Proper 28, Year A
Added 11-14-05: By popular demand, my first podcast. It's pretty much this blog entry read aloud, and it's something of an experiment. Let me know what you think!
By the way, if you haven't yet visited and put a pin down on the SarahLaughed.net online map, please consider doing so. You won't be giving any information that will generate spam, and I am REALLY enjoying seeing where y'all are and hearing your shout-outs!
Oh, and I preached on this text last year; that sermon is here.
Matthew 25:14-15,19-29 - link to NRSV text
This Sunday's gospel is yet another reason to get out of the habit of seeing all of Jesus' parables as allegories in which one character represents God or Jesus. That isn't what's happening here. Take a hard look at the behavior of the master: he's an absentee landlord who doesn't do any work himself, but lives off of the labor of his slaves. Take a look at the behavior this master wants of his slaves: the profit-making that the master demands would be seen in Jesus' culture would of necessity come at the expense of other more honest people; it would be seen as greedy and grasping rather than smart or virtuous. The master tells the slave whom he treats most harshly that the punishment is specifically for refusing to break God's commandment against usury (Matthew 25:27), a practice consistently condemned in both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament. And the Greek word for "talent" very specifically means a unit of money; it has no relationship whatsoever to the word for an ability, so this is NOT a parable about us being the best we can be, no matter how much our culture of achievement wants to twist it into that. There are versions of that message that can be helpful, but it just isn't what the parable is about.
So what's the message of the story, if it isn't about us using the abilities God gave us? Jesus gives it to us explicitly in verse 29: "to all who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." In other words, "the rich get richer, and the destitute lose everything."
Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that God would commend, let alone imitate? Is this kind of behavior what Jesus expects of God's people? Heck no! If you've got any doubts of that, read what comes immediately after this story: read the prophesy (it isn't a parable) of the sheep and the goats, which tells us that when the Son of Man comes, judgment will not be on the basis of how much money we made, or for that matter on how religious we were or whether we said a "sinner's prayer," but rather on whether we saw that the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family, whether in or out of prison, had food, clothing, and health care. We serve Jesus himself to the extent that we do these things, and we neglect Jesus himself to the extent that we don't.
In short, PLEASE don't tell people that the message of this Sunday's gospel is anything along the lines of "make the most of the talents you've got," as its message is much closer to "care for those whom the world would leave destitute." Reading the parable in the context in which it appears in Matthew tells us how Jesus finishes that thought: We shouldn't be like the master in the parable because the world in which people like that come out on top is passing away. Jesus will bring his work in the world to completion; God's kingdom will come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven, as Jesus taught us to pray. You know that wave I talked about last week? Jesus' parable in this Sunday's gospel is telling us that we should line ourselves up to ride it. It's coming -- bank on that, not on what our culture says is most profitable!
The live question for us, I think, about this Sunday's gospel is whether we can really believe that, if we really can trust in that enough to risk living as Jesus taught us rather than according to the demands of those who try to set themselves up in Jesus' place as our lord, who try to enslave us to wordly standards by telling us that our security is in acquiring resources for ourselves and striking out at our enemies.
I believe we can. We can because it's Jesus who told us this, and Jesus is absolutely trustworthy. And as we inch toward Advent, I want to encourage y'all to look for the signs that Jesus was right, the signs happening in the world right now that the Spirit Jesus sent is living and moving and active in the world to accomplish Jesus' work among us.
They're out there: large and small signs. Here's a large one: over two million Americans have signed the ONE campaign's pledge to use their vote and their voice to eliminate extreme poverty in this generation. By 2008, it's expected that over five million will have signed, making this campaign bigger than the National Rifle Association, speaking good news to the poor not only with the moral authority of the cause, but with the power in numbers to make it happen.
I remember when the Berlin Wall came down. That was big. People were dancing in the street; students at the seminary I was at were leaving in droves to dance on the Wall itself as it came down, bringing graffiti-covered chips home to remember the moment. It was big -- the moment of a lifetime, some people would say. But I believe that a moment bigger than that is on its way. It's not a pipe dream; many of our world's top economists think it's attainable in our lifetime. Imagine with me for a moment what the party is going to be like in streets around the world when we're celebrating the end of poverty. Imagine telling your children or grandchildren about that.
That's a vision that made me want to dance, much as it made Mary want to sing:
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
That's what Jesus came to do among us. It's what we pray for when we pray as Jesus taught us. And it's the future we can bank on.
Thanks be to God!
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That is very helpful. Thanks!
