A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 16, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 25:14-30 and 2 Corinthians 5:11-21
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Those of you who have been around long enough and who have good memories will remember that I preached on our gospel lesson a few years ago.  Those of you who have been around long enough and have really good memories may even remember what I said.  I apologize for the portion of today’s sermon that’s a re-run, but I think it’s necessary.  The church has spent so much time and energy misinterpreting this parable that it is easy to lose track of this more accurate way of looking at this story Jesus told.

I had a professor[i] in seminary who said that interpreting parables (and he was mostly talking about the parables of Jesus) is challenging at best.  He suggested that perhaps they should best be understood as a cross between a riddle and a Zen koan, a cross between a joke, a puzzle, and a pool of wisdom.

If you look at the parables of Jesus, you’ll see that they can be divided into two general categories:  parables that attempt to unmask and critique the way things really are (think about the “there was a certain rich man … and a certain beggar …” parable in Luke 16:19f); and  parables that offer a vision of the way the world could be (think about the ones that start “the kingdom of God is like …,” for instance in Matthew 18:2f).  To fulfill these two tasks, Jesus used recognizable scenarios in plain language that any illiterate peasant could understand.  His parables use farming, shepherding, being in debt, doing hard labor, banquets, being excluded from banquets, rich homes, and poor people.

The thing that makes the parables like riddles is the surprising twist at their endings.  He used things like miraculous harvests, enemies becoming friends, and unexpected vindication.  They are also like a puzzle, so we often miss what Jesus is saying.  In our quest for the wisdom of the parables, they are often interpreted as moral tales, moral fables, and in the process we obscure the real wisdom they have to offer.

This happens much too easily when we forget or simply ignore the socio-cultural context in which the parable was originally told.  When this happens, we often end up recontextualizing the story with our own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions.  And within our unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, the parable ends up domesticated.  The parable[ii] told in today’s reading is a wonderful example of this.

In the King James Version of the Bible, the story begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants …”  The only problem is that in Matthew made not mention of the kingdom of heaven in verse 14.  He did back in verse 1, to open up the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  But the line that opens up today’s parable does not mention the kingdom of heaven.

Why did King James’ translators add these words?  Most likely because they were trying to help make the parable understandable and, contextualizing the story in their own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, stuck those words in.  They assumed that this was a parable about heaven or about the last judgment, so they added these words.  And what havoc is wreaked with these assumptions.

Because of these assumptions, we allegorize the story so the Master in the story ends up representing God, and it’s a pretty darn ugly representation of God.  This God is an absentee landlord who cares only about profit maximization.  This God is hard-hearted and ruthless.  This God is nothing like the God I hear Jesus talking about elsewhere in the gospels.

Despite these concerns, pastors (no doubt myself included) have preached on this parable saying how we Christians should gainfully employ our “talents” for God.  But “talents” in this story have nothing to do with individual gifts and everything to do with economics.  Nonetheless, sermon after sermon misinterpret this parable.

So how should we understand this parable?  I don’t think the original audience would not have allegorized this parable to make sense of it.  They would have heard and immediately recognized Jesus describing a great household – the closest thing in his day to the maga-corporation in our day.  It was quite common for the patriarch of a great household to be away on business, be it economic business or political business.  His affairs would have been handled by slaves, who in Roman society often rose to prominent positions in the household hierarchy as “stewards.”

The clue that reveals that this is a great household is the sums of money used in the story.  They border on hyperbole.  A “talent” was one of the largest values of money in the Hellenistic world.  “A silver coinage, it weighed between fifty-seven and seventy-four pounds.  One talent was equal to 6,000 denarii.”[iii]  One denarius was a subsistence wage for a day’s labor, the wage a peasant would earn for a full day’s labor if he were lucky enough to find employment.  That means that a peasant might earn one talent in 19 years.  Compared to today’s subsistence wage, a talent would be at least a half-million dollars, so the eight talents in the parable are at least equivalent to about $4 million.[iv]  This story is about a man with a lot of money!

The first two slave double their master’s money.  Though lauded by contemporary interpreters, this feat would have elicited disgust from Jesus’ first century audience.  The parable doesn’t say how long the master is away, but with compounded interest it would take 6 years to double the money at a 12% interest rate.  I’ve read that in Jesus’ day, 12% was the highest legal interest rate and I wasn’t able to confirm if interest was compounded or not.[v]

More likely than expecting his audience to know the rule of 72[vi] to calculate how long it takes to double an investment, Jesus knew that they knew all too well the story of how the rich got so rich.  The large landowners made loans to peasant small landowners based on speculation about future crop production.  With high interest rates and possibilities of poor weather conditions, farmers were often unable to make their payments and faced foreclosure.  Once in control of the land, the new owner could continue raking in the money by hiring laborers to farm cash crops.  (This process of economic exploitation and wealth accumulation is all too recognizable in today’s global economy.)

