The Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
This week’s passages are not for the fainthearted. I do wonder about this guy Matthew whose Gospel we read today.
On the one hand he has written some lovely verses like
the Christmas story of the Magi who travel such a distance, following a star to find the child Jesus. Then we get this parable of the talents and his favorite bottom line about “the weeping and gnashing of teeth” for the “bad guys” in the story. Maybe instead of collecting taxes Matthew should have been an oral surgeon. Yup!
So, here’s a parable that Jesus allegedly told about this arbitrary and manipulative slave owner who gives quite different sums of money to the three slaves with no explanation for his unfair, dictatorial behavior. Did Jesus really tell this story—or did Matthew edit the original version to make his own point about judgement and punishment—his favorite topics?
We simply don’t know but it is the Gospel, and we can’t simply dismiss it. It’s important to grapple with texts like this and to look deeper under the layers to discover what God might be telling us that is buried beneath the distasteful parts.
This word “talent,” not mean a skill or ability. It meant the highest unit of measurement that existed in the ancient world. It would be equivalent to something like a trillion dollars. The amount of money given to each of the slaves was staggering, more than anyone of us will ever see much less have in the bank. On a very practical note, this wasn’t an electronic transfer. Imagine getting a suitcase full of gold bullion and told to invest it. How in the world would these slaves be able to lift it, let alone invest it. There were no banks so actually the one who buried the money did a very sensible thing.
Is the behavior of the master something that God would applaud, let alone imitate? Is this what Jesus is expecting of God’s people? Of course not! Look at what immediately follows in Matthew’s Gospel—the prophecy of the sheep and the goats which tells us that judgment will not be about our wealth or success in the business world or even on how religious we were but rather on our care for the down and out, marginalized, oppressed, and destitute in our human family.
One thing we know: Jesus was a rabble rouser in the best sense of the word so I wonder if maybe he told the story as an indictment of the economic system that places human beings under great pressure and anxiety. Does he want the audience to be uncomfortable when hearing it? Yes, absolutely, but I suspect not for the reasons we might think.
Several years ago, Michael Budde, a political scientist, took exception to how this parable gets interpreted. He worried that if we let this parable alone it sounds too much like it was written by a Wall Street Hedge Fund. He postulates that the master in the story is not God, but the devil. And the slave who buries the talent is not a lazy, wicked person, but is Jesus himself. That’s a different take on the parable, isn’t it? It’s certainly not the interpretation of some mainline church preachers.
"Eight hundred," says the auctioneer. "900 ... 1,000 ... 1,100 ..." Sold, for 1,200 Libyan dinars -- the equivalent of $800. Not a used car, a piece of land, or an item of furniture. Not "merchandise" at all, but two human beings. One of the unidentified men being sold appears to be in his twenties and is wearing a pale shirt and sweatpants. "This is a big strong man, he'll dig," the salesman says. "
What am I bid, what am I bid?" Buyers raise their hands as the price rises and within minutes it is all over and the men, utterly resigned to their fate, are being handed over to their new "masters."
Each year, tens of thousands of people pour across Libya's borders. They're refugees fleeing conflict or economic migrants in search of better opportunities in Europe. Most have sold everything they own to finance the journey through Libya to the coast and the gateway to the Mediterranean. But a clampdown by the Libyan coastguard means fewer boats are making it out to sea, leaving the smugglers with a backlog of would-be passengers on their hands. The smugglers become masters, the migrants and refugees become slaves.
Yet another story of master and slave, not from the ancient world but from 2017—only about 160 years ago the same scenario could be witnessed in these United States—beloved children of God treated like a piece of cheap real estate.
Why would Jesus praise the slaves who got richer? Is this just a story testing our sensitivity and awareness about how well we get Jesus? Is God telling us that there is something much more valuable and cherished in God’s eyes than even the most staggering amount of money and that is life in all its forms, not an inert pile of gold? Life in creation is an enormous, sacred treasure. How do we care for it, honor it, nurture it?
Could the talents represent any resources that might be expanded in the service of God’s providence and rule, our own collective values, decisions, and stewardship.
Perhaps like the slaves in the parable we are entrusted with much of sacred value and are accountable, not to a nasty, heartless master but to a loving and merciful God.
The bottom line here might well be “We are what we love.”