I wonder if we’ve been duped by this gospel? I think I’m coming late to the party.
All during this season after Pentecost we have heard Jesus’ tell the people parables. I have said over and over again that they are to be challenging and dug into because there is far more there than what’s on the surface. Today is no different. It has been said that we have domesticated the parables. We have made them less fierce and wild so we don’t have to face their power over us.
This one has often been told so as to see the Master as either Jesus or God who ends up rewarding those who invest their talents and turn the money into more, while calling the third person evil and throwing him into the abyss where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s easy for all of us to quickly say what he did wrong…he didn’t make more money, right?
The master, when he returns seems to be overly grateful that the first two slaves have made him so much money. He is far richer than he was when he went away.
But if we dig deeper, Jesus’ hearers would have known that the first two slaves had to have swindled and cheated others in order to make that much more money. Every one of them knew what kind of people they were.
The third slave buried the talent he got. When the master came home he called him out for being a harsh and cruel man. Can you hear him say, “Here! Take back what is yours.” That’s when the master goes into a rage tossing the slave out into the darkness and telling him he should at least have invested the money with bankers and got paid interest.
To our ears, nothing much is really wrong here either, but to Jesus’ listeners they would have been appalled. Again, if you dig a little deeper you realize that doing either of those things was a violation of Jewish Law.
What’s really going on here? And what might this story have to do with us centuries later?
First off, if you are now hearing things a little differently, does any of it jive with your understanding of God? I don’t see God as a rich slave owner. I see God as a seeker of justice and a lover of all. Does Jesus call us wicked and lazy? No. Jesus hears the cries of the oppressed, and tries to turn our hearts toward loving our neighbor as ourselves. He is certainly not telling anyone to take every opportunity to make a buck.
God is not about taking what little a person has and giving it to the rich to make them even more rich. That is a tenant of the Prosperity Gospel which may be one of the great heresies of our lifetimes. We are not about striving to become the richest Christians as a means of showing the world how much God loves us. That is a horrible theology and one that flies in the face of the vast scope of all scripture, much less Matthew’s gospel that tells us that the poor are blessed and the meek shall inherit the earth.
So what gives?
One of my favorite lectionary writers is Debie Thomas. I’ve talked about her before. After reading this Gospel story to her son he said, “I love this story! The third slave is the hero!” Rather shocked, it forced her to re-imagine things. She pointed me in the direction of others who had lots to say about this story.
A single talent is worth about $1.5 million today. That’s a lot of money to us. Think what it was to the people Jesus was talking to. Imagine having 1 or 2 or 5!
In the telling of the story, Jesus is conveying how the rich get richer. This master is the very opposite of God. God is always about giving God’s-self away.
So the question becomes, how did these masters acquire such vast wealth? According to a couple things I read it was because these land owners lent money to the peasant farmers at exorbitant interest rates and then took their land when times got tough and couldn’t pay back the loans. The people who took the loans did so out of desperation and ended up using their own land as collateral in hopes that harvests would cover their debts. When they didn’t because of drought or some other issue, they faced foreclosure and the loss of their land. The new owner came in and made a killing by turning around and making the then landless peasants the day laborers on their old farms.
Slaves often acted as the go-between for the wealthy master. They collected the debts and kept the profits coming in while the master was away. They skimmed the profits as well and everyone was happy. Except for the poor farmers who had lost their land and were now working for next to nothing.
At this point let me read to you what Debie Thomas wrote:
“Two of the slaves do exactly as they’re told. Who knows how many fields they seize, how many farmers they impoverish, how many families they destroy? It doesn’t matter: they fulfill the bottom line. They make a profit. When the master returns and sees what they’ve accomplished on his behalf, he’s thrilled. He invites the two enterprising slaves to enter into his “joy” — the joy of further wealth, further profit, further exploitation. But the third slave? The third slave in the story opts out. He decides that his master’s character is greedy and corrupt, and that he no longer wants to participate in a dishonest system of gain, a system based on oppression and injustice. Knowing full well what it will cost him, the slave buries the heavy talent in the earth. He hides it, literally taking it out of circulation, putting it where it will do no further harm to the poor.” **
Wow! This really blows holes in the way I’ve always understood this parable. Does it do the same for you? The third slave calls out the master and says he won’t play the abuse and exploitation game anymore.
If we’ve now dug deep enough we might start to see that this story isn’t about being blessed by God and entering the pearly gates with honor if we have acquired much, but a story about how things are today and where our faithfulness lies.
Things aren’t so different today. Big corporations swallow up smaller businesses and the stock market keeps going up while the little guy keeps getting knocked further down. Small farms can’t keep up and sell out to the giant agricultural venture. Mom & Pop stores get edged out of the market because the big box stores can sell the same product for less because they buy & then sell in bulk.
I don’t know about you, but I will have to swallow hard before I say, “Well done good and faithful servant” again.
This parable speaks truth to power and our complicity in letting it continue.
I am struck by how this parable pushes me now. I’m not happy about it. It’s hard to challenge the way things are and not appear to be the fool or be thrown out into the outer darkness. I don’t want either.
Maybe we should be looking around for the people who opt out of the systems that continue to exploit and oppress the world’s most vulnerable people. They actually may be the heroes.
Debie finishes up by writing…
“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 hole in the ground.” **
I am not done with this parable. This one will stick with me for a while. First because I’m looking at it in a whole new way, but mostly because I want to be the third slave and I’m afraid of what I will lose if I do.
As you go about your week or a couple, pay attention to what that might mean. Listen to the news. Watch for the people who continue to power over. People who are the intermediaries, who play the game and continue to reap the profits for the profiteers. And then look for the heroes. Look for the ones who have opted out, who have had enough. Who have said, “I’m not going to do this anymore.” Who are willing to be cast out and made expendable, willing to be the hero, being like Christ.
It isn’t easy following Jesus. It never was supposed to be. Today for me, it just got a little harder. In a way I wish that for you too as well. But, hold on; hold on. The story ends well.
In Jesus’ name,
The Reverend Patty Baker, Vicar
St. Clare Episcopal Church
Also found information from http://third