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Talents or Travesty
Matthew 25:14-30 “Parable of the Talents”
by DWR

A rich master, lavish holdings of talents, profitable investments, and one scared slave. Most of us have heard this parable. It’s been read and preached in church, it’s been studied in Sunday School. Traditionally, we see this parable as a wonderful story about using our gifts and talents to the glory of the Lord. In fact, that is exactly where I planned to take this sermon. God has given each of us specific gifts—talents—and we are all called to maximize those talents to the best of our abilities for the glory of God. This is good stuff—the beginnings of great sermons on stewardship, ministry, and working for the Lord.

But wait…there’s more.

I really get in to this parable until verse 29. That is where the angry master, having stripped the third slave of his one talent says, “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.” And then it gets worse for me in verse 30, which reads, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Is this the same Jesus who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 5:3) Is this the same Jesus who said, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth?” (Matt 5:5) Is this the same Jesus who said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal?” (Matt 6:19). Is this the same Jesus who said, “Truly I tell you, if you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven…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 heaven?” (Matt 19:21,24) Is this the same Jesus who said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field?” (Matt 13:44)

There seems to be an inconsistency here. God, as portrayed in this parable appears to be much more vindictive, angry, and hostile than the rest of Matthew’s gospel. For me, it raises a fundamental question. In this parable, is Jesus talking about God at all? Is it possible that this angry rich master is something other than our loving, merciful, God?

The intended meaning of this text is a bit ambiguous. Matthew precedes this parable with the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and the caution to keep alert for the coming of Jesus in all his glory. Matthew begins this parable with the words, (and I am quoting the original Greek here) “For as a man, going on a journey called to his own slaves…” This brief transition from one parable to the other is vague. The original Greek is unclear. We don’t really know if Matthew is still talking about the Kingdom of God here, or if he has shifted gears and is now talking about earthly things. Unsure of exactly where Matthew is going at this point, we can turn to an understanding of his original audience. Who was Matthew writing to? How would they have likely heard this parable?

Matthew’s church had very strong Jewish roots. Many, if not most, of his congregation were Jewish Christians and had been steeped in the laws, customs, and justice traditions of the Jewish faith. The “talent” itself would be a problem according to this traditionally Jewish audience Matthew is writing to. The “talent” is an incredible amount of money—equal to approximately 15 years average wages for one of Matthew’s congregation. In modern terms we could equate the amount to well over two million dollars. The Old Testament prophet Amos sternly warns against the practice of wealth accumulation. He indicts Israel for their sinful accumulation of wealth on the backs of others—at the expense of slaves—and without honest, ethical labor. In Exodus 16 and Leviticus 25 God strictly prohibits the lending of money at interest. Although there was some interest-based investment and lending at the time, the highest legal—or at least ethical—interest rate is believed to be at 12 per cent. Clearly, the heart of Jewish scripture tradition—as revealed in the Old Testament—is for equality, justice, and it is opposed to vast concentrations of wealth.

It is possible that if we pause and attempt to read this parable through the eyes of its first audience, this wealthy master would have been seen as a ruthless financial tycoon—an ominous scrooge who was unconcerned with ethics, justice, and equality? Like the multi-national conglomerates, Wall Street high-rollers, and obsessive day-traders of today, this master reaps great profits with little or no personal labor, investment, or concern for the humanity of those he profits from. This being the case, his two “good and faithful slaves” then would have to be seen as equally unethical and motivated by “profit at all cost” thinking. Unconcerned with their fellow slaves, they thought only of personal gain and getting in good with the boss.

Could it be that this parable is not about God at all? Could it be that this parable is about the cold harsh reality of life on earth with the sins of greed and the idolatry of money in a capitalistic society?

If this is the case then that third slave—you remember, the one who simply buried his talent and later returned it to the master—if this parable is not about God than this third slave is the true hero of the story. This slave did nothing particularly wrong. He protected the money in a way that was acceptable and customary at the time. He returned 100 per cent of the money to his master—the rightful owner—and never stole a thing

This being the case, however, I can imagine the fear this third slave must have felt. He is in a horrible predicament. This slave knows the underhanded business dealings of the master. This slave knows that the master reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter. This slave knows that the master is harsh man. “Harsh.” It is a word associated with “hardheartedness” or more precisely, the cruel nature of Pharaoh toward Hebrew slaves in Egypt. This slave knows what he is up against. Is it possible that the original audience of this parable would have identified the master with Pharaoh? If so, could they have related this third slave with a faithful Moses-type who dared to stand in the face of such evil and call it for what it is! SIN.

Rather than participate in the master’s ill-gotten gain, this slave returned what was the master’s and simultaneously indicted the master of his illegal, sinful, and unethical economic dealings. Now the wrath of the master is not so unsettling. Of course he is to be feared. This master has total economic power over this slave. The power to make his life a living hell—a life filled with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Could it be that the reaction of this wealthy master, a man consumed in human standards of wealth and power, reacted to this third slave the same way the world first reacted to Jesus Christ? After all, Jesus is speaking to his disciples in his final days before the cross. He is preparing them for the cruelty and in-humanity of the cross that is soon to follow. Therefore, could Jesus be prophetically telling his disciples that that he is this third slave who will be punished for standing up against the powers and principalities of world? “This is my body, broken for you.”

So it is with the false-god of the almighty dollar. “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.” And woe to anyone who dare challenge the wealth, power, prestige and profit margin of the Microsoft’s, Big Tobacco’s, or Pharmaceutical firms of the world today. Woe to anyone who would dare proclaim Holy Justice, equality, and righteousness in the face of underhanded profit taking! “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

“This is my blood, spilled for you.”

Remember, it was Jesus who said: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 511-12).