Posted by: Songbird | Nov 10, 2005 8:10:47 AM
I read the same thing in Malina/Rohrbaugh and the argument is compelling but I don't know if it'll preach in my setting. I'm planning to preach on what we value, making sure to point out that the talents Jesus was talking about do not equal a beautiful singing voice, being a good poet, or skill at painting or sculpture. But my tack is going to be that even more valuable than a talent (about a million bucks?) is our salvation and the gospel and that we ought not hoard it or think that we need to keep it safe from certain undesirables. We've got to do something with it. I know it's close to the same old misrepresentation of talents as God-given abilities. I hope I'm not being unfaithful by going that way.
Posted by: Tom in Ontario | Nov 10, 2005 12:08:51 PM
While emphasizing the importance of using personal and community resources to the utmost to glorify God in Christ as the core message of the parable of talents, I would often be disturbed by the fear laden reply of the servant who was entrusted with one talent to the master at the day of giving account, "I knew that you are a hard man..." The parable echoes the feudal relationships present in the encomienda system, which even in the present time continue to lock-up poor peasants in poverty and oppression in many developing countries. I can't think of God to be like that. I can't imagine a God who is so concerned about investments and interests on his deposited money more than the life of his servant. I think the parable was written to challenge social situations rather than illustrating wise use of money and human talents.
Posted by: Francisco J. Hernando | Nov 11, 2005 6:10:18 AM
Hi Dylan, really love your web sites! I would tend to disagree with your interpretation though of this parable. It begins,in line with the previous parable of the wise virgins with "The kingdom of heaven will be like..."It will be as..." and it forecasts the "delayed" coming of the Lord as the virgin parable did.
The Kingdom is compared by Jesus as a "treasure" a great "pearl" and here as a "talent"--do we hoard this gift, burying it only to return it later or do we share it and multiply it (like the mustard seed that grows...yeast that rises)? All of that fits with the prophecy of judgment that follows.
I agree that the parable was meant to challenge our complacency as followers of Christ and see that what Jesus has done, we also must do.
Posted by: Michael | Nov 11, 2005 9:34:25 AM
Couldn't agree more with you, Dylan, that this isn't about talents as we understand them. But it seems to me that Jesus is deliberately provocative; that he fully intends to challenge his readers with an indigestible picture of God and that the shock value lies in the fact that the audience would have identified with the slave who buried his talent (non-exploitative and fully in line with rabbinic advice!). Jesus wants to shock them about God in the same way that the prophets sometimes do. And he commends risk-taking and maximising of opportunity. I think Jesus is being ironic - we don't have to conclude that either God is a money-grabbing bully or that the sort of unscrupulous motives of the master are those of God. But it's designed to dynamite us out of complacency. At least, that's how I've read and interpreted it in my post.
Posted by: Lawrence | Nov 15, 2005 7:20:18 AM
I think that the parable has a missional slant as well. I like Dan Via, and Dan Harrington's spins.
Also, though, when we talk about the eschatological in the pulpit, it is important that we highlight the here/present and not yet/future nature of the Kingdom. So, our weeping and gnashing of teeth is present and foretold. Our redemption is present and foretold. The present nature grounds the eschatological in the redemptive nature of the cross. It gives the eschatological imaginative context...keeping it from becomming some version of the Left Behind series.
Posted by: Tripp | Nov 15, 2005 11:40:06 AM
I have a hard time not seeing Jesus or God as the master in the story. Some days when I look at the world the "absentee landlord" theory of God makes the most sense to me.
Maybe instead of ascribing the worlds problems to an absentee God I should be seeing the world as being populated by too many people to afraid to take a chance with the resources they've been given.
Posted by: timbu | Nov 18, 2005 5:00:24 PM
Sara I love your words and use your blog often as I seek illumination of the scriptures. I am remiss not to have writen earlier when you have so often brought a perspective I had not seen. Let me pose a question in regards to MT 25:14-30, is it not possible that Jesus was discussing spiritual gifts and Holy illumination when descrbing talents. Not so much our human abilities but the gifts and will of the spirit, that guides us into the will of the father? The third slave could be an example of a pious religous person who never recieved the holy spirit and therfore never became part of the Body of Christ. They may of feared the lord in concept and even believed, but they never engaged in an intimate relationship with the spirit which insists on fruits (service to others, sacrfice, and following Christ by daily seeking out the next right thing. I find it hard to over look the descition of eternal punnishment of the third slave it remides me of Jesus's words "I never knew you" I love you alot and I am not saying I am right, just some thoughts.
Posted by: David Engler | Nov 7, 2008 9:19:27 AM
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