Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Talents

We had the parable of the talents this morning.  One of my favorites.  In fact, the entire Matthean Olivet discourse is in my favorites column.  So, here's the text in case you missed it:

Matthew 25:14-30English Standard Version (ESV) 

The Parable of the Talents

14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants[a] and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents,[b] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.[c] You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

In my church we also had the I Thessalonians reading, which I thought went along nicely with last week's gospel reading.  Light and dark, and all.  We did not have a reading from the Hebrew Bible, nor a proper Psalm... though there was a little song with a verse or two from Psalms in it, but it hardly counts as a reading.

And we had a sermon. 

A bad one.

It was not the worst sermon I've ever heard, but it was perilously close.

And we had a very bad sermon the week before on the ten virgins.  Very, very poorly done.  But I was able to live with that.  To me, the crux of that one turns out to be personal.  How do you handle the dark?  Are you waiting or are you out working for your salvation?  Don't you know that you're going to be welcomed with wide open arms regardless of the status of your little lantern?  If it gets dark you should just calm people, and let them wait with you, in the glow of your light... do not send them away.  The ones who sent the poor, scared, virgins away are the evil doers in this story.  They're in the wedding feast alright.  But they are the evil doers.  The thing is it's not about the oil, the lanterns, or even the sleeping.  It's about how you wait.  Whether or not you help others learn to wait.  It's personal.  So the fact that the sermon on that was botched didn't bug me too much.

But today's sermon does not appeal to one's private situation.  This is about the dominant order of things and whether or not we are going to participate in it.  It's about how we overthrow the kingdom of the world in some hope that the Kingdom of God might come.  This one is important.

Today the preacher at my church gave some kind of interpenetration where the master of the household was God, and the servants were all of us, and the ones who took their talents and made more were rewarded and got to go to Heaven and sing praise songs all day.  He said that the trustees worried about being successful and that good worry can spur you to action, but bad worry makes you bury your talent in the ground.  Oh, and we were all urged to examine our many talents (because he assured us all that we were the kind of trustee that would get a million dollars from the householder)  we should make sure we are using our prodigious talents. It was a bunch of crap.  You don't have to be a rocket scientist, or even a theologian, to see that that wears a little thin in  places.  For example:

  • How did the servants double their money?  Did they do it like their master, reaping where they did not sow?  Because that doesn't sound like very good behavior to me.  Nor does it sound like anything God would do.  God sows everywhere, even on rocky ground.  It's like he's the god of seeds... he just throws them everywhere and doesn't care much if they grow or not.  It just doesn't fit.
  • Also, what does it mean to "come into the rest of your master?"  I mean, who is the master?  I do think that's an important question...  Because I believe in the devil.
  • And, finally, how do the actions of the master square with what we know of Jesus?  Jesus doesn't kick people out.  He is all about the second chance.  "Today you will be in Paradise with me,"  he says to the thief on the cross.  To the woman caught in adultery, he has no condemnation.  He is always reaching out to the lowest man on the totem pole... or up in a Sycamore Tree.  You never see Jesus casting people into darkness.  So I think it's odd that he'd be doing it here.

So what is this story about?  

Well, the first thing you need to know is that it was not written for 21st century Americans.  It was written in probably 70 or so, maybe earlier.  It was written for Jews who had converted to Christianity, though I think the two were not as far apart even then as they are today.  Anyway, and it was probably sourced from Mark.  But I wasn't there and I don't know.  I got that from some notes I made in the margin on my Bible.  Always get a Bible with wide margins.  That's my advice. 

So, if we are not the intended audience then it is important to think about what the story sounded like in those first century Jewish convert ears.  You can't skip that step.  I have heard a lot of sermons lately where people skip that step.  No, people.  You have to do that step.  So, here's what you need to know about that.

The economic system in first century Palestine was as corrupt as Wall Street is today.  No foolin',. it was bad.   And the way this wicked householder made his money way by robbing the serf/slave laborers who worked on his land.  It is likely that at one time the land had belonged to them. or at least to their fathers and grandfathers.   But, times change.  Things get hard.  And over the years the land had been sold off.  Now the former small land holders were renters, and they were perennially in debt to the new land holder... the man who reaps where he does not sow. 

If you reap where you have not sown that means you are stealing.  I don't know how to be any clearer about it.  The householder was a thief.  That is how he got rich.

