This is the first in a series of sermons on the Parables of Jesus that I will be sharing with you this summer. Please join us in person at Nine Mile River United Church at 10 am for July, and at Riverview United Church at 10 am for August and September 1. We will return to regular worship times on September 8, 2019.
Today’s Scripture: Matthew 25:14-30 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Parable of the Talents
14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents,[a] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 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.’ 21 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.’ 22 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.’ 23 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.’ 24 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; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 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? 27 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. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 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. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
I was the student pulpit supply minister at Fort Massey United Church in Halifax during both summers of 2016 and 2017. The first summer I was inspired to prepare a 10-week sermon series based on ten of the windows in their sanctuary. They enjoyed having a sermon series so much that when they asked me back for a second summer, I wanted to create one again. Generally, I preach from the revised common lectionary which is a 3-year cycle of biblical readings that takes us through the seasons of the church year. It is used by worship leaders from many denominations all over the world. I love using it because, for me, it is really great practice to challenge myself to preach from scriptures that I wouldn’t necessarily choose on your own. Sometimes it is also great to pick a theme and just run with it as the Spirit moves! This is the plan for this summer. I’m going to be sharing the latest version of that second sermon series I created for Fort Massey. I fell in love with contemplating the parables of Jesus while at The Atlantic School of Theology. There is a great teacher Yogi Bhajan said that, “If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.” That is what preaching is for me, an opportunity to teach and so finding a way to a sermon about a parable is an opportunity to attempt to master it!
I don’t know that we can ever master such things, but I continue to revisit these parables when they come up in the lectionary and each time there is something new that speaks to me. I hope that in these teachings you hear something new and fresh about the parables of Jesus.
One thing I’ve learned about parables is that they are not the neat and tidy little morality tales that they might appear to be at first. Instead parables were meant to turn the way that we see the world completely upside down. These stories that Jesus told were provocative, alarming, sometimes insulting, often confusing, and always subversive.
They aren’t allegories – you know, the kind of story where each character or object in the story directly represents something else. And they aren’t fairy tales, where the moral is so very clear. No, parables were not meant to be easy.
Parable telling was a common practice in the Jewish rabbinic tradition. Jesus said. “He who has ears to hear let him hear.”Jesus was trying to explain why parables weren’t easily understood by everyone who heard them, but that they might make sense to those that understood that the Kingdom of God was revealed through Him. This was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah.
Isaiah prophesied that the day would come when a king would reign in righteousness and the rulers would rule with justice – “Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The fearful heart will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear.”This morning, we are among those who have such ears to hear and eyes to see. This has to be an intentional practice because it is often easier to hear and not listen or see and not perceive what these stories are trying to tell us about ourselves and the world we live in. This is not a new problem. The books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Acts, and Romans all tell us about this resistance we have to God’s kingdom.
Again and again, we can read about how we (as represented by the people in these stories) are afraid to see and hear what God is trying to show and tell us… again and again we learn that it is fear that keeps our hearts from turning away from all that the world tells us is good and true, and keeps us from turning to God who is always waiting to work in our hearts. Change is scary – but that is what the parables provoke us to do – change… And that is what the parable today does too.
When a beloved member of a congregation passes away we often hear someone say that they were “A Good and Faithful Servant”. Have you heard that? I have no doubt that people were indeed good and faithful servants in a positive sense. But that saying comes from a parable and remember what I said about parables…. stories that Jesus told that were provocative, alarming, sometimes insulting, often confusing, and always subversive.
Let’s really think about what this parable means with this phrase, shall we? When we use “good and faithful” servant the way that we often do, we have done to this parable exactly what Jesus expected those that weren’t ready to hear the message would do to it. We made it makes sense to the way we understand THIS world. I’m willing to bet that most of us automatically made the Master in this story a representative for God. If you did, then you are not alone as it has been interpreted this way for centuries by many preachers and scholars. But let’s take a closer look…
Consider this with me: If the master in this story is God then the heroes of the story are the first two slaves who take what their master gave them and turn it into profit.
In return for their good work they are told that they are “good and faithful servants” and are rewarded equivalent to their good deeds. The third slave, who took what his master entrusted in him and just gave it back to him in kind, is punished. Then he speaks up against the master and calls him a scoundrel!
Unsurprisingly, the master does not like this (although notice that he doesn’t deny it). He says that it is just an excuse for wickedness and laziness. He casts the third slave into the outer darkness – “where men will weep and gnash their teeth!” It seems that he was right to fear this man who punishes him with pain and suffering for simply returning to him what is his (remember Jesus said, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s!”). In this version, the Master says that wealth would be given to those who already have wealth and everything would be taken from those who had nothing. Does this sound like the God you have come to know? Yeah, me neither.
