Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 19, 2017

2017.11.19 “Parable of the Talents: Commendable or Corrupt?” – Matthew 25: 14 – 30

Central United Methodist Church
Parable of the Talents: Commendable or Corrupt?
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 25: 14 – 30
November 19, 2017

 Horn of Plenty

“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, the New Revised Standard Version

In just a few days we will take our seat for one of our most beloved family rituals; no, not football, but the public and private holiday that is Thanksgiving.

As we gather around the table, thankful for those who can be there and missing those who are not, our minds may be divided this year. Yes, we will be thankful our blessings, for our families, and for what we have, which is considerable. Not all of us have completely smooth sailing, but for the most part, we have been blessed beyond measure, and as we gather for Thanksgiving, we are sincerely thankful to God.

But in addition to gratitude, we may also feel anxiety this Thanksgiving, that something has gone badly wrong. The list of concerns is almost too long to enumerate: North Korea, white supremacy, mass murders and gun violence, climate change, sexual harassment, and now the possibility of a changed tax code, which is almost certainly going to cost us more in many ways, not less. Given that it also adds to our national deficit – it is going to cost our children even more. According to a Gallop Poll conducted in September, 73% of U. S. adults are dissatisfied with the way things are going; in other words, three out of four Americans have measurable anxiety about the state of the country. So pardon us if we get a little Thanksgiving dyspepsia, and not just from eating too much turkey.

For those of us who are Christ-followers, as we give thanks for our blessings and say goodbye to some of them, there is a third thing to keep our eye on, which is, “What are we doing with that which we have received?” Or to put it more in line with Jesus’ Parable today: “with that which we have been entrusted?” Or, at least that’s what we might think.

I’ve been preaching Jesus’ parables for over forty years now, but without knowing exactly what Jesus had in mind, I can’t tell you for sure what they are about, or even who the good guys and bad guys are. Jesus’ parables are less like classical than impressionist paintings, open-ended. I like that description of Jesus’ parables from Clarence Jordan that I gave you a few months ago: “Whenever Jesus told a parable, he lit a stick of dynamite and covered it with a story.” The Parable of the Talents, which we hear today, is one of those stories.

For starters, we need to remember this: we need to stop reading parables allegorically, such that the “Master” is automatically God or Jesus. Because if God is like the masters in many of Jesus’ stories, we are in deep trouble!

Secondly, in this story, a talent was not a special gift or ability, as we often think of it. Rather, a “talent” was the largest denomination of ancient currency. Actually, they were big pieces of precious metal, like gold, which weighed as much as 60 – 120 pounds each; you are not going to be putting a talent in your pocket. Each talent, substantial as it was, was roughly equivalent to 20 years wages for the average worker. So right from the start, that makes this story almost unbelievable, to think that ANY master would EVER entrust such an amount to slaves, and then skip town hoping for the best.

Also, the wheeling and dealing for which this Master commends his servants, would have been outrageous to most ancient hearers. The master and his servant’s behavior with the money would have been morally reprehensible; because somebody somewhere was likely getting cheated. After all, usury – charging interest – was prohibited for Jews and Christians up until the 16th century.

In a city like Chicago, a city with a history of ward bosses and machine politicians, we recognize the kind of guy this Master was. As Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkett put it long ago: “I seen my opportunities and took ‘em.” In fact, you want to know what’s funny (or sad, depending upon how you look at it); when I preached this parable 10 – 15 years ago, you know who I used as a contemporary example for the Master of this parable? Donald Trump, on the Apprentice, hiring and firing. And now he’s President. What does that say about us?

And what about the poor third servant? Definitely a conservative, he kept safe that with which he was entrusted, making not a penny more, nor a penny less? Maybe he had just listened to Jesus’ parable of the ten Virgins which precedes this story, those ill-prepared maidens who ran out of oil before the Master arrived, and wanted to make sure that what happened to them, never happened to him? No sir, he was keeping that money safe, in a hole (a very big hole) in the back yard. And for doing so, he gets cursed and kicked out. You’re fired!

