grace and love upon us. The point of the parable was not whether the slaves had been given six hundred thousand dollars, or one point two million dollars, or three million dollars, or twelve dollars and a rusty bucket. What interested the traveler upon his return was, what had they done with it?

And what will we do with what we have been given? Bury it, or broadcast it? Playing it safe makes sense, especially in this day and age. It is rational to be afraid. To be uncertain. We might mess up. We might do the wrong thing. We might be taken advantage of.

All of that is true, and I would be lying to you if I were to say it is not possible. But God calls upon us to act, and to act now, to take chances and trust that God will take care of us.

Like I said, interpreting the parable that way works.


Just like last week's bridegroom, the man, the master, this week... well, I'm sorry, but he isn't acting a whole lot like Christ. He's an absentee landlord who doesn't do any work himself, but lives off of the labor of his slaves. The profit-making that the master demands would be seen in Jesus' culture as coming, out of necessity, at the expense of other more honest people; it would be seen as greedy and grasping rather than smart or virtuous. The absentee landowner tells the slave whom he treats most harshly that the punishment is specifically for refusing to break God's commandment against usury, a practice consistently condemned in both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament.

Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that God would commend, let alone imitate? Is this kind of behavior what Jesus expects of God's people?

Do I have to say it? No.

Mark Sandlin suggests that the hero of this parable is not the master, but the third slave – the one who dared to stand up to the master, to point out his greed and cruelty and injustice. “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed...” Both Sandlin and Sarah Dylan Breuer suggest – and it makes sense – that the next -to-last phrase Jesus utters in this parable: “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...” is perhaps better translated this way: “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”

What if – what if – the “master” in this parable isn't God... what if it's us?

The master is us, those with power – including the middle class in America.
Every time we live into our positions of power and then judge those who are struggling on what we see as the margins of society, the master is us. Every time we assume a right to our privileges and label those without those same privileges as “lazy,” the master is us. Even when our places of prerogative are so endemic that we live into the abuse they cause by carelessly supporting the slave labor required to provide the goods we want at rock bottom prices, the master is us.


So which of these dueling interpretations of the Parable of the Talents is the “correct” one?

I want to suggest this morning that we don't have to choose. After all, God is still alive and active, and still speaks to us all where we are – in the midst of our lives and situations, in our own unique language. And note how I said this: God speaks to us.

One of the dangers in preaching, and in Biblical interpretation in general, is the tendency to use Scripture as a teaching tool to bring others into our own points of view. In fact, one of the sources I used this week for this sermon is an article by a writer that ultimately uses this parable as an indictment against a political party that he is not a member of.

I mean, it's a well-written piece, sure. I think it makes good points, but, then again, I am not a member of that political party, either. And just writing or reading something that makes me feel good... at the expense of others... changes nothing. The rich still get richer, the poor still get poorer. It's dangerous.

It is dangerous because nothing changes. As Max Lucado says, God loves us just as we are, but too much to let us stay that way. If I read Scripture to justify myself, but not to grow or change or find direction and answers and bring myself into closer communion with my loving Creator, what good is it to read Scripture at all?

So maybe we do have to choose, but the challenge is to choose to read the parable in a way that challenges us.

If, reading it the traditional way, we are challenged to take what we have and use it in ways which bring hope and healing, which encourage others to put their faith in the risen Christ, if it pushes us to look at what we own in a new and uncomfortable way – not as a security blanket but as a tool kit – then perhaps this is the correct interpretation.

If, by turning the parable on its head and seeing the third slave as the good guy and the master as the one ultimately in the wrong, we are challenged to live beyond our places of privilege, to speak truth to power and to honor those who live in the margins, then perhaps this is the correct interpretation.

Because, ultimately, both interpretations must ultimately be filtered through what Jesus says next, in the end times prophecy about the sheep and the goats, which is, by the way, our Gospel reading for next Sunday. God speaks to us in Scripture, sometimes to comfort the afflicted, and sometimes to afflict the comfortable, but always to lead us to act in a manner which glorifies God and brings hope and healing and comfort and the Good News of the risen Christ to the world.

When the Son of Man comes, he won't say, “Just as you did not do it unto one of the more productive of least of these, you did not do it unto me.” The judgment will not be predicated on the basis of how much money we made, or for that matter on how religious we were or whether we said a "sinner's prayer," but rather on whether we saw that the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family, whether in or out of prison, had food, clothing, and health care. We serve Jesus himself to the extent that we do these things, and we neglect Jesus himself to the extent that we don't. Period.

In the Parable of the Talents, we are the master, we are the faithful servants, and we are third slave as well. This is our story. It is a call to arms, an encouragement, a challenge.

The question is, are we willing to let go of the fear? Are we willing to live into the story of the third slave who confronted the powers that be? Are we willing to risk what little we have in order to heal a hurting world, in order to bring the Good News of new life in Jesus Christ to those in the margins, to those who need to hear it most?

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