“No one can serve two masters; he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Jesus teaches this in his Sermon on the Mount, the start of his public career. As we approach the end of Jesus’ life, in Matthew, Jesus tells a parable that sets this dilemma before us. It is a dilemma. The parable practically begs to be read as prosperity gospel, or perhaps as Jesus’ endorsement of free market capitalism. At the very least, people are dealing with money and being urged to grow their wealth. Usually, when we interpret this parable, we take this for granted.
We commonly understand this parable as straight up allegory. If we know what each thing symbolizes, we’ll have the meaning. So, the slaves are Christians. The least among them is asked to manage a talent, somewhere between six thousand and ten thousand days’ wages. That amount represents the preciousness of the gift God gives us. Initiative is left to the slaves, just as God leaves much to us in this time between Jesus’ first and second visits to earth. The “joy of your master” is the party at the end of the world. The third slave either has no love for his master, or thinks only of himself, or believes the point of his precious gift is to rest on it and guard it at all costs. And, of course, the man who doled out these talents is God. God is, apparently, ruthless and unforgiving, admits to taking things that are not his and for which he has done nothing, and punishes anyone who mentions this by taking all their stuff and throwing them someplace where they can suffer.
That’s not the God we know. We’ve gotten to this horrible definition of God because we assume the authority figure in the parable is God. Parables, though, are, by definition, not straightforward. Parable—parabola—think: curveball. A well-thrown curveball will make a batter swing one place while the ball winds up far away. Parables do that to us. I think the common interpretation of the parable is a swing and a miss. It may teach us to use our money for God, but it teaches a God we do not know.
The authority figure here, the householder, gets mad at the third slave for calling him out. He does not deny that he takes things from people. It’s more like he is angry that this came up. We glossed over the matter of the sum of money involved, here. These slaves are dealing in millions of 2017 US Dollars. In that world, a householder of such means is one of the elite few. His life is spent protecting and expanding his influence in a never-ending round of social gatherings, public displays and private deals, all part of one great game of intrigue. He may enjoy this. He may hate it. He may just do it. It’s his life.
Slaves trusted enough to handle between one and five talents would be expected to expand the investment. They will loan it at interest to struggling farmers or merchants or artisans, and do anything licit or illicit to run up profits. It’s a careful game of enriching themselves while neither embarrassing the householder nor overdoing it with the masses. After all, the masses don’t deal with the householder, but with his slaves. If the people get mad and revolt, they’re coming for the householder’s slaves, not the householder.
The time comes to settle accounts. The slaves who were given five and two talents played the game successfully, and are welcomed into their master’s “joy,” whatever that means. The third slave refused to play the game. His statement about the householder supports that. “You reap other people’s crops, you live off the vicious work of people like me, who you need to steal from other people. Here’s your millions of dollars. I didn’t hurt anyone with them.” The master’s response also makes sense. “Oh, you know what I do, huh? You’re ‘on to me,’ gonna ‘expose’ me! I’m shaking in my sandals. Vinny! Tony! Throw this guy out. Let him be with those who cry themselves to sleep because they’re hungry, and whose teeth chatter with cold. Idiot.” This reading makes more sense than the common one, except for one thing: Why would Jesus tell it? (It is the end of his career. Maybe he ran out of material? Maybe he said, “Guys, I’m gonna be honest with you: I thought I was going to get crucified today. I don’t have anything planned. I’m gonna try a little improv.” No.)
Jesus wants us to think about what happens in this story. He tells his parables to get us thinking. We can’t rest in a parable; we can only move. It is as Paul urges the Thessalonians: “Let’s neither just sit here waiting for God, nor go about crazily consuming everything and not caring who we hurt. Let’s be awake and self-controlled,” and, crucially, “let’s remember God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us.” That is the God we know. God loves us. God forgives us. God makes us right with God. God calls us to carry that love, forgiveness, and righteousness into the world. God puts us to work serving our neighbors. That’s the heart of everything we do as Christians.
So where is Christ in this parable? He is not the householder, because that is not the God we know. He is not the third slave, either, because he doesn’t do anything. That’s true in two senses. In one sense, his naming the harsh reality of economics accomplishes nothing. He loses his job, everything goes on like before. In another sense, he doesn’t do anything with that talent, except hide it. Yeah, he didn’t do anything evil with it; he didn’t do anything good with it, either. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters…you cannot serve God and wealth.” Jesus didn’t offer a third “bury-it-in-the-garden” option. Our life is full of false binaries, but there is one true binary: are you serving God or not? A talent buried in the dirt is not serving God, even if it is also not serving someone else. It must be put to work. Where is Christ in this parable? He’s telling it. Christ is calling us to do something for God where the third slave did not. Without Christ, we can only do what the third slave does—we can refuse to play the ruthless game of the world, go weep and gnash our teeth. (Truth be told, there are days when, faced with the world’s problems, that is about all I can do.) But we are not without Christ. Christ calls us.
Christ calls us into the broken world, a disturbingly like the one of the parable, saying, “Do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops.” Don’t withdraw from life. Live boldly, following Jesus. Don’t bury that talent; use it for God’s work. Don’t just quit working for Sin, Death, and the Devil; put that talent to use working for God.
That’s the goal with our talent: make it reveal the truth that has been hidden, make it speak in the light what had been in the dark, make it shout from the housetops what had been whispered. It’s why we don’t shy away from tough things, here at Trinity. There are times when it would be nice to have a little retreat from reality. But I’m here eating and drinking a crucified God who chose to tell this parable as he stared down the reality of crucifixion. I can’t faithfully bury my talent and say, “Well, Jesus, at least I didn’t hurt anyone with it.” I can bring my talent here and together we can make our talents faithfully reveal, faithfully bring to light, faithfully proclaim from the housetops.
What’s that look like? Need we look any farther than the explosion of sexual assault and harassment claims in the last few weeks? We all pretended this wasn’t a thing. And I mean pretended, because we knew it. We all had it happen to us or knew people who had told us about it. It was hidden, in the dark, whispered in the ear. Stay away from that person, keep your daughters or your sons out of that area, and try not to visualize what happens. Now, suddenly, the stories are everywhere, and there is an opportunity, like there wasn’t before, to talk about concrete actions our culture can take to prevent these things from happening. That’s not guaranteed to happen: we may decide to forget it all, or we may decide to lynch the most prominent offenders and pretend that’ll deter everyone else with nothing to lose. The opportunity is there. God has given us a “talent.” Do we say, “Well, we’re not going to act the way those abusers did. Good night, everybody.”? That’s burying the talent. We’re not doing evil, but we aren’t serving God. Serving God may mean listening to the stories and taking them seriously, and trying to figure out how to shape the culture so that these sorts of actions are not tolerated. That’s acknowledging the full humanity of victims, and trying to have a world that celebrates the full humanity of everyone, and maybe even a world where these sorts of things don’t happen in the first place, at least not like we’ve allowed them to. That is putting the talent to use.
We do not simply refuse to play the world’s game; we actively work for God. We keep revealing the need to address racism, despite a community bent on pretending it isn’t a thing. We keep bringing to light that forty percent of Valpo residents cannot pay their bills, despite a community bent on keeping that in the dark. We keep shouting from the housetops that the LGBT are God’s children and welcome here, despite a community where so many churches equate this with criminality. And we feed the world—every single person regardless of where they fit in the great mess of society—we feed the world with the body and blood of a God who overcame death and the grave, who suffered crucifixion, and who chose to tell us this parable knowing what was coming for him.