So, the so-called Parable of the Talents could be about this: about money, but more likely about trust. The Master trusted his servants, and his servants trusted their Master, to the degree of emulating him. Except for the third; who did not trust the Master, knowing him for what he was, a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter.” “I was afraid,” he said, “and hid your talent in the ground.”

If this is the meaning, I could preach a good message – and many preachers likely are today – on what we do with what we got, and the opportunities we squander in life, because we are afraid. Some of us are afraid of God, which is no surprise given how badly God is portrayed in much of Christianity. Rather than the God of love that Jesus preached, God is an angry God, a God who would send us all to hell in torment for eternity if he hadn’t taken it out on his own innocent Son, letting us off the hook. No wonder many people no longer want anything to do with Christianity in its current cultural form.

So this parable might be saying: “Don’t fear, trust the Master, and most of all do not squander the opportunity and resources with which God has entrusted us, but make the most of them.” That’s a good message, many preachers preach it, I have preached it. Only problem is, as a professor I once had used to say: “Good sermon, bad text.” Because that might not be what this parable is about.

What it could be about, is something completely different. What if the Parable of the Talents is not about what to do, but what not to do?

Let’s review the clues. Look at the behavior of the master: an absentee landlord who does no work himself, but lives off of the labor of his slaves. Look at the behavior he asks of them: the profit-making he demands would have been seen in Jesus’ time as coming at the expense of good people; greedy and grasping rather than smart or virtuous. Look at what the master tells the third slave, whom he treats harshly: his punishment is specifically for refusing to break God’s commandment against usury (Matthew 25:27), a practice consistently condemned in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

So if this parable is not about making the most of our opportunities and using what God has given us, what’s it about? Jesus tells us explicitly in verse 29: “To all who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. In other words – tell me if you’ve heard this before: “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”

Is the Master’s behavior something God would commend, let alone imitate? Is the kind of behavior the Master commends the behavior God expects of us? Some might think so; I do not. It would fly in the face of all that we know about Jesus and what he taught about God.

If you have any doubts, just wait until next Sunday, and the story Jesus tells then, the parable of the sheep and the goats. In that parable Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes, judgment will not be made of the basis of how much money we’ve made, or how religious we were, but rather on whether our walk matched our talk: what we did when we saw the least of our brothers and sisters in need: whether in prison, in need of food and clothing or health care. (Thanks to Sarah Dylan Breuer for her excellent commentary,, Proper 28, Year A, November 9, 2005.)

So, maybe this parable is less about “making the most of what we got,” than it is about caring for those whom the world leaves out, like that poor third servant who did the right thing, but then got kicked out for doing it. Such people are like the people Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount; those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are humble, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure in heart, peacemakers, people persecuted for righteousness’ sake, like that third servant. They may not have a place among the wheeler-dealers of the world, but theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Maybe Jesus is saying to all those who can see and hear, that the world in which people like the Master and his flunkies always come out on top – seeing their opportunities and taking them – is passing away, to be replaced by the Kingdom of God. The question before us again becomes trust, but in a different way: whether we trust God enough to risk living as Jesus taught, rather than in the manner of the wheeler-dealers of the world, always trying to fleece us, whether in Congress or on the streets.

As we sit down to celebrate this Thanksgiving, let us remember those kicked out and cast out by the masters of the world. I have always liked and most years used, “A Child’s Thanksgiving Prayer,” written years ago by a child in the Spanish Mission of the United Methodist Church in Miami. It goes like this:

On Thanksgiving Day,
I thank God for my family and my sister.
I thank God for the rain and the sun.
I thank God for my Teddy Bear.
I thank God for my teachers and for my friends.
I thank you, God, for life and love.

On Thanksgiving Day,
I pray to God for all the poor people
who are hungry today because
they have no food, no home, no family
and no friends. They are all alone.
Only God remembers the poor.

On Thanksgiving Day,
I pray for the children who are hungry,
who have no parents, and no loving church.
I pray that God will spend Thanksgiving with them.
Please God visit me and love me;
I am not poor, but I love you too. Amen.
(CHISPA Spanish Mission of The United Methodist Church, Miami, Florida)



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