‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “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.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “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.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “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.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” -- Matthew 25:14-30
I'm going to start off with a confession. I chose this passage for tonight because I really don't like it. In fact, I hate this passage. The story confuses and irritates me, and most sermons I've heard about it leave me unsatisfied.
And this is precisely why I decided to preach on it. I decided that, instead of complaining about it, maybe I'd do some of the hard work on it myself. Perhaps I arrogantly thought I would figure out the perfect way to preach this passage.
But if anything, I am more confused than when I started. Let me just lay it out for you.
This story comes in Matthew chapter 25. Jesus is telling his disciples what the kingdom of heaven will be like. The chapter starts with the parable of the ten bridesmaids--the five foolish bridesmaids go out to meet the bridegroom with only their lamps and no oil; the five wise bridesmaids take flasks of oil with their lamps. The five foolish bridesmaids run out of oil and have to head to the corner store while the five wise bridesmaids stay on guard--and, go figure, the bridegroom returns while the five foolish bridesmaids are gone. The five wise bridesmaids go into the wedding banquet, and when the five foolish bridesmaids show up late, they are not allowed in. The moral of the story comes in verse 13: "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
The last vignette in the previous chapter is similar. Matthew chapter 24 ends with a story of two slaves, one who remains hard at work while his master is away, and another who decides to spend his time eating and drinking, figuring it will be a while before the master returns. But the master arrives at an unexpected hour, catching one slave drunk and the other still at work. The lesson in both stories seems to be that we ought to remain watchful and act as if the master--presumably God or Jesus--might return at any moment.
And then we have our story for tonight. Again, we see a master going on a journey. He entrusts his slaves with his wealth, each with different amounts. Two slaves invest the money wisely while the other buries it. When the master returns, he has some harsh words for the third slave.
But here's where the story breaks down for me. Actually, it breaks down pretty much right away. Let's talk about this word "talent." Many a beautiful sermon has been preached on this passage as a lesson on how we should use our own talents--our gifts, our skills, and so on--to glorify God. In this version, the moral of the story is that if we hide our God-given gifts, we dishonor God, but if we develop and use them, we honor God.
That's great, but there are 2 problems with this. One, the word "talent" we see here is not a talent like a skill. A "talent" is a sum of money. And not just any sum of money--a colossally huge sum of money. There are lots of guesstimates about the exact amount, but let's just say it would have been a literally unimaginably large amount of money for most people listening to Jesus.
In a way, this makes this story not make sense from the very beginning, but maybe that's the point. Commentator Greg Carey points out that we have often assumed that these were not intended to represent actual amount but are an exaggeration--a hyperbolic illustration to drive home the point of the story. This is in keeping with a lot of Biblical literature, especially parables, those stories Jesus told to illustrate something else.
But Carey asks, what if Jesus were really talking about someone who had scads and scads of money? What if there is something here about wealth inequality? That would certainly make something about this story relevant to our world today, particularly in this country. In America, the wealthiest 160,000 families own as much wealth as the 145 million poorest. Wealth and income inequality are the highest they have been since the depression.
In the ancient near east, the household was the basic organizing structure of the economy--and not a single-family household like we might speak of a "household" today, but the home of a wealthy landowner. The "slaves" we hear of in this story may not be slaves in the sense that we would think of in terms of chattel slavery; they would be servants, people who are dependent upon the master for their wellbeing but who are able to accumulate some wealth. Imagine if we were talking about actual sums of money and Jesus is telling a story about this ridiculously rich man letting servants take care of piles of cash in amounts they could never imagine earning themselves. What's there to be said here about our current economic structure, about CEOs who get bonuses bigger than lower-level employees' entire salaries?
My answer: I don't know. What I also don't know is the identity of the master in this story. Most interpretations assume the master is Jesus, which is a fair assumption. But I have a hard time with this for 2 reasons. One, what's up with Jesus being portrayed as being exorbitantly wealthy? Most evidence points to Jesus's family being poor and to Jesus leading a mostly itinerant life throughout his ministry. But of course, this is a parable, so maybe this is a metaphor--the wealth isn't actually money, it is the value of the kingdom of heaven, which is totally beyond price. Jesus calls his followers to to be stewards of kingdom work in different ways, to help increase and build the kingdom, to share the good news and, to quote the mission of The United Methodist Church, "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."