Do you imagine that in God’s Kingdom the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, financially, spiritually, or otherwise?
Do you imagine a God that doles out rewards and punishments based exclusively on our performance?
Do you imagine a God that inflicts pain and suffering on his servants? This God is vengeful and unforgiving… This is the God that people who don’t believe in God or folks who have no experience of God believe that we sayGod is. That’s not the God I’ve come to know. Not at all.
The first clue that this story may not be what it appears on the surface comes in the sheer ridiculousness of the giving of “talents”. Reading the parables has taught me that stories that have extreme examples are clues to the reader to flip the story on its head! Setting aside that this sermon has been misguidedly preached so many times to interpret “talents” as the gifts of the Spirit that God has given each of us (like playing the piano or being good at math). In this case, a talent is an actual unit of measurement for money.
Some report that a talent would be five year’s worth of wages, some say 130lbs of silver coins… so think about that. Slave 1 was given 650 lbs of coin! No Slave Master would give a slavethat much money. It just wouldn’t happen…not ever.
There is another version of this story in the gospel of Luke that gives another clue to what this story might really be about. There was a well-known story that the listeners of this parable would have known about. After King Herod’s death, his son Archelus set out to be crowned king by Rome. As the King, he would receive all the taxes and literally reap the benefits from what he did not sow. He harshly punished any Jews that tried to prevent him from becoming their ruler.
Let’s consider for a moment what this story might mean with a different hero. What if this parable is not about the kingdom of God that is to come but a warning against the kingdoms of the world that are already here?
Let me rewrite the story and see what you think…
The Owner of a Multi-national Manufacturing company was leaving the continent and entrusted all his investments to some traders that worked for him. To those that had a reputation for turning the largest profit he gave the most responsibility, and to the rest he gave just enough to keep them under contract with him. The one that reported the highest earnings became the CEO, the Chief Executive Officer of the company. The one that doubled his investment, but had less to begin with, became the CFO, the Chief Financial Officer or something along those lines…
While the owner was away, one of his employees learned that this company used child labour in Asia, polluted rivers, and had a reputation for destroying landmarks in poor neighbourhoods to build office buildings there. This employee didn’t want any part of that but was also deeply afraid of losing her job in this fragile economy, so she just kept the investment safe until the owner returned.
When he returned and she was about to blow the whistle him, he didn’t deny her accusations. Instead, he said that if she didn’t want to risk trading what she was entrusted with that she could have at least put the money in the bank to earn interest! Her ethical boundaries prevented her from doing even that with those funds and so she returned to the boss what was his.
She was fired on the spot and the owner of the company made sure that any future employer knew that she was not a “good and faithful” employee! The owner of that company is the kind of man that believes that being rich means that you deserve power and he has no problem taking everything from the poor if it means that he becomes wealthier. He knows that this is just the way to be successful in the world!
I don’t think that anyone would identify God as the owner of the company in that story. And wouldn’t you name the “Good and Faithful Servant” the whistle blower? – the one that stood up against an unjust leader, and the one that refused to become a part of the problem. That is the Good and Faithful servant that I want to be!
Good and Faithful servants are the anarchists and activists among us that fight for what they know is right just like Jesus did. These are the people that put their money where their mouth is when they see the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. These are the ones that stand up against big business and corrupt governments that make their profit on the backs of others. These are the ones that when they see injustice, they don’t just complain about it or turn a blind eye or share a post about it on social media. No, these are the ones that sacrifice themselves: their energy, their money, their time – to fight against that unjust.
The cost of being that kind of Good and Faithful servant means that those who measure success on the values of the kingdom of earth will see those that seek the kingdom of God as fanatics, troublemakers, idealists, “snowflakes”, or maybe even just lazy whiners. But, sometimes they are seen as real societal threats and lose their jobs, their freedom, and sometimes even their lives. I think this parable might really be about the cost of being a Good and Faithful servant of God. Jesus, a good and faithful servant of God, was willing to die on the cross for what he knew was right. Those that long for power in this world may attain it, but if they do so at the expense of other people then they are not seeking the Kingdom of God.
So, will you be a Good and Faithful servant? For the World or for God? It is my hope that we engage in parables as Jesus called his disciples to do: with our eyes ready to see & perceive, with our ears ready to hear and listen, and with our hearts steadied and readied for change.
May it be so, Amen.
Rev. Kim Curlett, July 7, 2019