Unearthing the Buried Treasure: finding meaning in Matthew 25:14-30

Matthew 25:14-30

Last week, Jonathan and I both acknowledged the trickiness of the parables of Jesus, the masterful storyteller – and of these stories from Matthew 25 in particular.  I admit that I come to this one especially with fear and trembling.  This is a rock and a hard place parable for me.  The traditional interpretation of this story equates the Master with Christ/God, the waiting during the Master’s journey with the parousia – the time in which we now wait for Christ’s return – and the servants with Christian disciples.  The talents have variously been interpreted as the gospel or as our naturally endowed gifts; that to which we are called to.  Either of these we are called to use and multiply.  History has told me that the Master of this story – the master who is a ‘harsh man’ as the servant describes him, is God.  I want to fight against that with every part of my being.  My God doesn’t cast people out into the outer darkness.  My God doesn’t take resources out of the hands of the poor to give to those who already have so much.  My God is a God of grace and justice who upholds the poor.

And yet I have to take this text seriously.  If this is my God, what if I am burying my talent in the ground?  What if I am not being missional enough, have not converted enough souls?  I had a friend in a seminary of another denomination who was asked in his ordination interview how many people he had converted.  What?? What if I am not multiplying what has been given to me to its full potential, what punishment awaits?  Jesus uses similar imagery to this – imagery of forced separation into darkness – in Matthew many times – maybe half a dozen times or more in the gospel.  It is stark, stark language about those who do not follow God – not an allegorical master – being left out, weeping and in the dark.  I desperately want this text – and myself – to be redeemed.

That is why I was so excited to hear this text not told as an allegory, but as reality.  I’m not sure it was first in Wes’ book that I read this story as real life for first century Palestinians; I have an inkling it was before.  But I was certainly reminded of it as I read his take on the parallel story in Luke 19 (there it is the parable of the pounds).  Such a reading would suggest that Christians over the past 2000 years have allegorized the true meaning out of the story.  By equating each party one-to-one – God = Master, talents = each of our giftedness, long journey = wait for Christ’s return, servants = we the followers of Christ – we are missing the whole point.

When Jesus says, ‘for it is as if a man goes on a journey’, it isn’t an invitation to figure out those equations.  It really is that a man has servants and expectations that they will invest his money and that he will punish the one who does not.  It really is that a servant who refuses to comply with the expectation will be punished and the money taken from him and given to the complicit one.  This story is a warning to Jesus’ followers.  His teachings about justice and resisting the exploitive economy of patronage and empire will get them in trouble.  Those who would rather put money in the ground than make it a seed to grow wealth unjustly will be cast out of the wealthy master’s sight.[1]

Scholar Richard Rohrbaugh says this about the culture of the time in which Jesus tells this story:

In the peasant world of imposed limitation, with the ethic of family subsistence and village security rather than imperial exploitation and commercial wealth, one experienced rich people as inherently evil, because to have gained, to have accumulated more than one started with, is to have taken over the share of someone else. In that peasant morality, the first two servants would be exploiters who probably increased their master’s money by loans and foreclosures (of peasant farms) and it would be the third servant who acted honorably and ethically by refusing to enter into such oppressive activity.[2]

One author in commends the One-Talent slave as a non-violent resister of the way money making more money was used to take money out of the hands of the already poor.  That slave was the element of surprise in an otherwise thoroughly predictable story.   “He knew that his master was harsh, yet the servant confronted him and suffered for his conviction. He was a radical who refused to cooperate with his master to exploit others.”[3] This element of surprise and the grossly exaggerated sums combined to critique a broken system.  A talent represented 20 years wages for an average laborer and was measured not in numbers but in weight of silver or gold – about 70 pounds of precious metal in a talent.  It was like the largest sum imaginable.  He may have been using the equivalent of saying ‘To the first slave he gave 5 billion dollars,’ to draw attention to the very real disparity of income built into the culture. [4]

The master does not refute the servant’s allegations of being harsh and unjust, in fact he repeats them!  We were reminded last week that people were taxed and tithed to the limit of their means and then had to pay rent on top of that.  If one of the poor was given an opportunity to join the elite with talents upon talents, it would be easy and tempting as the one with the means to become a rich man’s steward and, like the master, and extort and squeeze the poor to get to that 100% profit.  The third servant didn’t do that.

