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Visions from The Catacombs, Week before November 16, 2014

Matthew 25:14-30

14“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.’

What I Am Learning:

Not every master in a parable is God. Our assumption that the “master” in a story is God is understandable since that is true in many stories. But not this one!

All of us use the word “talent.” That word derives from this story as interpreters took the story to be a critique of disciples who hide their best abilities and don’t offer them to God and/or the church.

This is an important issue. This is a real concern. We often refuse to engage our best gifts for public ministry because we are afraid.

I just don’t think this text is about that issue. Read again this part of the passage:

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.’

A few points to consider in this part of the passage:

  • It is actually not possible to take a talent from a person and give it to another. That is the whole thing with talents – they are a part of a person. Talents can be suppressed or ignored or left unexplored but not taken away. The only “talent” that can be taken away is the currency.
  • Does Jesus actually agree with the statement: “those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away?” Does that sound like anything Jesus said anywhere else when he wasn’t engaged in dramatic exaggeration?

I once heard Richard Rhorbaugh give a lecture on this text and it totally changed my view point on what it means. (You can listen to the whole lecture here: http://bybergpreaching.org/blog/media-archive/byberg-2010/

People in Palestine in the first century generally understood that the world is a place of scarcity – that is there is only so much to go around. They generally felt that if you became wealthier in your life, you became wealthy at the expense of others. To become more wealthy in your life meant that you were taking scarce goods from other people. In other words, the economy was a zero-sum economy. If you take more pie, there is less for others. The only way that one could become wealthier was by flocks or crops: that is if God blessed you by many live-births in your flocks and abundant harvests. God was the giver of wealth from flocks and crops from the abundance of the earth. But all other wealth was seen as theft from your neighbor.

The second thing Richard taught us was that in that cultural context there were no banks, at least not banks that ordinary people could use. If you went on a journey you would give your money to your neighbor. Your neighbor would either hide it in their house or hide it in the ground. If it got lost in the house your neighbor had to repay you. If it got lost in the ground your neighbor did not have to repay you as God controlled what was in and what came from the earth.

Third he reminded us that a Jew would never say that God would encourage people to get interest to make God more wealthy.

You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent. Deuteronomy 23.19:

In this story, then, when the man hid his master’s money in the ground he was not withholding his giftedness from God’s use. He was doing the only thing a faithful Jew could do: put the money in the ground in God’s safe keeping and refuse to use it to steal from others.

He was a courageous prophet who called out the master for his theft of other people’s money. He spoke truth to a powerful master who had set up an economy in which the rich get richer and the poor have even what little they own taken away from them.

In this story, the “master” is Caesar. Caesar’s faithful servants are those who take wealth and livelihood away from the poor.

This story is intended to be a contrast with the next story in Matthew in which the king values giving food to poor, clothing the naked and visiting those in prison.

In these two stories the values of the Roman Empire and the values of the Reign of God are contrasted:

The values of the Roman Empire are expressed clearly in the words of Caesar:

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.

The values of God’s way of mutuality are also expressed clearly:

34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Matthew 25:34-36

God identifies God’s own self with the most vulnerable. Caesar sees the vulnerable as merely resources to exploit.

We do not have to agree with their sense of economics. North Americans typically see the economy as a pie that can grow, that economic activity can create a better life for more people.

The challenge with their point of view is that clearly the economy can grow – we do have 7 billion people on the planet, many more than in Jesus’ day.

The challenge with our point of view is that we are using the earth’s resources as if there is no limit at all, and no future generations who will also need those resources.

But economic theories and resource management aside, these two stories in Matthew make a stark contrast between the values of Empire and the values of God’s reign.

Perhaps the way North Americans typically look at this text as about our withholding our “talents” is because we know that the economy which some of us benefit from is exploitative. We see the wealthy getting more wealthy and the poor getting poorer. We see the earth’s resources being used up at ever increasing rates. We see increased temperatures, ocean acidification, and extreme weather as the result of human’s putting carbon into the atmosphere. We see the banks and other financial institutions selling bad financial instruments and then getting off with minor, tax deductible fines. We see people glorifying all of this as if unfettered capitalism is the very emblem of God’s vision for humanity.

The challenge of this text is not that it describes the values of Augustus or Tiberius Caesar long ago. That challenge would only offend the Romophiles in our midst.

The challenge of this text is that values expressed by the “master” are all too often the values of North American Christians – or at least the values that we benefit from.

In the Episcopal Church there is a confession that speaks to this:

All:          God of all mercy,

We confess that we have sinned against you,

Opposing your will in our lives.

We have denied your goodness in each other,

in ourselves, and in the world you have created.

We repent of the evil that enslaves us,

the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.

Forgive, restore and strengthen us through

our Savior Jesus Christ that we may abide in your love

and serve only your will. Amen.

Presider:

May the God of love and power forgive you and free you

from your sins, heal and strengthen you by the Holy Spirit,

and raise you to new life in Christ our Lord. Amen.

May God continue our conversion from the values of the “master” to the values of the God who identifies not with the rich but with the poor and most vulnerable – so that we can all be human together.