Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ordinary 33A -- November 16, 2014

Merely Human

Anton Schmid

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.’ 

The meaning of this parable has probably been established so firmly in your mind that any one of you could preach a sermon on it.  We all know this parable well…so well in fact, that it’s hard to think of anything new to say.  Particularly about the third servant –the one who buries the talent in the ground and makes the master really, really mad.  Most of you have an opinion about the third servant – he’s wicked, he’s lazy, he’s a scaredy cat. The most charitable thing you might say is that he understands nothing about the miracle of compound interest.  

It’s almost too easy to beat up on this guy.  Like shooting homiletical fish in an exegetical barrel.  Preachers through the years have been pretty consistent in their critique of the cautious servant.  A commentator summed up some of the criticisms of the third servant, thus saving me the trouble of hunting through the Google to find them:

CH Dodd in 1935 said this is “the story of a man whom overcautious and cowardice led into a break of trust.

TW Manson in 1945 says: “The punishment for neglected opportunity is deprivation of opportunity.”

Dan Via in 1967: “The third servant’s refusal to risk led to repressed guilt, resulting in the loss of opportunity for meaningful existence.” 


One more.  John Donahue in 1988 said that the servants “fatal flaw” was that “Out of fear of failure, (the third servant) refused to even try to succeed.”[1]

There you have it.  “…the moral center of gravity is located in the master’s judgment of the third servant.”[2]  A pretty firm consensus that the third servant got what was coming to him.  Outer darkness and gnashing of teeth sounds about right, right?  Actually, as I read these comments, I swore I could Donald Trump’s voice telling one of his hapless apprentices:  “You’re fired!”

So really, why do we even need to talk at all about this parable?

Well, since we’re all here, we may want to notice some other things.  I’m willing to bet that a couple of you remember from your Sunday school lessons that the amount of money changing hands in this parable is pretty astonishing.  Scholars estimate that one talent in ancient times represented about 15 or 20 years worth of manual labor.  So the five talents given to the first servant represented 75 or 100 years worth of work – probably much more than double the average working lifetime of the people hearing Jesus tell this story.  So right there, Jesus’ listeners were probably blown away at the amount of money the master entrusts to the servants?  Five talents?  That’s nuts!  Two talents?  Still outrageous.  One talent? Well, one talent was probably a little closer to a dollar figure that the average Joe could wrap his mind around, but still – even one talent was a great big chunk of change. 
So we’re not talking about just a lot of money here, but amounts somewhere in the mega millions stratosphere.  Now Jesus may be exaggerating to make a point, but it is clear that he means to say that the master is handing over some serious cash.

The only people who had that kind of money in ancient times were the wealthy elite – 1st century Donald Trumps.  And the wealthy elite got their money in just the way you’d expect – they engaged in trade, got goods to market, ran import-export businesses, and lent money to people at interest.  And lending to poor people, especially farmers, was an extremely profitable line of business.  Farmers often needed help making ends meet when there was a drought or some other major catastrophe.

These loan agreements worked out pretty much as you’d imagine.  Poor farmers would get the best interest rate they could, put up land as collateral on the loan, and hope for the best.  By the time most of them got around to noticing the insanity of the interest rate charged, it was too late.  They had already made their deal with the 1st century version of a pay day lender.  The lender would foreclose and the farmer would lose ownership of the land.  But unlike today’s bank foreclosures, the farmer could usually stay on the land, as long as they were willing to keep working for their master.

So that’s probably the kind of scenario we’re dealing with in this parable.  The three servants are three formerly independent farmers who were dependent upon their very rich master who now owned their land.  The three may have even risen through the ranks to become employees of the master’s financial empire, managing various parts of the master’s business.  As they rose through the ranks, the servants of the master could probably even engage in a little dishonest graft and pocket some extra cash on the side. As long as they kept an eye on their master’s interests and delivered what he expected, the system hummed along.  In fact, the better the master did, the better his servants did.  So it wasn’t surprising that the master invites the first two servants who have doubled his money to enter into his joy:

“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.”   

Being put in charge of more and more things on the master’s behalf meant more and more opportunities for the indentured servant to derive greater wealth for himself.  Those who were higher up were entrusted with more, but it was all good for the master who knew that they had financial incentive to keep an eye on each other.  Those who came back to the master with a greater return were the winners, and it didn’t really matter how they doubled his money.  All that mattered to the master was profit. 

These former farmers weren’t dummies.  They adapted to a system that wasn’t of their making or their choosing.  And the ones who did well, like the first two servants -- earned more opportunities to make their master even more fabulously wealthy. 

A preacher tells the story about serving in a homeless shelter and hearing about a man who had been on the receiving end of a great deal of good Christian advice about how to get back on his feet.  After being coached on handling his addiction, applying for jobs, managing his finances and qualifying for low-income housing, he finally looked at his social worker and said, “Why do you want to fix me up and feed me back into the same machine that grind me up in the first place?”[3]

And thinking about that made me wonder – where did we get the idea that the master who is going on a journey is a stand-in for God? How is it that God in this story is a “harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not scatter seed?”  How is it that God is the man in the story who got where he was by charging 50% interest on a loan that no desperate farmer, no matter how hard he tried, could ever, ever pay back?