As I read Matthew, the Gospel’s overall economic seems to be about forgiving debts and considering the lilies who neither toil nor spin, about not storing treasure on earth and the incompatibility of serving both money/empire and the kingdom of God.  The story that follows the one of the talents, a story which we will explore together next week, specifically praises those who have feed, clothe and given aid to those most in need – the opposite of the ethic exemplified by the five-talent and two-talent slaves.

The actions of the master and of the first two slaves, readers in Nigeria see mirroring the patronage system still very active there in the business community.  According to George Falorin, from the International Institute of Mission and Biblical Studies in Enugu, Nigeria, this story is very real.  It is common in Nigeria for young apprentices to attach themselves to an experienced business man, to work 5-7 years for little or nothing in return for being set up in their own their own business after the training period – financial assistance based on the number of years in apprenticeship.  At the end of this time the business man might open a new shop and set the young apprentice up as manager.  A longer apprenticeship would warrant a greater stock of goods in store.  The young man would be expected to make what amounts to 400% compound interest by the end of three years, over 100% in one year, from which the master would deduct his capital and take 2/3 profit.  The young man is now left with a little something with which to start his life.

The is injustice on so many levels: a young man earning nothing for practically running the business of his master, the profits he makes during the probation period basically stripped from him.  The young men know that they must go this route to make an inroads in business both because of the connections and because to borrow from the bank would mean paying 25% interest on the loan.  But to make money this way the young man must resort to cheating, market cornering, even stealing, certainly duping innocent customers in all kinds of ways.[5]

You may be able to see why I might be excited to be able to read the parable in this new way: an exaggerated  revealing of society for what it is – unjust and exploitative – and a challenge to Christ followers to come into line with the servant who opted out.  My excitement about this African reading and about the possibility for this parable to be only one thing was tempered, when I discovered an article that celebrated history’s tradition telling as redemptive for women.  I really could not have been more surprised, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been.  We all know that for most of history, scripture has been used to silence women in the church.  Paul has been often cited from 1 Corinthians that a woman’s responsibility is to keep quiet and to ask her husband if she has questions (never mind an opinion of her own!)

Well, in the 16th and 17th centuries, around the time when our own Anabaptist forebears were making a fuss about problematic traditions in the established churches, reformation was everywhere.  There were women then using this exact parable to defend their right to preach and teach and prophesy with their male contemporaries.   All the usual equations applied: God, Master; Servants, Christians; The Long Journey, the Parousia – that is, again, the wait for Jesus to return.  The talents themselves were sometimes interpreted as literal talents – gifts bestowed at birth – and sometimes as paralleling the gospel/salvation message.  In both cases, women argued that they, along with men, had both natural giftedness in teaching and preaching, and the inherent ability to spread and disseminate the gospel message.  “None but unprofitable servants knit up God’s talents in a napkin”[6] said one preacher and teacher.

For women who had been schooled in the tradition which taught that the ideal Christian woman was a quiet and obedient servant, this parable was freeing!  In being kept by male leadership from doing what they were called to, they were being prevented from doing as Christ charged through this parable.

Women wrote, preached and published with this parable as a key piece of defense.  Preacher and write Rachel Specht wrote a poem, “The Dream” to elaborate on the talent given by Master God being specifically mind, will, power and knowledge:

Both man and woman of three parts consist,

Which Paul doth bodie, soule, and spirit call:

And from the soule three faculties arise,

The mind, the will, the power; then wherefore shall

a women have her intellect in vaine,

Or not endeavour Knowledge to attaine,

The talent, God dothe give, must be imploy’d,

His owne with vantage he must have againe:

All parts and faculties were made for use;

The God of Knowledge nothing gave in vaine.[7]

For Specht, it seemed to her and other women that they were being forced into being the third slave, when they had the ability and means to multiply and grow the gospel through gifts that God had given them.

