Texts: Exodus 20:8-11; Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27
Speaker: Joel Miller
Our fourth commitment is a big one: “Share our time and resources, discerning our call to both work and rest.”
It’s big because our time and resources cover the full span of how we order our lives. It’s big because in Jesus’ teachings, finances and resource sharing are inseparable from expressions of the kingdom of God. It’s big because discerning our call to both work and rest is counter-cultural. Sabbath rest, the enjoyment of life for its own sake, doesn’t pay well. It gets all the more complicated for folks for whom work doesn’t pay well either.
This is big because in order to talk honestly about time, resources, work, and rest, we must keep in mind the very big impersonal economic powers persistently imposing their will on us, for good or for ill, and the very personal spiritual gifts of gratitude and generosity re-shaping our will – to keep both of these in view at all times.
So what better way to survey the landscape than through a parable of Jesus that has been applied to both of these levels, from the earliest memory of the church.
The parable of the ten pounds – as the header in my NRSV Bible calls it – in Luke 19, also shows up in Matthew’s gospel, with some minor differences and one very major difference. Matthew records this as a parable with talents, although not the kind we’re looking forward to Saturday evening of fall retreat. Not too late to sign up, by the way. A talent was a massive sum of money, 15 or even 20 year’s worth of wages. Five was a lifetime of wages, all one would ever need. A man going away on a journey divvies out five, two, and one talent to his household servants. “To each according to his ability,” Matthew writes. With their master away, the first two go to work, doubling their talents. Five becomes 10. Two becomes four. But the one with one talent buries it in the ground for safe keeping. One remains one. The master returns and commends the first two. “Enter into the joy of your master,” he says. This parable is where we get those lines often recited at funerals of those whose life enriched the world. “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
The person who buried their treasure chest of money digs it up and gives it back to the master. “Here, this is yours.” But the master makes it clear this misses the point entirely.
The punishment is harsh. This servant is left with nothing, and ends up in “outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
There are minor differences with Luke’s version of the parable, with the same general outline.
The one major difference, and it is major, is context and therefore, meaning. For Matthew’s community, like many in the early church, there was uncertainty about the return of Christ. If it was imminent, why was it delayed? If it was delayed, how should then live? This parable is set right after the parable of the bridesmaids, waiting for their master’s return, and right before the judgement scene of the sheep separated from the goats. In this context, the master who went away and returned is like Christ, and this series of parables is about faithful living while the master is away.
There is much to be said here about how the punishment parts of these parables goes against the very spirit of Christ seen in other parts of Matthew’s gospel, like the Sermon on the Mount, but that’s a conversation for another day.
For today, the parable of the talents, interpreted in its best light, is an invitation into the abundance and generosity of God’s economy. Whatever we have is a gift from God, not to be hidden. We have been granted a lifetime supply of goodness, and it is not ours to hoard. The more we live into the fullness of this gift, the more this gift multiplies for the benefit of all. It’s a risky way of life, because investment always involves risk. Letting go gives up control. Spreading the wealth never guarantees it will come back to us, and maybe sometimes it shouldn’t come back to us. Keeping the gift out of the ground where it can be seen by others risks criticism, loss, and failure.
A generous interpretation of Matthew’s parable of the talents speaks into our contemporary conversation about privilege and power, using the resources we’ve been given, like a church building for sanctuary, a home for hospitality, skills and abilities for serving and healing and merry-making – to utilize all these gifts for the master who employs our hands and feet as an extension of Christ among us. Which some could claim as being the second coming.
That’s part two of what to keep in view at all times regarding resources, time, work, and rest. Grounded in the very personal spiritual gifts of gratitude and generosity.
But Luke has a different use for this parable, a different context. In Luke Jesus is more concerned with the very big impersonal powers persistently imposing their will on us.
In Luke, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and has just encountered Zacchaeus in Jericho. Jericho was a gateway to the pilgrimage city of Jerusalem. Jericho was a customs center. Zaccheaus a chief collector of those customs and taxes. A Jewish man in the Roman bureaucracy with unchecked power for profiting off the foreign occupation of his own people.
But Zacchaeus meets Jesus, and Jesus, rather than rebuking him or labeling him an enemy of the people invites himself over for dinner, much to the dismay of the crowd who were under the impression Jesus was on their side. Zacchaeus gets a taste of the Jesus way and does a sudden course correction in his business model. He announces to everyone within earshot that he will give half his possessions to the poor, and pay back four times over to everyone he has defrauded – which implies he has indeed defrauded. Jesus makes an equally public announcement: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Human One came to seek out and save the lost.”
That’s the end of that section in our Bibles, but Jesus has more to say, right there amidst the stunned crowd, and the freshly reformed customs enforcement chief bureaucrat Zacchaeus.
Luke writes: “As they were listening to this, Jesus went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. So Jesus said, ‘A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, Do business with these until I come back. But the citizens of the country hated him and sent a delegation after him saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us.’ When he returned, having received royal power, her ordered these slaves, to whom he had given he money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading.”
Rather than a household master, we have a nobleman leaving the country. Rather than talents, we have the much more manageable measurement of pounds, a mina, about three months wages. And most importantly, rather than musing about the second coming of Christ, our backdrop is the harsh conditions of the political economy of Rome, with Zacchaeus a chief listener to this parable.
