The Parable of the Talents

Nov. 16, 2014

Year A, Proper 28

The year is 2014. We know this time, we know this place, we know this world. Even in the midst of the current financial crises, the CEO of the world’s largest shoe manufacturer is about to leave for his yearly trip to Monaco. The CEO calls in three promising mid-level executives and gives each of them a number of factories to oversee in his absence.

Each to their own ability. To the first and most established he gives 5 factories. To the second he gives 2 factories. And to the last, only one.

Our first executive decides it is in his best interest to impress the boss, so he sets off to double his factories’ output. If he can produce twice as many shoes, he would be responsible for all that profit the company would make. So he forces his workers to all work twice as long for their normal pay. They are just lucky to have a job, right?

Likewise, the second executive sets out to create a profit for the company. If she can get twice as many people to work in her factory for half the normal pay, then she also could produce twice as many shoes.

The third executive does something a little different. He travels to his one factory. There he announces to all the employees that everyone will get a paid vacation. He then closes his factory for the entire time the CEO is on vacation.

Upon the CEO’s return, he looks the factory output reports over, then calls all 3 executives before him in his office. “You doubled production I see,” he said to the first. “This means greater profit, I will make you Vice President of Production.”

“You too doubled production,” he said to the second. “I will make you Vice President of Operations.”

But before he could say anything to the third executive, he blurts out, “I came to work here when I was young and naive, fresh out of grad school. I thought I was going to do good things — people need their shoes. I have since seen how you destroy the lives of your workers with little pay and long hours. I couldn’t do this, so I gave them the month off with pay. They are all now back at work producing your precious shoes.”

Angered by his honesty, he took back the one factory and had him thrown out, never to return.

Now imagine yourselves in first-century Palestine. You are a field worker. It is the Sabbath, your one day off. You head into the village and encounter a man teaching on the side of the road. He speaks of a wealthy land owner and of household servants. This land owner goes away and gives his servants pieces of his wealth to manage in his absence. Two of the servants double their wealth at the expense of people like yourself. But the third one, he does something you never expected. He goes into the backyard and buries the wealth.

He doesn’t spend it, or use it to make more money, he just buries it. Then after a time, the landowner returns.

As the teacher tells of the great favor bestowed upon the first two servants, the people around you get angry. Money made like this is so often at their expense.

One person, not too far from you yells out, “Isn’t that always the way? We do all the work and they get all the money.”

Everyone around you starts grumbling and tension begins to build. Then the teacher comes to the third servant and the crowd goes silent. Everyone wants to hear what happens to this servant. As the servant tells off the master, the crowd cheers with enthusiasm. “About time,” somebody yells out.

The teacher then tells of this servant thrown out of the household. He is silent for a moment and then quietly says, “This man is now one of you. How will you welcome him?”

Parables are stories with a trick to them, and they transcend time to tell us truths about God’s Love.

So we have to search for the eternal message of love, even when it seems buried beneath so much cultural baggage. What does it mean?

The first thing out of my mouth is, “the Reign of God.” This parable is about the Reign of God. This seems to be the standard common denominator between the parables. And it is often our only tool to unlock the riddle. Today’s parable is often read as the Judgement before the reign of God.

If you do not correctly use what God has given you then you are out of the kingdom. Or, if you do not spread the Gospel and bring more people to God, then you are out. But I wonder, does the wealthy land owner really symbolize God?

Is God most like a man that gets rich off the backs of those less fortunate and rewards others that do the same?

I gotta tell you, I have a hard time with this picture. Some might say that this Gospel message is a hard one, meant to challenge us, to confront our values and security. And I agree with this, but an oppressive tyrannical God?

The people that Jesus taught in the streets were familiar with the system Jesus laid before them.

They knew the wealthy landowner — that they worked and he profited. They knew the first two household servants — these were the faces of the landowner in the streets — paying too little for grain, or for services.

The third servant was something of an anomaly in their world. He is the twist, the teaching moment. He does the unexpected.

It is easy for us to look at him and say that he did wrong. That he was a poor steward of what was given to him, especially if you twist the word “talent” to also mean God given abilities, but that isn’t there in the text.

And for the crowds gathered around Jesus, the third servant is the one who chose not to take advantage of others.

By keeping the money out of circulation, no one was oppressed. This irresponsible, money burying slacker can easily be seen as the hero in the eyes of those Jesus ministered to.

And we do well to identify with those who Jesus makes out to be the underdog hero. That’s what the cross was all about. And aren’t we supposed to look to Jesus to show us the connection between this world and God’s?

Isn’t Jesus the very way through which God’s Kingdom comes? What if the reign of God is breaking through right now?

For God’s kingdom is so big and so great that it cannot be contained.

It even breaks through in the servant that stands up to a cruel system at the expense of everything this world has to offer.

I want to hold this parable in a new light, as a model for Christian living. A model centered on the third servant.

It is a life that sheds the shackles that chain us to what is most broken in our world.

A life that does not turn its back on the sick and the poor, but is cast out into the darkness with them. This is the life that we are called to. This is the life that the disciples were called into. This is the life that Jesus taught and practiced.

Jesus did not command people to advance their own interests at the expense of others, but commanded that we love one another and take care of those in need.

Jesus’ life was one lived out in the darkness of rejection and suffering. It was lived alongside the oppressed.

Jesus knew the darkness the third servant was cast into because this is where he lived. Because it is here in this utter darkness that the light of God shines brightest. This world needs you to bring the good news of the Gospel into it more today than ever before.

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