March 15, 2015
First Lutheran Church
ANOTHER UGLY PARABLE
These last several weeks, we have been studying Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew. They have an urgent tone because Jesus is imparting his final teachings about salvation and the God on whom salvation depends before his impending death. Today’s parable is another with disturbing images and a frightening message.
In this Parable of the Talents, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is likened to a wealthy landowner who gives large sums of money to three servants for investing while he is away. Two of the servants invested the master’s money, doubling their value. But, the third servant played it safe and buried his money. When the master returned, he praised and rewarded the first two, inviting them to enter into joy with him. But he rebuked and punished the third one for his lack of imagination and courage.
This is a judgment parable because it is far more concerned with the failing of the third servant than the with the accomplishments of the first two. These parables of judgment are disturbing because they present a portrait of God who is harsh and wrathful. And they are terrifying because if God is this harsh with these people, what happens with us? This worthless servant, as he is described in the text, is cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, the same place that the ill-clad wedding guest and the five foolish bridesmaids have already been sent.
The parable centers on the dialogue between the master and the third servant. 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 slave, who has watched the master’s business dealings and how he treats people with whom he is displeased, decides that it is prudent to bury the money to preserve the capital. This was an accepted business practice of the day that is reflected in other biblical literature, such as the story of the pearl of great price. At the end of the day, the money is still there. And this was no small amount of money. It took a day laborer close to 20 years to earn a full talent.
Given the immensity of the sum, the accepted practice of burying money and the master’s harshness, the slave felt justified in his choice and even due a commendation—Here you have what is yours. This is the language of ancient commerce, in which one person formally disclaims any further responsibility for the assets of another. It is the same logical stance that Frost Bank takes with me when I withdraw money. Once it is in my possession, they are no longer responsible for it.
That is true, but Frost is responsible for my money as long as they are in possession of it, as the servant was responsible for the master’s money in his possession. Yet, the servant blames the master for his choices. I didn’t do anything because of who you are. The servant considered himself wise and prudent, but the master called him wicked and lazy. At the very least, instead of burying the money, he could have invested it with Frost Bank for its 1.5% return!
The parable is unconcerned with the causes of the slave’s fear or laziness or the master’s business dealings or his treatment of his slaves. It gives no reasons why the first two slaves, who also know this master, behave differently from the third. They respect the master and show him deference missing from the third servant’s attitude. He seems interested only in himself, making security, rather than service, is his goal. He has no gratitude that the master trusted him with so much money. Paradoxically, his fear condemned him to the eternal peril of the outer darkness.
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.
Jesus challenges believers to make full use of the gifts given to us by God. All excuses about not having adequate or significant gifts are unacceptable. For when, through fear, we seek to protect ourselves, we lose the ability to engage in service and our worst fears come to pass. It is like saying we have no faith, in either God or ourselves. Lack of faith uncovers a belief that God is too harsh to sustain us so we best preserve what we have.
Jesus calls us to a radical faith, one in which we die to our old lives and rise to new life in him.
Faith is not intellectual assent to appealing ideas, nor is it blindly following old traditions that are comfortable like old pairs of pajamas. Faith is active, believing that through Christ we will live eternally in the kingdom, not in outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Faith is the motivation for the way we act, how we treat each other, what we say, and don’t say. It is that which gives life meaning, so that we do not live as those who have no hope. And Christian faith is meant to be transparent in the world.
Jesus said, A new commandment I give you, that you have love for one another. By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Love, as the manifestation of faith, is the wedding garment we wear to the banquet, the courage we have to use God’s gifts wisely.
Jesus did not tell these parables to scare the hell out of us, but to teach us the blessings of saying yes to God. Eternal outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth is a terrifying prospect, but entering into the joy of our master is goal here. But it is not something we can do by playing it safe, shaking in our shoes on the sidelines of life. We are called to multiply the gifts that are given to us, to share the Good News, that God raised Jesus from the grave to save us and give us eternal life.
To God be the glory.