Rev. Cn. Richard Hogue Jr.
This parable can be a troubling one for a lot of people. For some it smacks of Ayn Randian petulance, with the phrase “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.” Alternatively, many feel badly for the third servant in the story, whose account of his lack of action stirs sympathy for some. The gap between viewing this parable as supportive of exploitation on one hand or as one of Jesus’ most unjust statements on the other can quickly form a schism.
However, these diametrically opposed viewpoints are only possible when the parable is completely and willfully divorced from any shred of context in Matthew’s Gospel. It was not spoken in a vacuum, and contemporary social theories were not even a twinkle in a philosopher’s eye. It is only a pericope of convenience for the capitalist or the communist when viewed as though through straw, ignoring the reality of Jesus’ words and the moment they inhabit. In doing so it’s easy to justify whatever one wants with this gospel, making it dangerous for the one who wields it. Like a two-edged sword, it will cut both ways. It places human concepts over Jesus’ economy of grace, like a golden idol in favor of God’s will.
To those who heard it first, they knew they were part of a covenantal and divine tapestry, the fabric of which was and is deeply complex, encompassing the law of Moses, the words of the prophets, the Temple in Jerusalem, with faithful pilgrims from all over the known world making their way to the Temple, everyone leery of the occupation by the robust and brutal Roman empire. Social position was virtually impossible to change, and most people simply accepted it. Servants and the enslaved served their households, shepherd’s took care of flocks, merchants sold wares, artisans wielded tools, priests ran the Temple where the faithful flocked, and Roman soldiers patrolled to ward off barbarians and rebels, and those they captured were hung on crosses outside cities as fearsome and formidable reminders of who exactly was in power. The relationship between masters and the enslaved was not based on racialized chattel slavery as we understand it from an American perspective, but was still fraught with power imbalances and abuse.
The enslaved of our story are quite privileged as far as these things go. They are entrusted with various amounts of talents. A talent was a large sum of money, at minimum it was a years’ worth of wages, if not several stacked together. Whether it was one, two, or five, is not really the point. The point was to be a steward over a great deal in the absence of the master. Roman law codified such sums entrusted to the enslaved as stewards, calling them peculium, so it was a known practice. And this master goes on a journey and does not return until “after a long time” has passed, and he wishes to settle accounts. Jesus is telling this parable after exiting the Temple grounds, now on the Mt. of Olives with his disciples, overlooking a lot of Jerusalem. He has already told parables of wise and foolish bridesmaids stationed to light the way for the groom to start wedding festivities.
The disciples have traveled a long way with their itinerant preacher. They’ve heard him say “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.”
The disciples know that the talents come from a vast wealth, given by a master to those he trusts most. Regardless of how much each is given, they are expected to grow what is bestowed to them. Jesus has explained time and again that the reign of God is near, and that the response to it is to heal the broken world that Emmanuel, “God with us,” is breaking into. Take the talents as whatever you like, grace, abilities, wealth, the mission and good news of God in Christ: none of it is theirs to begin with, and the amount each is given is not the point, it is all about what is accomplished with what has been given.
Remember that Moses and David were only simple shepherds at first, but as faithful shepherds, guarding, cultivating, and leading their sheep to new pastures, risking their lives and livelihoods in the process, they grew their ministry and responsibility. Human as they were with all their foibles, they remained humble servants to God’s will. And like Moses and David, the first two servants of this parable did all they could to maintain and grow what their master gave them. “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.”
But the third servant, whose fear of loss and risk stymies him completely, was clearly idle in his duties during the master’s journey, for months, years, decades. Worse, he comes across as defiant, distrustful, and sullen. Anyone listening to Jesus would wonder what that indolent steward had been doing for the months, years, or even decades their master was away. “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.” This is not a good shepherd, he has done literally nothing with what he has been given, and he takes no responsibility for what his mission was. Instead, he throws what he ignored back at his master, giving himself no chance to succeed or to even to fail in good faith.
The master, with biting irony, throws the words of the shiftless steward back in his face, almost as if to say “If you really thought I was greedy and were afraid of me, wouldn’t you have at least put the money in a bank to earn something, anything, really? Your fecklessness is your fault alone, because you literally did nothing with what I gave to you. You’ve hid your light under a bushel and stolen any chance of growth from yourself.” Taken with the totality of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew, biblical commentator Jacques Dupont sums things up nicely: “Love is not afraid of risk.” Maybe the disciples listened to this while taking in the view of a very busy Jerusalem, welcoming pilgrims from across the world. Perhaps divine and global implications of this parable swirled in their heads.
Admittedly, none of this makes the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” any easier to contemplate. But it does remove any chance for the John Galt’s of the world to claim ownership of phrases like “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.” In fact, the Koch brothers, Bezoses, and Elon Musks of the world, along with those who condemn this gospel for its supposed abrogation of the poor and dispossessed, miss the point entirely. Faithfulness is the fortune. “For to all those who have faithfulness, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have no faithfulness, even what they have will be taken away.” It is the responsibility of faithful people, who know the love of Jesus in their bones, to risk profoundly for the sake of God’s reign, regardless of when our master, Jesus the Christ, returns. By turning our hearts towards the grace of God’s economy of compassion we grow our practice of Jesus’ mission and our effectiveness in carrying out the joyful, lifegiving duties God gives us. Thank you for taking risks for love as we wait for our Lord this Advent, and thank you for investing in the good news of Christ this Ingathering Sunday with us at St. Paul’s. Thank you for following in the footsteps of Moses, David, the disciples, and ultimately Jesus. Thank you, you are risking faithfully. Amen.