Nov. 19, 2017 Matthew 25: 14-30
Prayer: Dear Lord, Please be with us as we study one of your most puzzling parables. Grant us the wisdom to discern its meaning and the courage to apply it to our lives. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
The Whistle Blower
Many of you know David Gay on our staff. He is a Brit who has not lost one iota of his British accent or vocabulary even though he’s been in the States for decades.
David came to work at Triune just five months after I did. He gets people into drug and alcohol rehab.
He’s a member of Buncombe Street, but during his 12 years here, he has worshiped with us quite often. And from the beginning, he has accused me of having a secret web site for bizarre Bible interpretations.
I don’t know if there is such a thing. If there is, I haven’t found it.
But I will admit that my take on Scripture is not always mainstream.
The thing we have to realize is that while a translation may be written to sound like we speak and write in 21st America, it was in no way written with us in mind. It was written by an ancient people with a far different history, culture, understanding and vocabulary.
And I think that comes into play with today’s passage from the gospel of Matthew. We traditionally read it through a capitalistic lens and say, yeah, that makes sense. Even though we have a niggling worry that it doesn’t really sound like the Jesus we get from other passages.
So I’m going to talk today about an alternate understanding of its message. You may not accept it, because I imagine you’ve heard a lifetime of sermons and Sunday school lessons that teach the very opposite. But at least it’s something to ponder.
Let’s start by turning in our Bibles to Matthew 25: 14-30 and reading together the Parable of the Talents. This comes right after last week’s parable about the tardy bridegroom. Jesus is still talking about being prepared for the coming kingdom of God.
This is Jesus speaking.
14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
16 ‘The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19 ‘After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.
20 ‘Then 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.”
21 ’His 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.”
22 ‘And 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.”
23 ‘His 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.”
24 ‘Then 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; 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 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? 27 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. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For 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.
30 ‘As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Now, if you’ve made it through your church years without hearing a stewardship sermon on wise investing based on this passage, you’ve been skipping church. We usually teach this to mean that we are to be bold capitalists! Take risks in the name of Jesus!
Use it or lose it!
But I think Jesus may have been teaching something far different than the pro-capitalism lesson so much in favor in modern America. A scholar named William Herzog wrote a book called Parables as Subversive Speech, and he contends that this parable means the exact opposite of the meaning we traditionally read and teach.
For one thing, a talent here is a piece of money, not a skill or a gift used in the Miss America Pageant. God may want us to use our talents for his glory, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. He’s talking about money.
In fact, he’s talking about a lot of money.
Earlier in the gospel, Jesus talked about the image of Tiberius Caesar on a denarius, a coin that he borrowed from the Pharisees to make a point. A denarius was one day’s wages.
A talent was equal to 6,000 denarii – or 6,000 days’ wages. So a talent was 20 years’ wages.
That means five talents – the amount used in this parable – was 100 years’ wages – far more than Jesus’ hearers would ever see in a lifetime.
Jesus was exaggerating. He was using figures like a gazillion. He was saying something like this:
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave a trillion dollars, to another a billion, to another a million, to each according to his ability.”
I imagine his audience laughed as he began such an outlandish story.
To top it off, the first two slaves doubled their money. Now to us that sounds grand. And with the stock market we’ve known in our lifetime, even plausible.
But to first-century listeners, that raised red flags.
In ancient Israel, the highest legal interest rate was about 12 percent. For someone in that agrarian society to gain 100 percent interest, or double his money, meant that someone else was probably being forced off family land.
Large landowners loaned money to peasants based on speculation of their future crops. When these peasant farmers had lean years, they often lost their land to the big owners.
Furthermore, those listening to Jesus knew that Scripture spoke against this sort of business dealing. A passage in Leviticus prohibited usury or profiteering off the poor.
“If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit.” (Lev. 25: 35-37)
And a passage in Isaiah condemns excessive wealth, those who “join house to house and field to field until there is room for no one but you….”
The people listening to Jesus and who read their Scripture knew that the two slaves who doubled their masters’ money had done so unscrupulously. There was no other way to get that kind of money in a first-century society that lambasted high interest.
Then we get to the part where the master returns from his long trip to settle up accounts. He commends the two who have doubled his money, saying, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in change of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
Now if we are reading the master as God – as is traditionally done – we have to accept that God is pleased with these results. But I don’t think God is the master here.
I think Jesus is talking about exactly who he says – a man who went on a journey. We don’t learn who the man is until the third slave – the one who has buried his talent in the ground – confronts him.
The first time I ever remember seeing Russell Crowe in a movie was The Insider. It was the story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand who blew the whistle on Big Tobacco in a 60 Minutes interview.
Even though he was only 35 at the time, Russell Crowe was overweight and looked about 55 in this role. His skin was pasty and he was lumbering all over the screen. It was years before I realized that this was the same guy from LA Confidential, Proof of Life and Gladiator.
Because as a whistle blower facing the mighty resources of Big Tobacco, Dr. Wigand was a man who suffered.
Most whistle blowers do.
According to William Herzog, the third slave in this parable is a whistle blower. He alone speaks truth to the master.
“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.”
This master is not God, but is a harsh and ruthless landowner who makes his living off the backs of others. And when the third slave confronts him with that identity, he responds with an anger typical of the immoral who are confronted with truth: “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.”
He admits that he has made money off the labor of others.
But here’s why I think William Herzog is onto something. It’s what this master says in verse 29. Did you catch it?
“For 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.”
That sounds like the opposite of what I hear Jesus saying elsewhere: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Mt. 20:16)
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth….” (Mt. 6: 19)
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt. 19: 24)
This master is not God. This master is not Jesus.
Then he throws this so-called worthless slave “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
This third slave is facing the judgment of a wicked world. For telling the truth, for blowing the whistle, he is thrown into outer darkness.
If we accept this reading of the parable, we are encouraged by what comes next. The very next verse slides smoothly into Jesus’ story of judgment – the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus says that on the day of judgment, God will separate the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the unrighteous.
And who will be declared righteous on that day? Those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. They will be welcomed into the kingdom because they did these things for the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters.
And who are the least of these? People like the third slave. People who have been excluded from the riches and pleasures of earthly life.
I believe that the third slave is actually the hero of the Parable of the Talents. He recognizes the harsh master for who he is. He does the best he can to keep God’s commandments by burying the talent in the ground, by refusing to take part in making an enormous profit that will cost someone else his family land. And he blows the whistle on the master’s unethical practices.
For his faithfulness, he is cast into outer darkness in this world.
He will never be appreciated for what he does here. Just as Jesus was not appreciated.
For after the story of the sheep and the goats, Matthew tells us: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’ ” (Mt. 26: 1-2)
Jesus was not accepted by this world. And neither was the third slave.
I think that’s what the Parable of the Talents is telling us – not to take risks! Or be bold! Or give lots! to the church.
No, what this parable is saying is that the standards of this world are not the standards of the kingdom of God. To be faithful and true to the kingdom may cost us in this world.
It cost the whistle-blowing third slave.
It cost Jesus.
And when we speak out for the oppressed, the marginalized, the unpopular, it may cost us.