Matthew 25:14-30 (and continuing to 31-46)
Today is the Parable of the Talents. As with many of the stories Jesus tells, as we listen, we think about where are we in the story, who is God, which character is Jesus? And, as with all of his parables, it’s not always as clear-cut as that.
A few comments about the context of the story before we get to the who is who of the story. The landowner gave his slaves “talents” - a form of money. A talent is equal to about 6,000 denarii. Since one denarius is a common laborer's daily wage, a talent would be roughly equivalent to 20 years wages for the average worker. Five talents, the largest amount entrusted to any of the servants, is comparable to one hundred years’ worth of labor, an astronomical amount of money. That is a HUGE amount of money, right? I can barely get my head around 20 years of wages, much less one hundred years of wages.
At the time, one would have that amount at the expense of others from an economic system based on fear, greed and exploitation. A similar situation today is the, often, large discrepancy between what the CEO of a company gets paid compared to what a frontline worker in a store or factory gets paid.
Turning to who is who in the story. One traditional way of understanding this story is that God has given us gifts - money, spiritual gifts, assets, strengths, etc. and expects us to use them, not bury them away. And there is truth to that. It’s also true that spiritual growth happens as we live out of our strengths - love and generosity grow when they are shared or given away. When it comes to the description of the landowner though - I can’t accept that as a description of who God is. A harsh, punitive slave master who calls someone worthless? I join others reading this from the view of the oppressed in these systems. This is reading with liberation theologians and others like William Herzog.
“For me, the metaphor of God-as-wealthy-slave-master doesn’t align with the gracious and justice-oriented God Jesus describes throughout the Gospels — the God who privileges the poor, blesses the meek, frees the prisoner, feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, liberates the slave, and protects the orphan. I can’t reconcile the God Jesus incarnates among the peasant multitudes with a greedy estate owner who “reaps where he doesn’t sow, and gathers where he doesn’t scatter.” And I don’t recognize the kingdom of God in a story where those who have plenty receive still more, while those who have close to nothing lose even the little they have — and then face God’s wrath on top of those losses.” (Debie Thomas)
So how then do we hear this story? Stories told BY Jesus are not always stories ABOUT Jesus. The first two slaves work in the economy of the day. That third slave - he becomes the “hero” of the story. He returns to the owner what was his and he doesn’t participate in the exploitative system. In this story, Jesus is preparing his disciples for when he will be gone. There will be consequences for them as they live by the values of God’s kingdom that challenge the systems of the empire. They will be cast out, trampled upon.
Jesus did not participate in the exploitation of his day. In the tradition of the prophets before him, he called out the wealthy who cared not for the orphan, widows, outsiders. Jesus interrupts the economy of the world that tramples over those lifted up in the Beatitudes. And the consequence for that non-participation, for calling out hypocrisy and exclusion - he is killed. I’ve said it before, crucifixion is reserved for enemies of the Roman empire.
Matthew is clear that God's economy is not about monetary wealth or financial gain (Beatitudes!). What is the nature of God? Of Jesus? If we need a reminder of the values in God's economy, we have the next story in Matthew (read the rest of the chapter, perhaps). What are God's work/kingdom values, regardless of who lives them out? What is the joy of the Lord? Care for the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, welcoming the stranger and sojourner in our midst, etc. What you do unto the least of these, you do unto me. What you do not do unto the least of these, you do not do unto me. Love God, love neighbor; love one another. Live in that nature. Enter the joy of your master.
Part of God’s joy is also community and life together. I experienced that joy of the Lord this past week as I gathered on Zoom with leaders who were part of the National Indian Lutheran Board (NILB) - part of advocacy and action in the 60s and 70s to support the recognition of indigenous tribes and supporting indigenous ministry and life. We heard stories of mutual support and listening to indigenous people for their needs - really hearing them and listening to their voices, even when it challenged assumptions. We also watched a film called Native Nations - Standing Together for Civil Rights that chronicles their stories. Amid social unrest, American Indian activists and organizers struggled for sovereignty, justice, and civil rights. Standing together, Native nations and the National Indian Lutheran Board emerged to speak out with a unified voice.
God is pouring abundance and joy into us - what do we do with that? - “invest” and give away - and what does that look like? Care for the poor, for all, regardless of their situation in life, pursuing justice and righteousness, listening to the voices from the margins. As we hear in 1 Thessalonians, those who wait and watch for the Lord will not be surprised on that day of the Lord. Right now, as we wait for the Lord, we clothe ourselves with faith and love, and the hope of salvation. It is an invitation to live in the joy of our master, the joy of the Lord. And it is an invitation for all.
Rev. Elizabeth Bier is the pastor of ONE in Christ Parish, a three-point parish in Greenwood, Longwood, and Withee. She is ordained with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and has served the ONE in Christ Parish since February of 2019.Profile
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