Proper 33                                 November 19, 2017

Matthew 25:14-30

So this is, for me, the most difficult of all Jesus’s parables.

That might sound surprising. After all, we all know what this parable is about. It is about investing our talents, using the gifts God has given us for the service of God, using our energies and skills to do God’s work in the world, until he returns – hopefully with the words, “Well done, o good and faithful servant.” It’s hard to argue with that. Of course God has given each of us gifts to use for good in the world. And sometimes we can be afraid to use them, and that is a sad thing when they go to waste. This parable makes such good sense, it’s as though we have always known what it means. This understanding is built right into the English language. In the Greek of the New Testament, a talent means only one thing: a big lump of silver. In English, of course, a talent means something quite different. Every time we use the word, every time we speak of someone having a talent for playing the piano or cooking or always saying the wrong thing, we are unconsciously referring to this parable.

So what could the problem be with something so totally obvious? The problems come when we move from what we have always already known, and begin to look very carefully at what Jesus actually says. That’s how the study of the Bible works: we leave behind our assumptions and read carefully and attentively, looking to hear something fresh. When we do that with this parable, our straightforward understanding starts to get really complicated.

First problem: most obviously, the way the master is described: “a harsh man, reaping where he does not sow, and gathering where he does not scatter seed.” It’s not just the servant who says this: the master himself repeats it and seems to accept it. So is this the way in which we have to understand God? Is God harsh, unjust, and demanding more than his share? Well, it’s only a parable, we might say, we’re not supposed to take it literally. No, but it shapes our imagination nonetheless. This is exactly how Christians have so often imagined God: harsh, unjust, demanding. It certainly seems very different from the way in which Jesus otherwise teaches about God.

And then there’s the immoderate greed of the master – problem number two. He certainly has a great business plan: he is not doing any of the work of investing himself – he lets his people do that for him – yet he is reaping 100% profit off of the first two servants. You might want to think about what kind of investment yields 100% profit – it is not likely to be an honest, responsible, or even legal investment. This is rapacious, predatory capitalism at its worst: unfettered greed for the sake of greed.

It is all summed up in the supposed moral of the story (third problem): “For to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” So wait – is that the moral? Is this story not about using our gifts after all, but about a world where the rich get richer and the poor poorer? What kind of a moral is that, anyway? Again, it certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do with the way the Bible normally talks about wealth and poverty: a concern for the poor, and a warning to the rich.

What do we make of this greed, anyway? At a time when the Paradise papers have given us a glimpse of how the super-rich salt away their money to avoid paying taxes, at a time when the kleptocrats in Washington are trying to ram through a budget that robs support from the poor and sick, and raises taxes on the middle-class, in order to give billions in tax breaks to their rich cronies. My sense is that most of us are getting a little sick of this shameless greed. In the splendid words of today’s psalm, “we have had more than enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” That makes it kind of hard to overlook the greed of this parable.

A fourth problem, which is easy to overlook: the master tells the servant that he should have taken his money to the banker, so that he could have earned interest. Sounds reasonable: except that the charging of interest is something that is expressly forbidden under Old Testament law. So is Jesus setting up as a good example, as a figure of God even, someone who ignores the holy law of Israel?

There is a fifth problem, which I had not noticed but found in a commentary. As we traditionally understand the parable, it is about how we are to behave in the absence of God; Jesus has left us alone, and will call in his reckoning when he returns. Isn’t that the way the early church understood Jesus’s promise to return? Except that isn’t the theology of Matthew. Matthew is the gospel that ends with Jesus’s promise, “Lo, I will be with you always, to the end of time.” And right after this parable comes the parable of the sheep and goats (which we will hear next week) where Jesus says he is with us in the poor and sick and oppressed. So maybe this whole idea that we are left alone to make the best of our talents is misguided.

