Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 15, 2020 – Matthew 25:14-30 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom
I love game shows. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Family Feud. I find it especially funny when an eager contestant slaps the buzzer before the host, Steve Harvey, has finished reading the clue.
“Name something a 90-year-old man might get rid of…”
“His car, Steve!”
Sounds reasonable, until you hear the rest of the clue. “Name something a 90-year-old man might get rid of, if he found the fountain of youth.”
It changes things completely.
If a contestant is this eager, Steve normally makes fun of them mercilessly. They have one job—just wait until he finishes reading the question! But their rush to respond is understandable. They’re nervous, jumpy, competitive.
Plus, we’re all tempted to rely on our assumptions from time to time. I think this can be especially true in church. We have a liturgical cycle, a definite seasonal rhythm for things like the hymns we sing and the readings we hear.
For example, a lot of us have probably heard today’s parable—and sermons on it—multiple times before. Even if you don’t remember exactly what was said, it’s easy to assume you know where it’s going and to stop listening very closely. But as the contestants on Family Feud remind us, it’s important to wait—even if it’s only to the end of the sentence—to hear what’s really being said.
When it comes to scripture, this might mean taking some time to sit with the text and ask ourselves important questions about it. What doesn’t quite make sense? Which words or phrases stand out? Which words or phrases might change the whole meaning of that text?
These practices can help us suspend our preconceived notions. Only if we do that can we begin to “read, mark, learn, inwardly digest” the living word of God (which is especially important with parables).
For instance, how many times have you heard a preacher liken the talents in today’s parable to your God-given abilities, urging you to put your natural gifts to work for the church? “Don’t hide your talents! Demonstrate the gifts that God has given you to further the Kingdom of God!”
While there are certainly worse things to preach, there’s really no direct basis for such an interpretation in the text itself. Here, talents refer to units of monetary value, not piano playing skills. That one word—talents—changes the whole meaning of the parable.
Today, let’s simply enter the parable, suspending our preconceived notions as best we can.
A man is leaving town. He gathers his slaves, and asks each of them to look after a large sum of his money.
After he’s gone, the one to whom he gave five talents trades with them and ends up doubling his money. The one with two talents does the same. But the one with only one talent, well, he buries it in the backyard.
When the master returns and settles the accounts, the first two report their earnings. “Well done,” the master says, “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
But that third slave? Not so much. He says to his master, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
The master responds, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest . . . As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Whenever we hear a parable with a master in it, we tend to assume that that character represents God. But, try as I might, I’m just not getting the sense that this master is someone to look up to. His slave fears him because he is intimidating and unethical, because he reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter seed. In other words, because he profits by taking advantage of other people.
We don’t just have to take the slave’s word for it. The master himself says, “If you knew that about me, why didn’t you at least put the money in the bank to earn me a little interest? You’re worthless!”
To review: an extraordinarily wealthy master, with an unethical reputation, gives one of his slaves a pile of money (with no instructions on how to handle it, by the way). The slave, in turn, stores the money in a safe place and then returns it to his master. Then, the master punishes the slave.
It just doesn’t make sense!
Unless of course, the master’s only goal is to make money. It says earlier in the parable that he gave the talents to each of the slaves according to their ability. It’s almost as if he was hedging his bets, giving the most money to the ones he thought could make him the most money. Call me suspicious, but it’s as if he expected the third slave to fail.
And, even though that slave didn’t gamble the money away, skip town with it, or skim any off the top, in the master’s eyes, he did fail. He failed because he didn’t add to it, not even with a piddly little bit of interest. That’s what his master can’t abide. He is not looking for an honest, cautious investor who plays it safe. He’s looking for a greedy, ruthless money-maker willing to risk it all for a huge payday.
That’s exactly what he found in the first two slaves. And so he says to them, “Enter into the joy of your master.” But don’t be fooled. The master’s joy is a joy that comes from making as much money as he can, even if it’s at the expense of the wellbeing of those around him. That’s no joy at all! If it were, would the master be so harsh? So immoral? So greedy?
And the outer darkness into which the master casts the one who has failed him? It only seems like darkness to the master because he can’t imagine what life would be like there, without massive profit margins or huge dividends, without the rush you get when a big risk pays off.
But the truth is, the third slave took a risk, too. Not the risk associated with investing large sums of money, but the risk associated with asking hard ethical questions. Am I going to continue working for someone who profits at the expense of others? Am I going to do my best to make money for a guy who demands, at the very least, interest, a practice that the Levitical law forbids? How angry will the master be if I lose the money? What is one to do in the face of such enormous pressure—such bullying?
These are the kinds of questions that trouble the mind of the third slave. I bet Jesus brings them up because he knew his followers would be faced with similar questions. As he’s said before, “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and money.”
These ethical challenges are by no means easy. But Jesus didn’t come to talk about the easy stuff. Jesus came to teach his followers to think about the tough situations that accompany their faith. If we have to choose between God and money, is it worth it?
Whatever you decide, these are the kinds of questions that Christian discipleship demands. As followers of Jesus, you and I should be constantly challenged by the ethical questions of our day. Without regard to money, political party or even denominational affiliation, none of which can be the source of true joy, we must constantly ask ourselves whether or not the decisions we make are in accordance with God’s will.
Do our choices reflect our identity in Christ? Do our actions work to bring about the coming kingdom? Are we living up to the responsibility of stewardship that God has entrusted with us for creation? However you want to put it—Are you living your life following Jesus’ example?
This is not to say that you will always be able to make the decision you’d like to make. Even if you choose not to divest from some morally dubious stock in your retirement portfolio, or even if you don’t leave a corrupt employer because you just don’t think you can put your family’s future at stake right now, that’s okay. Sometimes, as Martin Luther said, we may be faced with situations in which there are no sinless options.
Luckily, unlike your success on Family Feud, God’s love for you is not dependent on a right answer, or even a quick one. God will remain loyal to you no matter what. Even so, a life of faith is a life spent navigating tough questions. The good news is that God is in those questions. Just by asking them, you can—and you will—glimpse the joy of his heavenly kingdom.