Can the master in this story be the same God who brought the people into a land flowing with milk and honey, drinking from cisterns they did not dig, reaping a harvest they did not plant?   Is this the same God who tells the harvesters to be really lousy at their job and leave enough behind in the field so that those who have nothing to sow can reap anyway?  Is this the same God of a different parable who pays everyone exactly the same wage, no matter what time they showed up for work?  Is the master in this story the same God who in yet another parable appears as a crazy sower who throws seed wastefully all over the place?  

Do we really see God as a master who would say to a starving farmer and his family, “those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away?”

Maybe the master in this parable isn’t God after all.  Maybe Jesus tells us about the master in this parable to help us draw a distinction between an earthly master who invests to turn a profit, to the God we know in Jesus Christ who gives away everything including his own life, simply because God loves God’s people.  Maybe this parable is told by Jesus to help us see God as something other than stern and punishing, as bad as the worst boss any of us has ever had. 

Jesus tells this parable just days before he will give his life away on the cross, not as a substitute or to be punished in our place, but to show us just how far God will go to release us from fear.  The kind of fear that drives us to bury our lives long before we’ve actually stopped breathing.  Jesus spends his entire life giving himself away – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, offering forgiveness and welcoming everyone who recognizes their need for God’s embrace.  And the only thing Jesus receives in return is to be crucified.  And just in case we miss that message of love, God raises Jesus on the third day to demonstrate that death and fear are no longer have to be our masters.  We have been freed to live holy and joyful lives.

Maybe the closest thing we have to a divine figure in this parable is the third servant who refuses to participate in the process.  The servant who sees the system and the master for what it is – a system in which masters harvest what they do not sow, and servants who do not play along are cast into outer darkness. Maybe being cast into the outer darkness seemed a small price to pay in order to escape from a rigged and sick system.  Maybe the third servant just didn’t have the stomach for it anymore.  Maybe his heart was too soft to play the hard-hearted game of the master anymore.  In any case, by digging a hole and burying the talent in the ground, he has at least taken the ill-gotten cash out of circulation – at least for a while. 

You have to wonder what the people who heard Jesus tell this parable had to say about the master and the servants.  You have to wonder what they thought about the third servant.  Maybe they said he was a fool or a coward, just as so many readers and preachers have said throughout the years.  Or maybe, just maybe – the people who heard Jesus thought that the third servant said exactly what they had always wanted to say to the masters in their lives – enough.  Maybe they wondered what would happen if they had the courage to reject the master.

This week in the New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen wrote a column about Anton Schmid, a sergeant in Hitler’s army who was so moved by the suffering he observed in the Jewish ghettos in Lithuania that he managed to save 250 Jews before he was arrested by the Germans.  In one of his last letters to his wife before he was executed for treason, Schmid wrote about his horror at the sight of mass murder and of “children being beaten.”  He wrote to his wife, “You know how it is with my soft heart.  I count not think and had to help them.”  In his last letter before his death, Schmid wrote, “I merely behaved as a human being.”

Cohen writes of Schmid, “’Merely’ had become the wrong adverb; ‘exceptionally’ would be better.  Schmid’s resistance was almost unknown.  It can be singular just to be human.  It can be very lonely.  It can cost you your human life.”[4]

So perhaps it is the third servant who may have been the one who risked the most in stepping out of an inhuman system to reveal the truth about the master.  I do not know what Jesus intended us to take from this parable, although I do know one thing for sure. If Jesus wanted us to grasp his truth immediately and avoid the headaches these parables always give us, he might have given us a straightforward book of rules instead of these tricky and twisting stories.  But it seems to me that the third servant is being held up as the only fully, exceptionally human being in this whole sorry story.

So what does this mean for us?  Maybe what it means is that we have also been given talents to manage, and we also have a choice in how we are to use those gifts God has given.  In fact, in the next several weeks, we’ll have questions to ask ourselves as we make those choices.

We’ll have the opportunity to buy gifts from major retailers or pay a few bucks more by buying gifts from small local shops owned by our neighbors, not by shareholders. 

During the Advent Conspiracy, we’ll have the opportunity to buy poinsettias for Meals on Wheels clients or a pair of goats for an African village or a mule for a farmer in the Caribbean.  

We’ll have the opportunity to make a yearly pledge to this church which, by the looks of it, doesn’t look like such a hot investment, does it?  It’s no secret that we’re small.  It’s no secret that we’re not exactly sure where God is calling us.  It’s no secret that this church you love today may be either be even smaller or gone altogether in a matter of years. 
On the other hand, it could be that God may be up to something remarkable among us and that our tiny church may be on the brink of transformation that will lead to new life for our community.  Your pledge today may be an investment that will pay dividends that none of us will ever see. 

Who knows?  In God’s economy, our metrics for measuring what makes a good investment are much different that the measure used by the master in this story or the Donald Trumps of our own time.  In God’s economy, shepherds leave 99 sheep to go chasing after one.  In God’s economy, the first will be last and the weakest among us are the strong.  In God’s economy, one widow’s coin rattling around in the plate matters more than Bill Gate’s whole bank account. 

It’s crazy.  It makes no sense.  It’s an investment strategy that won’t lead to a bigger house or even an easier life.  But it’s God’s economy of grace, pure and simple.  It’s an economy of new life for all things.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] Herzog, William R., Parables as Subversive Speech. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 152.
[2] Ibid
[3] BBT, “The Parable of the Fearful Investor,” Duke University Chapel sermon, November 11, 2011.