Which Character is God, Again?
Jesus said, “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.’”
“Which Character is God, Again?”
XXIV Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 28A)
It’s almost too perfect a setup. As we come to the conclusion of our 2018 Spiritual Life Pledge Campaign, the Gospel lesson is the parable of the talents. We have all heard sermons on this text before. We know the story beats. We know what we’re supposed to think.
God is the rich man going on a journey
The talents represent all our money, stuff, and intangibles (time and abilities)
The five and two talent slaves did well by investing and trading and growing their Master’s wealth, while the one talent slave (who the Master didn’t believe in anyway) really messed up.
He was wicked and lazy for not making his rich master even richer
Then he gets his talent taken away and the slave with 10 talents gets an 11th
The problem with this interpretation of the parable is the moral of the story. If the rich slave owner is God, then it is God who says, “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.”
So the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
But again, if we’re being totally honest about it, none of us have thought that hard about the end of this story. We all expect the preacher to gloss over that last point and get on with the important stuff. I should make a mediocre to compelling argument for why you should give more to the Church for the growth of God’s Kingdom; or maybe that you should invest your money wisely for retirement; or, if I’m really bold, that you should bequeath some of your assets to St. Matthew’s in your will. Then we land very neatly on a happy note about the future of our parish finances, and how God will provide for those who provide for themselves.
But the truth is (1) you don’t really need me to remind you about all those financial practices, and (2) I’m not sure that is a fair interpretation of this Gospel story.
The God of Israel is not “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” Throughout the Bible, God is gracious and generous toward humanity, and God commands us to handle our stuff very differently. Pastor Mark Davis explains it like so:
“That is the very opposite of the God of Israel who brought God’s people into a land flowing with milk and honey, drinking from cisterns they did not dig and reaping harvests that they did not plant. It is unlike the God who tells harvesters to harvest badly, leaving the edges of the wheat, leaving dropped sheaves behind, not stripping the vines or shaking the olive trees, so that those who have nothing to sow can reap anyway. It is equally unlike Jesus’ sower who goes out and throws seed wastefully all over the place, knowing that whatever lands on the good soil will produce beyond one’s wildest dream. The “lazy” servant’s depiction of the assumed divine figure… is not the God made known in Christ.”
God commands Israel not to make all the profit it can, but instead to feed the hungry and needy with the edges of their fields. God doesn’t fit neatly into the greedy, capitalistic world we live in. So God cannot be found in this wealthy, exploitative businessman who punishes a slave for not making a profit. God did not put us on this earth to be hyper-efficient machines. That is a recipe for neglecting our friends and neighbors and hurting those whom God loves and calls us to love.
So the point of the story is not to be the savviest businessperson around. It’s not about gaining the most wealth you can before Jesus comes back. Jesus is found not in the wealthy and cruel slave owner, but in the “worthless slave”. Jesus is in that last slave who would not play by the greedy, exploitative rules of the economy. Jesus and his followers should rather suffer punishment than help the rich steal from the poor, because the way of Jesus is self-giving, self-sacrificing love for the betterment of the world.
Furthermore, the Bible and Church Tradition do not teach that “God helps those who help themselves.” The traditional interpretation of the parable imagines that God is absent for most of our earthly lives and we judged purely on the merits of our actions. If you did good then you’re good; if you did bad, you’re bad.
But that fails to take into account the powerful influence of sin in our lives. We still live in a form of bondage to sin. We cannot make it through this life without sinning. That means that none of us is really good enough on our own to earn God’s praise and love. The idea that we can simply work hard at morality and pull ourselves up by the spiritual bootstraps is a “heresy” (a false teaching) call Pelagianism.
Instead we believe that Christ died for us even while we are still sinners (Rom 5:8). “In [Jesus Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us” (Eph 1:7-8a). Everything is grace. It’s all a free, unearned gift. We didn’t earn any of God’s goodness. God is just good in Godself. So whenever God interacts with us, we receive goodness and grace.
So God is gracious and merciful, not a harsh accountant of our sins or merits. And God teaches us to share our abundance with our neighbors, not to hoard it for ourselves. In other words, God is not like the slave owner in this story. The landowners, lenders, and merchants of the world may behave like this man in the parable, but we aren’t called to.
Instead, Jesus says “5 blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth; 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:5-10).
So it is a good time of year to look at your finances and commit to give generously to this parish and to other charitable organizations. I’m all for that. But don’t do it out of fear that God will smite you if you don’t. That’s the one part that the “worthless slave” got wrong. Instead be generous because God is generous. Be lavish with others because God has loved us lavishly. And “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all evermore. Amen” (2 Cor 13:13; BCP, p. 102).
Davis, Mark. “The Politics of the Talents -- Matthew 25:14-30.” Political Theology Today. Blog. Published 10 November 2014. Accessed 16 November 2017. http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-the-talents-matthew-2514-30/
Image Credit: https://www.biblecartoons.co.uk/images/1044.jpg