For all of you in preaching classes this semester or in parish pulpits who have struggled with Matthew’s parables – I feel your pain!
I have a history with today’s parable, one that is personal and has also involved my witness to the parable’s varied history in the Church. Chances are good that most people here can name a special history they have with particular biblical passages: maybe it’s a verse or passage assigned at your confirmation or chosen at your ordination or consecration. Perhaps it is passage that is connected with your call story. We have probably also experienced what I have with these special texts: they not only emerge at different times in our lives, but when they do, we come away with new interpretations. Such is the case with this parable.
My history with it goes back to my first call. Shortly after my ordination as the sixth women in the ALC Synod in those pre-ELCA days, I copied one verse and tacked it on my office bulletin board. The verse is the servant’s reply to the returned Master, “I was afraid, so I hid your gold in ground.”
Back then, if you were one of the rare female seminary graduates in the 70s and looking to ordination, one had many reasons to be fearful. In Minnesota, the district presidents (they were not called bishops back then) said: Don’t expect to get a call. Other leaders told women candidates, “This congregation has told me they have no intention of hiring a woman, but they would like the experience of interviewing one.” Interested?
Some parishioners complained that they didn’t like the liturgy sung in a female voice; newspapers, radio and t.v. were eager to interview us and of course parishioners were eager to react to whatever was said. No one ever thought about inclusive language – the phrase had yet to be thought up, although 12 women among the 600 guys at Luther Seminary sat in chapel in the front row one morning. And with the singing of the opening hymn, titled Rise Up O Men of God – we stayed seated.
Indeed, back then, the tendency to hide one’s gold in the ground’ to remain out of the inevitable controversies with all their stress, confronted me almost daily. Was I intentionally behaving like the wicked servant – I hoped not. But I certainly understood his pleas about being afraid.
But then as parish life unfolded, I moved away from that verse more confident and less worried that I was hiding my vocational gold in the ground. But again, I witnessed this parable used in other ways. I encountered colleagues preaching it for STEWARSHIP SUNDAY. Although no one preached it to the end; the final outer darkness business being wisely left unstated.
Furthermore this parable seemed the perfect fit for another form of the stewardship drive - Time and Talent Sunday. And how convenient that the ancient Greek word for talent in this parable as a monetary measure of a precious metal, blended into the contemporary definition of “talent’ as a skill. So if one was short of money, the preacher could work personal talents into the picture as well.
This parable IS about money right? It would seem on the surface of it. that we are dealing with a God who values the bottom line. But let us scrutinize more closely the departing master. He exhibits an amazing trust in his servants, handing out his precious resources, lavishly. There are no conditions or directions about how to deal with anything. The one thing the master wisely does is that he gives to each servant, as v. 15 says, “According to his ability.”
So – nobody got anything they couldn’t handle. Here are the keys to the place, guys. Have fun?! – Bye. And not a word about the return time. The slaves have the run of the estate and all the property. And the master didn’t even mention a yearly audit!
But v. 19 speeds up the story. After a long time the master returned and settled accounts with his servants.
What had they done with his property while he was gone? Two invested it, receiving high praise and the invitation – in Jesus’ words - to”enter the joy of the Master.” Then comes the whiner; the one who has figured it all out ahead of time. Who thinks he knows the mind of the Master. And who is actually dumb enough to tell the Master so.
The Master’s response – he is wrathful. And this parable ends in a way that dismays everyone: outer darkness. weeping, being thrown out, gnashing of teeth.
The Master removes the one talent the whiner had and gave it to the guy who had ten. Why not to the guy who had four? A detail like this, which seems unfair, should tip us off that Jesus’ narrative may be more than about money and the keeping of accounts.
But if so- what? To respond to that question, one needs to do yet another re-focus. First, the emphasis of this parable today seems to have moved to its conclusion. Current cultural and ecclesial preoccupations with global finances and economics find many fixated -on the parable’s conclusion.
Who knows if the Mayan calendar prophecies will come true? Now retired prophet Harold Camping, repeatedly has predicted the end of the world and the outer darkness. Rob Bell writes a book called Love Wins – and others ask: But does justice also prevail?
In a new edition of a book on the doctrine of final punishment, a reviewer says: “This book concludes that hell is a place of total annihilation, everlasting destruction, although the destructive process encompasses conscious torment of whatever sort, intensity, and duration God might require in each individual case.” WOW. A tailor-made hell. One would never guess that love and mercy are connected with God.
What do we have here? If we stop with the judgment rendered on the lazy servant, it would seem the outer darkness is the fast track on which we are all traveling. Is Jesus giving us a story about a God who keeps track of things, who will toss us out if we don’t do the right thing?
The energetic heart of this parable beats in v. 26. You knew did you, says the wrathful Master, who I am and what I expect? Is it possible in our reading of this parable, that we have misunderstood the nature of God and God’s intentions towards us?
Have we missed the point that was in place from the very beginning of this parable? Namely that the Master is lavish, incredibly so in His trust and his gifts to his servants. Rather than rejoicing in the available assets and gifts of God given for our flourishing, have we like the wicked servant second- guessed the Master? Have we reduced the Master to an angry accountant?
Are we so preoccupied with reading this parable from the end, that we do not see the conclusion is in the beginning?
This parable reflects a loving God; one whose generosity is given to us, not to stress us but to bless us, to encourage us. We have all already been given the Kingdom and the gifts of it. We have the run of the whole property! If God is not counting and fussing, why are we??
Truth be told there is even more; we are God’s good investments. Everything we need is already at hand and for that reason may we rejoice in the opportunities and joy of our Master, to which he has already and always invited us.