Well, I am grateful for these women, my mothers of church leadership, but where I sit with the weight of gold given to me, there is no one putting a shovel in my hand and forcing me to bury either my gifts, nor my knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the knowledge of the Kingdom of God.  So, maybe I should still be as nervous as I was when I began.   Can this parable be both about more than one thing?  I am endlessly confounded by Jesus’ parables in many cases and this one in particular, but perhaps one of the most beautiful things about story, is that it invites us in to identify the characters not with others, (God = Master, servant = someone else) but with ourselves.  Who am I in this parable?

This parable can both pointing out what is real about empire economy and oh-so-common injustice and call us each to think hard about our responsibility to use what has been given to us in ways that aligns with the Kingdom of God.   I think it’s possible that reading it in our context, we are the Master in this story.  We certainly live in a country that is built on colonialism, profits from an economy that exploits workers in other countries, have expectations of a standard of living that includes all kinds of technologies that are unavailable to people living in most other parts of the world.   Or perhaps we are the compliant and money-multiplying servants, going along either complacently or eagerly (or even grudgingly) with the desires and expectations of an unjust ruler.

An article on Jesus Radicals blog recently discussed a picture that has been floating around facebook.  It’s a picture of the Occupy crowd in New York with some captions pointing out the paradox (hypocrisy?) of protesting a system from which we all benefit so much:

“Join us as we organize against corporations, using social networking (by corporations), smartphones (by corporations) serviced by wireless carriers (that are corporations), wearing clothes (made by corporations), capturing it all with cameras (made by corporations), and getting there via cars, buses, bicycles, and shoes (made by corporations).  We deserve more from these greedy corporations.  Join us afterward at Starbucks!” [8]

The illustration also points out gear carried or worn by protesters: bag by Eddie Bauer, camera by Sony,  cell phone by Samsung, etc.  This  same article reminds us of the need to be confessional.  (Lest I pat myself on the back to heartily for being a member of a credit union, while checking my balance with my iPhone app.)  By accepting  and eagerly embracing the task of multiplying and accumulation these material gifts, like the first two slaves, we may be casting ourselves outside of the kingdom and assigning ourselves to ‘darkness’ without God.

I admit that I have a hard time coming out and saying about this parable, “This is definitively what this story means.”  I just can’t do it and I will not put words in Jesus’ mouth.  I will say that I will continue to approach this story with a hefty dose of apprehension and am encouraged to also do so in confession and humility before it’s storyteller.  I should be stewarding well the things that God has gifted to me, whether it is the good news of freedom for the oppressed, the calling of ministry which I have been given, or my money.  A life in which I do not do so is a life outside of God’s purpose and outside the Kingdom of God.  I am grateful that there has been such interest in the adult study series with members of this congregation talking about their own gifts and callings.  I pray that we may all live Kingdom lives inspired by the storyteller.

[1] Wes Howard Brook, Come Out my People: God’s Call out of Empire and the Bible and Beyond. Orbis Books, 2011. p 428.

[2] In George O. Folarin, “The Parable of the Talents in the African Context: An Interculturation Hermeneutics Approach,” Asia Journal of Theology, Vol 22 no. 11 April 2008, p 96.

[3] Ibid, 102

[4] Info from both Interpretation and Believers’ Commentaries on Matthew.

[5] Falorin. 97-98.

[6] Rachet Specht, quoted in Carol Thysell, “Unearthing the Treasures, Unknitting the Napkin” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 15 no 1 Spr 1999


[8] http://www.jesusradicals.com/we-need-a-confessing-movement/