Parables for the privileged | 16 November 2014

Text: Matthew 25:14-30

After a long time away, we’re back to the lectionary this week – although this passage might as well have shown up in October in the Difficult Passages series.  The Parable of the Talents is one of the more familiar parables of Jesus and is an important one for us First World Christians to ponder.  Although we now use the word talent to refer to one’s aptitude, ability, and natural gifts, the term originally referred to a unit of money.  A very large unit of money.  One talent was worth 15 years wages, so in this parable even the person who was given one talent was given a massive sum.  If a decent wage in our time is $40,000 a year, that makes one talent worth well over a half million dollars.   The person with five talents was basically given a lifetime supply of wages all at once.  But all three of the servants won the lottery that day.

In the parable those who use their talents to make more talents are richly rewarded and the message seems pretty clear: Those who have been given much, those with privilege, those with money or skills or resources of any kind, are responsible to use it in a way that multiplies the wealth.  The one servant who buried his talent in the ground and sheepishly handed it back to his master with no gain to show for it has his talent taken away, and is punished.  Punished quite severely.  He is called wicked and lazy and worthless.  He is thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  In its context in Matthew, the parable seems to serve as an allegory for how to manage one’s resources in the present time before the coming of the end of the age.  Jesus is the master who leaves, then returns to reward the righteous and punish the evil.

And this is where things get difficult.  Matthew’s is the gospel of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus taught us that storing up wealth is not a kingdom value, in which he taught we are to love our enemies rather than punish them, in which he taught that God makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust no matter their actions.  Later in Matthew, closer to the time of this parable, Jesus counsels a rich young man, who no doubt had many talents, that following the way of the Christ meant he must sell all he had and give it to the poor, not go out and make more talents.

So what’s going on here?  Even if we read the parable as pure allegory we still have to deal with a Jesus who punishes someone simply for giving him back what he was given.  Does Jesus have a personality change in the last part of Matthew?

The Jewish practice of Midrash involves using a story as a basis for telling another story which presents another way of seeing things.  You have the original story in front of you, printed in the bulletin, and I’d like to offer three different midrashes on this parable of the talents, three new parables which ask different questions of this original parable.  I’m especially conscious of how different this parable feels than Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man, so the first two parables play around with that relationship.  After each parable, I’ll give just a bit of commentary before moving on to the next.

So here we go: Parable for the privileged #1

A rich young man once came to Jesus and asked him, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus replied, “Why do you ask of me what is good?  There is only one who is good.  If you wish to truly live, keep the commandments.”  He said to him, “Which ones?”  And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, love your neighbor as yourself.”  The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?”

Jesus looked around, pulled the young man closer to himself, and said quietly but firmly: “Look, if you want to make some real wealth, here’s what you do:  You get three of your most trusted servants and you divide your money between them in whatever way you think each of them can handle.  Then you just go away.  I know it sounds like a risk but think about it.  Your servants are afraid of you.  They know one doesn’t get the kind of money you have without being harsh, reaping where you didn’t sow, gathering where you didn’t scatter seed.  They know there’ll be hell to pay if they mess with your money.  If you’re lucky, they might even go out and double your money for you.  When you come back, you give them a little kick back with the extra they made, and everybody’s happy.  And if one of them doesn’t make you any more money, you take away his portion, all of it, and give it to the one who made the most, and tell him that’s how it works: the rich get richer, and the lazy poor get nothing.  Then kick him out to fend for himself among those who weep and gnash their teeth.  That will teach everyone a lesson.”

Then the young man went away confused.  This did sound like an ingenious way to increase his wealth through no effort of his own, but it wasn’t what he was expecting from this wandering rabbi who he thought was critical of this kind of thing.

This parable shows the contrast of how Jesus is presented in one story with how he is presented in the other.  The parable begins in the exact same way as the story of the encounter with the rich young man, but rather than responding to him that he must sell all he has and give to the poor, Jesus starts giving him advice based on the logic of the parable of the talents.  The tone of the two stories feels to be in such contrast that I’m not too sure what to do with them exact highlight the contrast itself.  In this parable, we share in the confusion of the rich young man.  From what we know of Jesus this is not the kind of advice we would expect.

This second parable combines those two stories in a different way and picks up on the very real possibility that many of Jesus’ wealthiest disciples were women.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke state that as Jesus and the twelve male disciples went throughout the cities of Galilee they were accompanied by a sizeable group of women who “provided for them out of their own resources” (Quote from Luke 8:1-3; also in Matthew 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41)

After speaking to the crowds in one of the towns, Jesus took aside three of his wealthiest disciples and said to them: “You have been following me from town to town for many days and you have heard my teachings.  Each of you has given your great wealth to me, but now I give it back to you, one talent each.  Stay here in this town and put my teachings into practice.  I will be traveling to other towns to teach and heal, and when I return you will each give an account for how you used the talent.”  Jesus was gone a very long time, but when he returned he visited each of the three disciples.