But we're about to hit another road bump. Here is the third slave's description of this master: "Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and fathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid." The master doesn't even try and correct him; he says, "You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?" The master's response is essentially--yeah, you should be afraid!
I for one have a visceral reaction to the idea of Jesus being this harsh master. Of course, it is possible the servant is characterizing him unfairly. Perhaps the servant resents the master's wealth; perhaps he is resentful of being told what to do. And there is something here for all of us to ponder--how often do we resist doing what is right because it would mean relinquishing control? How often do we push back against God and God's will because we just don't want to surrender? Perhaps this third slave is acting out of pride and arrogance while the others have chosen humility and obedience.
But, like we said, the master doesn't deny that he is a harsh master or that he reaps where he does not sow. And if this is the case, we must be careful about how we talk about humility and obedience. Years ago, someone told me that she thought the idea of servanthood was one of the most dangerous ideas in Christianity, especially for women. I resisted that at first, but I've thought about it a lot since then. For middle-class white folk in America, especially white men, concepts of "servanthood" or of being slaves to Christ are abstract ideas. Humility and obedience are virtues that we take on out of our own free will. But think about the woman who was raised and taught never to have her own thoughts but only to obey her father and then her husband. Think of the African-American whose great-grandparents were physically bound and literally, not figuratively, enslaved. Think of ethnic minorities working in the hospitality or food service industries, or immigrants who are for all intents and purposes enslaved by agribusinesses. It's harder to romanticize servanthood or to speak of voluntarily becoming a slave when these are realities that have been and are lived out by people every day, straining under "masters" who are harsh and who reap where they do not sow.
I can't quite square the master in this story with what we know of Jesus. Some commentators have looked at this story and said it is a tale of exploitation, plain and simple. The slaves are sent off to "invest" the money--and while there is much to be said about wisely investing wealth today, we are all familiar with what happens when this is done irresponsibly or in a way that takes advantage of people. What are these slaves doing with the money that the master isn't willing to do himself? How ethical is the interest they are collecting--remembering this was being told within a Jewish community, where usury, or lending at interest, was frowned upon and is repeatedly discouraged in the Old Testament? Some commentators have speculated that such loans might be used by peasants to plant crops, and estimates on interest rates on those loans run from 60% to 200%. The 2008 financial crisis showed us that "investing" is not a neutral activity, that moneymaking is not inherently noble, that predatory lending patterns are alive and well today as they were in Biblical times.
If this is what is happening, if the master is nothing but a wealthy loan shark, then, as William Herzog puts it, the third servant is the hero of the story. The third servant is the whistleblower, bravely calling out the master's unethical and exploitative lending practices. We have tended to have mixed responses to incidents of whistleblowing in this country, and certainly each situation is different--but if this is a story of an abusive master using his servants to exploit and likely harm other people, isn't it right that the third servant should speak up?
In the end, I'm not totally sure what this passage is telling us. No simple reading of the passage makes sense to me all the way through. And perhaps this complexity is something we should sit with, something we should digest. Perhaps we should be uncomfortable with any clear-cut definition of what a master-slave relationship should look like, with all we know about our history and the context of Jesus' community, the Hebrews, who were slaves in Egypt.
But to me, this is as good an opportunity as any to ask the question: what kind of master is Jesus?
When I ask myself this question, I think of a song that I learned in Sunday School as a child. Sing along with me if you know it:
Fill us with your love
Show us how to serve
The neighbors we have from you
Kneels at the feet of his friends
Silently washing their feet
Master who acts as a slave to them
Fill us with your love
Show us how to serve
The neighbors we have from you
The story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet is not found in the gospel of John, but it is part of the narrative that does appear immediately after our passage for tonight: that is, the betrayal, arrest, and trial of Jesus. It is here that Jesus shows us what kind of a master he is: in the words of Philippians chapter 2, one who "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave...[who] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross."
Jesus is the master who serves, and in his service, he calls each of us to serve one another. We're all gonna have to serve somebody--it may be the devil or it may be the lord; it may be the government or it may be our job; it may be the community or it may be ourselves, but we're gonna have to serve somebody. On the cross, Jesus shows us that we will not be beaten or scared into serving a harsh master; instead, we will be invited to serve a friend and a neighbor alongside the one who has mastered both life and death.
Sarah S. Howell