To say that a nobleman went to a distant country to have himself appointed king, despite a protesting delegation trying to prevent it, is to narrate events within recent history for Zacchaeus and those hearing the parable. These are the very conditions under which Herod the Great was declared King of Judea by the Roman Senate. The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus gives an account of how Herod ruled Jerusalem: “King Herod, discriminating between the two class of the city population, by the award of honours attached more closely to himself those who had espoused his cause, while he exterminated the partisans of Antigonus.” Antigonus had led the delegation to Rome opposing Herod.
History repeated itself when Herod’s sons Archelaus and Antipas both went to Rome, each seeking their own control over their father’s former territory. Archelaus already had such a reputation for cruelty that a delegation of Jews headed out to try to urge Caesar not to give him more power. Josephus writes: “He had indeed reduced the entire nation to helpless poverty…and he was wont to kill members of the nobility upon absurd pretexts and then take their property for himself.”
Caesar did give Archaleus rule over Judea, but after 10 years, right into the childhood of Jesus, Archaleus proved even too cruel for Rome, and was removed.
In the parable, the nobleman returns from the distant country with his rule secured and starts divvying out favors to those who had made him rich. The one whose pound earned ten more is given charge of ten cities. One pound becoming five is rewarded with a five city charge. But the final one says, “Lord, here is you pound. I wrapped it in a piece of cloth, for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap where you did not sow.” The nobleman is not pleased. In a classic case of the rich getting richer, he gives that pound to the one who already had ten. The parable ends with this ruler demanding that his enemies who didn’t want him to become king be brought before him and slaughtered. At this point there is little difference between Josephus recording history and Jesus telling a cautionary parable about the abuses of power.
Jesus told this, as Luke says, “because they supposed the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” Don’t forget how kingdoms usually work, Jesus seems to be saying. Immediately following this Jesus will ride into Jerusalem on a donkey amidst cheering crowds. A peaceful display of street theater, expanding the imagination to consider a use of power that empowers all, in contrast to the standard Roman show of force to keep the peace. One week later, Jesus will meet the same fate as those who opposed the nobleman in the parable.
For Matthew, the master who distributes wealth, goes away and returns, is the Christ, and the anti-hero is the one who refuses to risk multiplying the generous gifts they’ve been given. For Luke, the one who distributes wealth, goes away and returns, is the anti-Christ, and the hero is the one who refuses to play the game to enrich the already rich and powerful.
If you’re experiencing a bit of biblical interpretative whiplash with how Matthew and Luke can use the same narrative outline for such different purposes, then welcome to the world of people of faith using the same narrative outline for very different purposes. There’s a whole other conversation.
My point isn’t to parse the scholar’s question of what the original version of the parable might have been, and how each version as we have them served the needs of the original community to whom it was written – although those are pretty fascinating questions. Or to parse the skeptic’s question about mixed messages within a supposedly inspired collection of holy writ.
My point, if you can go there with me, our point is to provoke the question of where we find ourselves within the world of these parables, and what that has to say about our aspiration to “share our time and resources, discerning our call to both work and rest.” Who do we identify with within these two very similar very different parables?
Assuming none of us are a conniving murderous wealth-grabbing dictator, and none of us are the second the coming of Christ, that leaves us with four distinct characters, two per parable. My suggestion is that we are a little bit of all four.
We are those servants in Luke’s parable, overheard by Zacchaeus, who are given a pound and are charged with making more for the greedy nobleman. And we’re pretty good at it. Much of our energy and creativity is dedicated to generating wealth that will trickle its way up toward those who already have most of it. We don’t like it, but we’re mired in an economy of turning one pound into two and five and ten, often to the detriment of the natural life support systems that make up the much larger economy of water cycles, soil regeneration, and the breath of animals and plants exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide. We need pounds to participate in the marketplace and we need the marketplace to survive, and so we labor as its servants.
We are also those servants in Matthew’s parable who have been given an abundance of wealth by the generous master, more than enough for one lifetime. We know this wealth is not our own, that we are mere stewards of it, and it is our holy responsibility to share of ourselves with this world. To grow as human beings. To develop gifts not for our own ego, but for the common good. To do the work of the master who has modeled a merciful use of power. To wrestle with our privilege while not being paralyzed by it. Living a first fruits life, in which the best of ourselves, our time, our resources, are employed in God’s economy of grace.
But we are also that servant in Matthew’s parable who buries their treasure. We are fearful, or lazy, or just alone and without support. We are afraid of loss. We prefer to hold on to what we have. We are more comfortable keeping it buried. If we were to bring it out into the light we are opening ourselves to criticism. And what if it doesn’t multiply? What if there’s no market for what we’re offering? We prefer to stay underground.
And we are that servant in Luke’s parable who refuses to play along. Who, as much as they are able, opts out of the profit-at-all costs game. The servant who takes that pound, and wraps in a cloth, like a baby taking nap. The servant who gives their coin a Sabbath, who observes periods of intentional non-productivity, to remind oneself and the world that we are more than functions of the marketplace. I suppose that delegation opposing the nobleman is a fifth group we can lump together with this servant. We aspire to another way. We aspire to be Sabbath people, to live by non-market values of mercy, equity, joyful contentment, and enough for all.
We are all these. We are all these. Which makes this big commitment an actual commitment. It takes intentionality bathed in the grace of God and the mischievous Spirit of Christ: “Share our time and resources, discerning our call to both work and rest.”