Scripture - Matthew 25:14-30
14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.
20Then 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.’ 21His 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.’ 22And 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.’ 23His 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.’
24Then 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; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But 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? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For 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. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
This is a parable that oftentimes is used around this time of year to talk about good stewardship - about how to use our gifts, our “talents”, our money, our time and “invest” them in God’s kingdom so that God will take whatever offerings we bring and multiply them for a bountiful harvest. That’s the way many of us are used to interpreting this story.
Growing up, I have always wondered about the third slave. You know, the one who went and buried his talent in the ground. I had always thought that he had done the right thing, knowing that his master was harsh and benefitting from the work of others and collecting resources that weren’t properly his to enjoy. The safe option was to keep that money exactly as it was for his master’s return. It seemed like a wise decision to me - after all, can you imagine what a harsh master would do to a slave who had taken what was entrusted to him and lost it all? Too risky. Better to play it safe and not provide any further ill-gotten gains for the master.
And so in many of our interpretations of this passage, we look at the first to slaves as the ones to emulate and the third as the bad example.
But what if….what if we could look at it a different way? What if another way to read this story is to see the third slave as the hero?
To explore this, I’m going to draw a lot on the work of New Testament scholars Amy Jill Levine and William Herzog as written in Debie Thomas’s essay at Journey with Jesus. I found the analysis and historical context there fascinating so you’ll hear a lot of her words in what I have to say this morning.
The first thing to note is that this alternate way of reading the parable shifts our perspective a bit - instead of reading this as a story about God who rewards and punishes (either here and now or in the afterlife), we’re looking at this parable more descriptively - a story about us as human beings, about what life looks like.
Secondly - some context. The “talents” that Jesus refers to in the passage weren’t small coins or portable pieces of currency. They were precious metals - often silver or gold - weighing between 80 and 130 pounds. One talent could be worth anywhere from 15 - 20 years of an ordinary laborer’s wages. To bring it easily into our modern framework, if an ordinary person made $50,000 per year - 20 years - or one “talent” would be worth $1,000,000. That’s a large amount of money in our minds; it’s a staggering amount of money to those who would have heard Jesus speak. Only the wealthy elite might possess that much.
How did the elite amass that kind of wealth? The practice at the time was lending money to poor farmers at huge interest rates - between 60 and 200 percent - and when they were unable to pay, took their land. Those who took these loans often did so out of desperation, putting their land up as collateral but would inevitably be unable to make good on their payments...drought would hit, sickness would befall the family, or a harvest wouldn’t produce enough to settle the debt. So the creditor would come in to take the farmer’s ancestral land and the farmer would become a landless day laborer who couldn’t know from day to day where their bread would come from.
This is the situation we find here in the Parable of the Talents. The slaves noted here aren’t the poor farmers who have been stripped of their land, but they are the wealthy master’s bureaucrats who helped things run smoothly for the master - the managers who oversee the land and the workers, who collect the debts, who keep the profits coming while the master is away on business. Part of the way the slaves made their living was buy taking a little extra on the side - like charging farmers extra fees or interest - and as long as money kept flowing into the master’s pockets, it was ok. The more money the slaves make for the master, the better and more comfortable life would be for them.
So we have here a wealthy man, giving his most trusted managers a fortune to play with - 8 talents total - 8 million dollars - giving 5 to one, 2 to another, and to the last, 1. The rules of the game are - the more money they make for the master, the more they get to keep for themselves. It doesn’t matter how - all that matters is profit.
Two of the slaves play the game well - and make double their money. What’s not said is how they do it, but people in Jesus’ time would have understood all too well how that would have happened. Seizing fields, impoverishing farmers, collecting on debts, ruining families...all for their own gain and for that of their master. And the master? He’s thrilled with their work and invites them into his joy of more wealth, more profit - and more exploitation.
Here’s where we get to the third slave. The third slave...doesn’t play. He knows full well what’s been going on - how his master has been benefiting on the backs of the poor and desperate - and he decides that he doesn’t want to participate in this system based on oppression and injustice. Knowing full well what it will cost him, he buries the talent, placing it somewhere where it will do no further harm to others, taking it out of circulation.
So of course when the master comes back, he’s angry with the third slave and banishes him. In Herzog’s words, the slave is more than a quiet hero; he is a whistle-blower. At great cost to himself, he names the exploitation — the same exploitation he colluded in and benefited from for years. He relinquishes his claim on wealth and comfort, calls out the master’s greed and rapacity (“I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed”), and accepts the ostracism and poverty that must follow from his choice.
This is a parable about the kingdom of heaven - the kingdom of heaven happens when a slave stands up to and calls out his master for being greedy and unjust, when his fellow slaves get more wealthy and what he was given gets taken away, and when he gets kicked out of the household and abused.
We may have thought the first two slaves had the riskiest venture - but the third slave did not play it safe at all - but risked everything to step outside the cycles of power and domination - and paid the cost in safety, security, comfort - all the things that had been afforded to him by his station...all the things he had gained by being complicit in the system. What did the third slave gain - well, I find it interesting that the passage that follows is Jesus talking about the sheep and the goats, where the peoples are judged precisely for how they treated the poor, hungry, sick, imprisoned, and the stranger.
To me, this isn’t a story about what God’s kingdom looks like in the future - but about what happens on earth right now and where we see that kingdom unfolding in our midst. As Debie Thomas writes, “It’s a parable about what faithfulness looks like in hard, hidden places. A parable about our complicity, and the high stakes involved in ending it. A parable about speaking truth to power. A parable about opting out of systems of oppression and exploitation — even and especially when we are accustomed to benefiting from such systems. A parable about interrupting "business as usual" for the sake of justice and mercy. A parable about turning reality upside down in the name of love. A parable about saying, “Enough is enough,” when it comes to the abuse and marginalization of the world's most vulnerable people. A parable about the rejection, impoverishment, and loneliness we might suffer if we take seriously the call of God.”
It’s a parable that makes you take a deep breath and weigh the costs. There is risk and challenge and discomfort. There is also the knowledge that we don’t do this on our own. To be sure the parable talks about one slave who took this bold stand - but as people who are called to pattern our lives after that of Jesus, who seek to be like him and be witnesses of this kingdom - that’s not something we do on our own, but something we do together. There is strength in knowing that the journey we take isn’t a solitary one, but we have one another and that can help us be resilient in the work. We also have strength in knowing that Jesus doesn’t ask us to do anything that has not done himself. Just days after telling this parable, he too was cast aside as worthless after his teachings touched a nerve with the empire - for interrupting business as usual, for standing up for justice, for preaching a radical love and hospitality that dared subvert the fabric of society in the Roman Empire.
My prayer for us this week is that we might have the courage to embody that good kind of “worthless” we find in God’s economy - that we might be able to examine our own lives and notice what systems we are complicit in, whether that’s through our consumption habits, through unintentionally perpetuating racist or harmful postures or beliefs, or through not speaking up for the marginalized - and then to find ways to reorient our relationships on Jesus and God’s purposes in this world.
The kingdom of God happens not just when we are kind or loving, compassionate or forgiving - the kingdom of God happens even when we stand up for what is right, when we refuse to play games that harm the vulnerable, when we are righteously angry in the face of injustice and are punished by the world for it -- because Jesus is right there with us too. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and almost 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.