24 Pentecost—Proper 28-A-2
November 19, 2017
Zephaniah 1:7,12-18, Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30
I want to go against the flow today. After 2000 years this parable has become so domesticated that it’s little more than a story for our kids: God is the man who gives the talents and the three slaves show us how to use them. So we say, “listen up, children: you’ve inherited talent from God (and your multi-talented parents!) and now it’s time to work hard to develop that talent. Can’t sit back and count on Mommy and Daddy to bail you out when you bury your talent, like the third slave. You’ve got to work hard to develop your gift. (By the way, when a child makes good grades, don’t tell her how smart she is, compliment her on how hard she worked.) This is a perfectly fine story, but it has become a nothing burger without depth, density, or challenge.
I want to suggest we are living in a serious time just like the time Jesus is in. He is watching the Powers That Be, the political and religious keepers of the status quo, come together into a terrible storm that will overwhelm him and his movement.
A serious time to go deeper in holy Scripture as the collect says: “so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”
So what happens to this parable when we look at this master as Jesus actually describes him: he is a very rich, owns slaves, and kills one of them when he doesn’t please him. Certainly nothing in the teaching of Jesus would make us think such a man is a worthy symbol for God.
Look at the loving Father we see in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. If the man in today’s parable had been the Father in that parable then he would have said to his returning son: “As for this worthless son of mine, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Because I gave him everything and he wasted it on drugs and sex workers.”
Speaking of other parables, notice this: In the Parable of the Good Samaritan the first two men who walk by the dying man are not examples Jesus wants us to follow. No, it is the third man, the Samaritan, who shows up that Jesus wants us to imitate. Just like in today’s parable.
So this rich man goes to the south of France, while making his slaves earn him even more money. A talent was 15 years wages so by today’s standard it could be a million dollars. He gives 8 million dollars—probably shoe money for this billionaire and his family—so the slaves can grow it so he can buy more human beings.
The first slave who is given $5 million is perfectly willing to do his master’s bidding, because it guarantees his place in the household. He’ll get to work the big parties, wearing a white jacket, carrying around trays of champagne and caviar. This slave has no problem making more money for this evil man, because it’s the only way he can protect his family.
Same with the slave given the $2 mil: He’s happy to make his master a little richer, so his master may keep him around when he gets old.
You can’t blame these two slaves—it’s what slaves have to do to avoid being tied to the whipping post. They’ll support an evil system as long as the system can be made to work for them.
Yet, the third slave finds the courage to resist the evil master. He buries the $1 million, showing his refusal to participate in a corrupt system that makes the rich richer and the poor even more wretched. He’s fighting the system the way Jesus says: “Render unto to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what belongs to God.”
He is fighting back but with dignity and non-violence. He says, “I won’t steal your money, but I also won’t do work that will cause more misery to my fellow human beings.”
It sounds like he’s caught Jesus’s vision that the Kingdom of God—the Reign of God, the Lordship of God, is really here and now. He trusts God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. He’s does this nonviolent protest, though it may cost him his life.
The master invites the first two slaves into his joy—they become house slaves, no longer having to sleep with the livestock. Their children get better food. Maybe one of their wives becomes a mistress of the master, like at Monticello.
But the third slave is thrown into outer darkness for his crime of resisting the Machine–Like Daniel, who is thrown into the lions’ den, like Paul, who is thrown into jail,—and like Master Jesus, who is nailed to the cross.
This slave is still a slave but he is now free on the inside. He takes his direction from Messiah Jesus on how to confront the systems of oppression that support the Masters of the Universe. He’s done serving a man who takes the little bit of the poor and gives it to the rich.
This slave is all in for Jesus.
He’s like German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis before he reaches 40, who wrote in his classic book on discipleship: “When Jesus calls us, he bids us come and die.” Die to our slavery to systems that oppress our brothers and sisters and live to beauty, truth, justice, peace, and compassion.
How a story is interpreted depends on who is telling it. Usually the powerful get to tell the story. Southern slave owners told the story of Moses as the Lawgiver, whom the slaves must obey. But by candlelight the slaves told the story of Moses as the liberator, who led the slaves out of bondage.
Jesus teaches us that “those who seek to save their lives will lose it. And those who lose their lives for my sake will finally find they were put on this earth for an important purpose beyond self-protection and comfort.
This is how Jesus lives and it is how he dies: he lets them kill him, in order to reveal two things.
First, his crucifixion reveals the evil of the world systems that enslave us to the idols of wealth, power, and violence. His death reveals how ugly we human beings can be. All of us.
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord”—“Yes, I was there, driving in the nails.”
Second, his death, like his life, reveals the magnificence and beauty of the unconditional love of God that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
The crucifixion makes Paul cry out:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The third slave believes this and therefore has become a Child of the Light.
There are those who want to convince us that our religion must be kept private and separate from our real life in the world. The third slave is punished precisely because for him all of life is sacred and under the Lordship of Triune God.
This minority interpretation may not be suitable for a bedtime story.But it is a story to tell when we wake up, so our kids and the world can see what a Jesus-shaped life looks like: a life lived in Christ, for the liberation of the world.
It’s a story we tell every week around the Table.
We eat this story so we too may be a Child of the Light, who is free on the inside.
I first came across this interpretation of this parable years ago at a conference, so I can’t begin to give credit to one person. I do think it is growing in acceptance, at least among preachers like me, who are tired of the same old way of reading it. What really helps is when we remember Jesus is not talking to folks in a post-industrial society but an agrarian one, where wealth is held in only a few hands. They would not be so friendly to the man in this story as we are likely to be. I also like the idea of only presenting images of God that reflect the God revealed in Jesus. You can Google this passage and find other alternative takes on it. And then give yourself permission to receive them all, as pointing to the Truth.