Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse
Sunday November 19, 2023
Gospel ~ Mathew 25:14-30
This morning, we are presented with another challenging parable from Jesus. Let’s recap: a wealthy boss who is headed out of town distributes wealth among three employees and tells them to look after it while he’s gone. And these aren’t small amounts of wealth. In the time of Jesus, a talent was worth a fortune – about 20 years of a day-labourer’s wage. That’s big, lottery-winning kind of money. In this parable, Jesus is obviously trying to get the attention of his audience.
So, what happens?
The first employee goes out with his five talents and comes back with ten to present to the boss. The second turns her two into two more. The third, apparently out of concern for the boss’s ethics, decides to risk nothing, and buries it. So, at the end, she can present only the same amount. For this, she is the only one punished: tossed out where there is gnashing of teeth. It’s all very grim.
This parable has been interpreted in many ways. There are actually three versions: we have heard the one in Matthew, with the most money and only three servants. In Luke, the money is significantly less and distributed among ten, though only three matter. And there is a third version in the Gospel of the Hebrews, in which the whole situation is turned on its head, and no one who saves the money is deemed the most worthy. The Gospel of the Hebrews was a text studied by early church thinkers but was destroyed because of an invasion in the 7th Century and never made it into what we now know as the Bible.
But in what we now know as the New Testament, the most common interpretation of this text is this: when we put the talents and other gifts that God has given us to good works, we reap the rewards. When we bury our talent under a bushel, we gain nothing. This is a good lesson, and certainly one for us to pay attention to.
Another interpretation of this parable, however, is that not everyone is equal, but we can all make contributions. The employee who doubled two talents was rewarded in similar fashion to the one who doubled five. And also, this parable could be seen as a push not to play it safe. To be out there with our talents and treasure. To take risks to make a real difference. These, then, would be three challenges of this parable: to make the most of our talent, to not get caught up in who is better than who, and to take risks in the world.
But what if we consider it from yet another perspective?
First, there is context to think about. Today, we can read the parable, ponder the words, go back and read it again. But that is not how it would have first been heard by the people. Jesus preached in an oral society, and he would have offered these parables to large, noisy crowds or groups. He was, in that society, deliberately provocative. His message was not mainstream. And surely, he would have encountered his critics in the crowd. Surely, he would have engaged in debate or been asked to clarify his message and repeat what he was saying. What would have been the goal of Jesus’s telling this kind of story to that kind of crowd?
We should also consider that this crowd would have just heard the parable we heard last week: the story of the ten bridesmaids who go out to meet the bridegroom; five bring extra oil and are able to meet him, and five forget and show up too late. God is in the background in that parable, asking: Have you stayed awake? Are you prepared for what is to come?
In the parable that follows, we might assume the landowner is God, but let’s take another angle: what if the landowner is just a rich man, and what matters is how the employees behave? This man is not just a little rich, he is very, very rich – he is travelling, for one thing, and he has staff that he can entrust with his money. He goes away for a long time; and while he is gone the first two servants get busy making their boss money, presumably on the labour and interest of others, and at the end turning a hefty profit.
How might the crowd have interpreted this with their own experience -- as people with much less money and much less power, more likely to be the workers many rungs down on the wealth ladder? As William Herzog observes, in his book on these parables: What did those servants accomplish, but to concentrate more wealth in the hands of an already wealthy man? And who might now be in debt to those servants because of it?
The third servant, then, takes the wealthy landowner to task: I knew you were someone who reaped what you did not sow – who, in other words, benefited from the labour of others – and I call you out on it. Seeing it from that point of view, what did the third servant do but refuse to exploit anyone to make more money for the corporation. But he didn’t steal it: he just put it aside and went on with his life. Who knows what he then did with his time? Perhaps, he worked on behalf of others, rather than exploiting them. Perhaps, as in the case of our five wise bridesmaids, this servant was the one who stayed awake to the gospel. The one who refused to work for the sake of achieving earthly riches. Perhaps he is calling out the system as corrupt, as creating inequality. Might that not also resonate with a mixed crowd gathered to hear the words of Jesus?
But what happens to that third servant? The cost is great: this servant is stripped of money, cast out into poverty. What did this person do? They called the wealthy boss to account, or as Herzog proposes, served as the whistle-blower in the story, the one who challenges society’s notions of class and labour – just as the gospel calls us to do. Was it fair what happened to him at the hands of the landowner?
So, what does the parable seek to teach? What did Jesus want us to take from it? That is for us to ponder. And in fact, isn’t that the challenge in a challenging parable? To get us thinking, and debating. Not to discern simple truths, but to consider the story against our own perceptions and assumptions? Who is right and who is wrong? What if what we always assumed was right is actually wrong? Faith, after all, is not about knowing every answer. In the days when Jesus told parables, as in our day, it’s about asking the right kinds of questions.
This is a great gift that our faith gives us—that sacred text gives us. The freedom to step back and consider all the angles, the call to put ourselves in the shoes of others. And the promise that when we wade patiently through the complexity of life to find truths centered on love and grace, we find God waiting for us with a fortune beyond earthy measure.