The first one Jesus found roaming the streets, thin and dressed in rags.  Jesus asked, “What have you done with your talent?”  “Master,” she replied.  “This town has many poor people in it who can’t afford their own food.  On the very day that you left I gave away to the poor not only all of my money, but also all of my extra clothes and belongings.  Ever since I have lived as the least of all of them, sleeping in the open air by night and begging for food by day.”  “Well done, faithful disciple,” Jesus said.  “Come, leave this town and follow me, and you will always have everything you need.”

Jesus found the second disciple living in a simple home.  “What you have done with your talent?” he asked her.  “Master,” she replied.  “This town has many poor people in it who can’t afford their own food.  On the very day you left I purchased a simple home and set aside just enough money to care for myself.  The rest of the money I have been using to support the needs of fifteen families who live near to me.  Every day I give them what they need for their daily bread, and they have had all their needs met from the time you have left until now.  When anyone else comes and asks for help, I let them sleep on my floor by the fire and eat at my table.”  “Well done, faithful disciple,” Jesus said.  “Come, leave this town and follow me, and you will always have everything you need.”

Hearing that the third disciple had taken up residence on the far side of town, Jesus went looking for her, taking the other two disciples with him.  The closer they got to her home the wider and cleaner the streets became, the more active the businesses and street traffic, the larger and nicer the homes.  When they finally saw her home the two disciples turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, we have given away our talent to those who have needed it more than us and we have lived simple lives.  But look at this home and this neighborhood.  Surely this disciple is not following in your way.  She must be punished.”  When they knocked on the door the disciple answered, greeted them, and invited them to sit around her table which was filled with warm breads and fine cheeses and delicious wines.  Jesus asked, “What have you done with your talent?”  The disciple replied, “Master, this town had many poor people in it who couldn’t afford their own food.  On the very day you left I began loaning out the money to those who the banks would never give loans.  Those who received the loans invested in their homes and businesses and were able to pay back the loan at the time it was due, plus a small amount of interest.  I, then, loaned that money out to others who in turn did the same thing, invested in their home or business and paid off the loan with a small amount of interest.  This has been going on the whole time you have been gone and I now have more money than when I began.  This morning I purchased this bread from the baker who not long ago could not afford to buy an oven.  This cheese comes from a new shop across the street who buys their milk from a farmer in the country who used a loan to dig a new well to water his cattle.  And this wine comes from the vineyards of a family who used their loan to pay for medical care.”  Jesus turned to the other two disciples and asked, “What shall we say to this disciple?”  “Master,” they replied, “You have told us to leave this town and come follow you, but it would seem that this town needs this disciple to remain here, such that she can keep following you without going anywhere.”

This parable plays on the talents and the command to the rich young man to give all he has to the poor and come follow Jesus.  It offers three different ways of using one’s wealth to serve the poor.  Each of them are commended.  The third could be criticized for being the least sacrificial, but the other two disciples agree that her approach will have the largest impact on the town and its poor.  I confess that the church has not always been encouraging of even the good side of the business world, so this parable is an attempt to imagine how contemporary approaches like micro-loans, fair trade, and small business enterprises can also be a way of spreading gospel values.

This third parable is the most similar to the original Parable of the Talents – although not completely:

For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, each according to their ability.  Then he went away.  After a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.  The first one said, “Master, you handed over to me five talents.  I believe you to be a master who expects those with privilege to use it for good.  See, I have made five more talents.”  “Well done, good and trustworthy servant,” the master replied.  “You believe that I expect much from those who have been given much; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

The second one said, “Master, you handed over to me two talents.  I believe you to be a forgiving master, so even though I wasn’t sure how to use them well, I tried to invest them the best I could.  But master, I am sorry, I have poorly invested both of your talents and have none to return to you.”  The master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you believe I am loving and generous and this enabled you to be bold and risk failure; you will have many second chances; enter into the joy of your master.”

The third one said, “Master, you handed over to me one talent.  I believe you to be a harsh master, and so I could not risk losing your talent.  I have kept it safe by hiding it away and give it back to you now.”  The master replied, “You wicked servant; you believe I am a harsh and punishing master, reaping where you do not sow, gathering where you do not scatter seed, and so you will be punished for doing nothing with your talent.  Now you will be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  “But master,” replied the second servant.  “How could you do this?  At least he was able to give you your one talent back.  I had nothing to give you, and yet you pardoned me and welcomed me into your joy.”  The master replied, “As long as he believes me to be a harsh master, he will never be able to enter into my joy.”

In this parable each of the servants has a different belief about the character of their master, and each one acts accordingly.  In the same way, the master fulfills the image they have projected onto him.  You don’t have to like this version any better than the original, but this is one of the ways of making sense of the actual parable Jesus told.  The final servant is trapped by his or her perceptions of the master, and these perceptions become a self-fulfilling prophesy, resigning the servant to a self-made prison of darkness.

The master invites us to enter into joy and to allow all of our actions to flow out of that gift of joy.