Sixth problem: the third servant is the one who refuses to collaborate in his master’s immoral speculation; he is also the one who finds the courage to speak truth to power. One might think these are praiseworthy deeds: but he is called a wicked and lazy servant. Notice, however, who is calling him that: it is the harsh and exploitative master. Is that really Jesus’s judgement?

That question, and the snowball effect of such a lot of problems, have led some theologians in recent years to ask a simple and radical question: is it possible that we have been reading this parable upside down all these years? It is possible that it is not about an admirable master and a wicked and lazy slave, but that Jesus tells this parable to denounce the exploitative master, and hold up the servant’s resistance for our imitation?

In telling this parable, then, Jesus is unmasking the nature of the powers that be in this world; their true face is revealed as harsh, unjust, reaping where they do not sow. The third servant offers the path of resistance: he refuses to play the master’s game, refuses to cooperate in the system, earning him unjust profits. He hides the talent and returns it to the master, washing his hands of the whole business. At the same time, he speaks truth to power, he names aloud the reality of what is going on, and denounces the master to his face. He suffers the consequences of his courage and integrity, the consequences the system will impose on everyone who gets in its way; he will be cast into the outer darkness.

In the end Jesus is speaking about himself. He is describing his mission and ministry; and in this parable, the second last he tells, just before his arrest and passion, he is naming the price he will pay for his resistance, and the reason he will pay that price.

So is this a simple Marxist parable about class warfare and the filthy rich? I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Jesus is teaching us about God, about the spiritual realities behind his vision of the world. This parable is actually only one of a whole series of parables that seem to depict the God figure as a kind of tyrant, unjust, capricious, and violent. I have puzzled over these parables for years, and have become increasingly convinced that Jesus is doing something quite subtle here that we don’t quite have a grasp of. It seems almost that he is satirizing the Pharisee’s picture of who God is, the picture of the exacting, judgemental God, drawing the picture to absurd lengths to throw it back into their face with the question: is this really who you say God is? If these parables are supposed to do something like this, it has unfortunately backfired. The church has been far to gullible and has swallowed the bait whole, eagerly agreeing that God must be some kind of unjust tyrant, just like the unjust tyrants we often admire so much on earth.

In the end we are left with more questions that are answered. I think that’s okay, I think that’s maybe the point of a parable like this. If Jesus had just wanted to get across the message that we are to use our gifts in God’s service, surely he could have told the story in a more straightforward manner, without the offensive and difficult problems we have named. By telling it this way, he is challenging us not just to use our gifts, but to think a little more about how we use them in this fallen world, about who benefits, about whether we are really using them to build up God’s kingdom of justice and compassion for the weak and disadvantaged.

And he is challenging us to think about what kind of God we think we are serving, and what our motivations are for serving. Do we use our talents out of a sense of duty, to satisfy the demands of an exacting God, and so perhaps earn a reward? That is what the Pharisees preached, and it is how the church has traditionally preached this parable: the preaching of the law, of the eternal “should” of duty. The problem is, this is not particularly motivating; it leaves us feeling tired and inadequate. But what if Jesus is telling this precisely to get us to question whether this is really who God is, the one who is constantly demanding. This image of God continues to haunt us; but if we could really succeed in shutting it out of imagination, really hear Jesus’s insistence about how false and destructive this image of God is, perhaps we could find other and better reasons to exercise our gifts and talents. Perhaps we can find the courage to better use the gifts we have been given because, say, they are God’s good gifts to us, they are who we are, and that by exercising them we become more fully and joyfully ourselves, the people we were created to be, fully alive.

What kind of place would the church be if we could live out of this vision of God – what joy and energy we might find. I know it is something we glimpse again and again in this community; but we are still held back by what we think we know about God, by the old habits of thinking of the demanding and judgemental God of duty, rather than the God who is calling us to fullness of life. Which is why it is important, whenever we go to Scriptures, to try to look beyond what we think we already know, and discover the unsettling, subversive, complicated but fresh and invigorating presence of the living God.