So, anyway, he decides to go on a trip:  a vacation, business trip, off to see his mistress... we don't know.  He's going away.  And he wants someone to look after his loot while he's gone. So the storyteller here presents us with three trustees:  One who receives FIVE talents, one who receives only two, and one who gets just one. 

The trustee who got five talents had obviously proven himself to the householder, because five talents is a lot of dough.  In other words, he is well acquainted with the machinations of evil.  He can turn five into another five easily, and probably still had some to tuck away for himself.  That's just how things worked back then.

The trustee who got two talents was probably pretty good too.  But, he was more like a junior partner.  He might have still had a few things to learn, but the householder trusted him.  Even two talents is a lot of dough.

But the last one... he is different.  This trustee was only given one talent.  I think that in the honor/shame culture of that time and place that might have looked like one of two things:  It might have seemed like a slap in the face.  Only one talent, after all.  Or, it might have been an opportunity to prove himself worthy/evil by going along with the householders financial shenanigans. 

Trustee one and two get to work right away extorting money from their poor neighbors, and they are ready for the master's return.

The other trustee, he refuses to participate.  And he knows his master.  In fact,. when the master comes home trustee three calls him out,  "You are a bad guy.  You take what is not yours.  I am scared of you," he says, "But I will not extort and rob either.  I am not going to play these games with people's lives.  Here's what's rightfully yours." 

Trustee three is the hero of the story.  It is possible that he was given the money as a joke, because the master of the house knew that the trustee was honest.  It's possible that the trustee had been on the fence and the master wanted to see which way he would go.  We can only speculate about these things.  But something happened that forced a decision on the part of the third trustee.

The first two were taken into the masters house to live with him.  Why?  Because they would have been killed if the master had left them out there with the peasants.

The other trustee... he could walk freely among the peasants without fear because he had not defrauded them.

The questions we should ask ourselves today are:

  • What am I doing to overthrow the oppressive economic systems in the world today?

  • How is my participation in capitalism perpetuating the poverty of others?

  • How can I begin a personal revolution to live in a way that does not aid and abet the terrorists of industry and government in their relentless enslavement of the poor? 

  • How can I begin an economic revolution to overthrow capitalism and bring economic stability to all?

  • Am I ready to live with the consequences of dissent? 

You come up with your own questions.  I have to go to work.  Oh, perfect.  I work so much I don't even have time to blog.

Addition:  When I lived in Myanmar I saw lots of houses surrounded with razor wire and I would often put up a little prayer that I am never so rich that I need razor wire.  I'd rather be poor and have the friendship of the peasants than rich, isolated, and fearful. 

We really do have to have some compassion for the first two trustees.  They had to live in the master's house.  And I'll bet it had razor wire.


  1. Thank you for your interpretation. I have been arguing with my parents and my churches about this parable since I was a little girl--your comments make sense to me.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Old Dog. We love all dogs around here.

  3. I have just recently begun studying the Bible. Slowly but surely! This interpretation is fantastic! Thank you for making it a little bit easier to understand. The Bible can be somewhat intimidating for a beginner :-)

  4. Wow! This is the first time i have heard you rant. And now i know why you aren't ordained. Your exegesis is awesome, but it wouldn't play in Peoria. May i post this sermon at my place? It might get me defrocked, but speaking the truth is what i try to do.

  5. Dear Holly,

    Wonderful! You have begun a voyage that will take you through the centuries, guide you into foreign lands, and introduce you to fascinating people: Murders, saints, sluts, cowards, crazies, and some nice people who had their worlds turned upside down by an encounter with God. You'll learn about their wild customs, the Gods of their enemies, an marvel that these strange people lived and breathed on Earth, because it's often more like something from Star Trek. You're going to LOVE the Bible. Oh, and if you haven't already learned this, it will also baffle, confuse, and possibly infuriate you. It was written by a lot of different people, over a lot of centuries and they didn't always consult one another. The thing to do is to remember that it came from God and that God loves you. God will reveal what you need to know, when you need to know it. Not all at once, even though we think we want that. But God is faithful and it does come. I am glad you've picked up the Bible. We all have you as a new study partner. Nobody else can read the Bible exactly the way you do, and we need your interpretation for our own understanding to be complete. Even though you are just beginning you have things to teach so feel free to share whatever you learn. I am glad you found my blog helpful.

    Mutha -- Sure, take your chances! LOL.
    As a lay woman who has been kicked out, I am as free as they come. I try to use my powers for good.