Nov 20 | “I hate this parable,” (Sermon, November 19th, 2017)

‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” 21His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” 23His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matthew 25:14-30


Good morning, St. Augustine’s.

I hate this parable.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of good sermons I’ve heard on this parable. Usually I hear a simplistic call to embrace our talents because they were given to us by God to be used, not hidden away.

Never mind the fact that a talent is a unit of money, not a cypher for people’s gifts.

And what kind of God casts us out when we don’t use our gifts? This implies that the only reason a person might not do so is because they are selfish. But we know that’s not true. There are a million tragic reasons why someone might not feel confident or worthy enough to share their gifts with others.

What kind of God punishes people for that?

A God who is exactly as the last slave describes: “a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed.”

The master even admits to his own behaviour: “You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?” So when he punishes the slave, he is also punishing him for telling the truth.

When we talk about wrestling with texts, a kind of passivity is often implied. But we must actively wrestle with our sacred texts, because if we won’t, it proves that we don’t have respect for them. If we lock them up under glass like Snow White, we commit idolatry by not allowing them to be more than a pretty conversation piece. If we discard the ones we don’t like, we are no better than the proof-texting cherry pickers that we so often rail against. Both idolizing and discarding Scripture implies that it is beyond reproach. If we don’t interact with it in a more intimate, earthy way, then it is dead.

Scripture’s sort of like Jesus in that regard. What saves us must be fleshy and incarnate, because that’s what we are. And Scripture is just about the fleshiest set of books we have.

Holy texts demand honesty.

That’s why I started out with that first sentence: I hate this parable.

Now let’s wrestle.

I’ve brought a friend to help us out: Richard W. Swanson, a Lutheran pastor and author of the blog “Provoking the Gospel.”

First thought: The English text tells us the master is going “on a long journey.” The Greek original, however, implies that he may be moving to a foreign place. It is never made clear if he is returning or not.

Second thought: Swanson values five talents at about 6.25 million dollars. Who the heck would give that much money to a slave, a piece of property? Who judges their slave to have the ability to manage that much money?

What kind of master is this?

Third thought: Nowhere in this parable does it say that the slaves were ordered to trade with the resources. Swanson argues that the third slave must be the only one who actually believes that the master will return.

We have talked for the last two or three weeks about being ready. This parable is told in the context of Jesus in Jerusalem, days away from being betrayed.

Here’s where things really get broken open, though.

The Talmud, a source of Jewish law, states that when slaves or subordinates are entrusted with finances, they are to “take no risks. Bury the cash in the ground.”

Swanson states, “This advice recognizes the reality of the power differential between master and subordinate. [T]he third slave watches as the situation develops and knows what to expect from the first two slaves: they will play the market, they will feel rich, they will gamble with someone else’s money. Playing the market makes you look like a genius. Unless you lose.”

If the other two lost, then that single talent could be all that was left of the master’s resources. So he follows the Talmud and buries it. It’s safe, and they can use it to rebuild if they need to.

Yet for this decision, the slave is called lazy and wicked.

Not the guy who gambles with other people’s money. Not the guy who reaps where he does not sow.

So once again, I ask, who is this master?

Is this really God?

Do we want this to be God?

Do we want this to be God today of all days, when this community is still coming to terms with the terrible shock of unexpected loss?

I don’t think we can allow this to be God anymore. Because we know that this master, in some parts of the world, is still God: a god more concerned with gate-keeping than boundary-breaking, a god who forgives abusers but ignores the abused, a god of revenge and bloodshed, a god of Empire and tyranny, a god all too often imposed upon the suffering, a false god created to prop up power.

This god is at complete odds with what we see in Scripture: the God who is all-loving and all-forgiving, the God who accepts repentance and liberates captives, the God who is ruler of the upside-down Kingdom where the disabled are prophets of grace and children are spiritual masters.

So who is the master in this parable, if he is no longer God for us?

Let’s look back at some things Jesus said in the last chapter.

“‘Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Messiah!” and they will lead many astray.”

Later he continues, “If anyone says to you, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “There he is!”—do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”

Perhaps, for our purposes today, we may consider this master as a false Messiah, leading us astray. A false Messiah who punishes honesty and adherence to the law, who does not deny his own thievery, who takes from the weak and poor to reward the rich and crafty. A false Messiah who could not possibly be the same as the one described in the Gospel’s following passage, who says, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do to me”?

If this one is false, where is our true master in this story?

We could argue that he has more in common with the so-called wicked slave, who proclaims truth and is cast out for refusing to play the game of amassing personal wealth.

Some sermons claim this parable is about taking risks, inferring that the investor slaves risked more than the slave who buried the money. It seems to me, though, that a far greater risk is taken when we speak truth to power than when we invest a tyrant’s money for his own greater wealth and our greater subjugation.

And Christians are well accustomed to taking risks, even if we don’t realize it.

St. Augustine’s, we took a risk wrestling with Scripture, because we opened ourselves to the possibility of being changed by it.

We take a risk when we say that we “look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come,” because we stand in opposition to a death-denying culture that privileges youth and beauty over frailty and inherent worth.

We take a risk when we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, because we proclaim that God has come among us, and wants to be taken into us even now, to be once again clothed in flesh.

In some ways, these risks are far greater risks than the ones we fear in our daily lives, and yet we take them easily.

Having taken such great risks in these walls, let’s search for more when we go forth from here. Take the risk of embracing others who are different. Take the risk of working with others to bring about the Kingdom. Take the risk of loving each other, particularly now, in a time of sorrow, when you need each other most.

And if you are afraid, come first to this table. Feast on love to do the work of love.


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