In the parable, the first two of the master’s slaves do this profitable dirty work all too well.  In the Empire’s economy, “success” was defined as the accumulation of more and more money and power.  People who make money like these first two slaves are extolled.  These slaves are seen as “good stewards” of the master’s resources.

The third slave is seen as “unproductive” and a failure.  But in God’s economy, there is such a thing as too much and too little.  It is an economy based on abundance and self-restraint, not scarcity and greed.  When we only gather up what we need and share the rest, there really is enough for everyone.  God’s economy recognizes this.

So, I think the third slave is, in fact, the hero of this parable.  When the master returns to settle accounts, he says the same thing to the first two slaves:  “Well done, good and trustworthy slave … enter into the joy of your master.”  We are used to reading this allegorically, suggesting entry into heavenly bliss.  But rub that hearing out of your ears and hear it how I think it would have been heard by people around Jesus.

The first two slaves seem to get promotions (“I will put you in charge of many thing”), but at the same time they’re reminded that they are still slaves.  They are only “in charge” of many things, not the owners.  They are still stuck in a system that uses the have-nots so the haves can have more.

Then the master comes to the third slave.  Jesus audience knows what happens to a slave that doesn’t play the game.  But before he has to face the music, he gets to be a whistle-blower.  “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.”  He unmasks the fact that the master’s wealth is entirely derived from the toil of others.  The master profits from the backbreaking labor of those who work the land.

Unwilling to participate in this exploitation, the third slave took the money out of circulation where it could no longer be used to dispossess another family farmer.  He repudiates the system, giving the talent back to his master with a curt, “Here you have what is yours.”  I wonder how many of Jesus’ original audience heard this story and thought, “I wish I could do that.  I wish I could speak truth to power.”  Of course this third slave is afraid.  He’s about to meet the prophet’s fate.

I find it interesting that the master does not refute the third slave’s analysis of his world.  The master simply castigates him as “evil and lazy,” the favorite slur of the rich toward those who don’t play the game.  In suggesting that the slave could have at least gotten the market rate by investing it, the master reveals that he’s not interested in “what is [already] my own.”  He appreciates only appreciation.

He then turns to make an example of the third slave, dispossessing him and giving the spoils to his obedient colleague, in order to illustrate how the “real” world works:  “For 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.”

What a stark contrast to what Jesus preached about the kin-dom of God.

The consequence of the third slave’s noncooperation with the Empire’s economy is banishment to the “outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Traditionally, we assume that means he’s sent to hell, and so perhaps it is.  Just not a hell that comes after this life.  Instead, this third slave is banished to the hell that so many on earth experience, rejected by the dominant culture, rejected by the economy of the Empire.

Today’s parable is followed immediately by the famous story of judgment that suggests that we meet the Christ when we serve by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.  In other words, we meet Christ in the places where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The whistle-blower’s punishment may dispossess him of material things, but it brings him closer to Christ.

In our reading from 2 Corinthians, Paul explains what some have called the mission of the church.  “God was in Christ,” he writes, “reconciling the world,” and “[God] has given us this ministry of reconciliation.”  Reconciliation brings an end to enmity, conflict, and alienation.  It brings about a new way of being in relationship.

One of the ways the world is in conflict with God is economic.  The economic values of the Empire of Rome, which very much continue to exist today, are in conflict with the economic values of the Empire of God.  It’s one heck of an uphill push to try to reconcile the world’s economy with God’s.  But that’s the church-universal’s job, according to Paul.  God has given us this ministry of reconciliation.

growlogobrownNiles Discovery Church has come to see our part of that mission, at least now in our life together, to include elements of welcome, growth, and service.  When we welcome all, regardless of economic status, we are opening the door to this work of reconciliation.  When we help each other grow into new understandings of God’s economy, we are taking the first concrete step in this work of reconciliation.  And when we act on these understanding by serving our neighbors, near and far, we are moving forward in this work of reconciliation.

Today, we make and celebrate our financial commitments for carrying out this mission during 2015.  I pray our commitments help us step away from Rome’s economy and toward God’s economy.  May they empower us with the courage to be like the third slave, finding opportunities to refuse to participate in an economic system built on scarcity and greed, finding opportunities to speak truth to power, finding opportunities to serve Christ more deeply and fully.

[i] The late Professor Douglas Adams of Pacific School of Religion.

[ii] The interpretation of the “parable of the talents” in this sermon is based on a sermon I preached in April 2011, which, in turn, was based on Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 38-45.  People in my congregation suggested that the sermons series of which the 2011 sermon was a part be published.  My response was, “They have been … by Ched Myers.”

[iii] Brandon Scott, quoted by Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 41-42.

[iv] 365 days a year minus 52 Sabbaths off equals 313 days.  19 years x 313 days/year x 8 hours/day x $10/hour = $475,760, which is close enough to a half-million dollars.  Yes, $10/hour is not a subsistence wage in the Bay Area (which would probably be something closer to $20/hour; see http://livingwage.mit.edu/).

[v] See Richard Rohrbaugh, “A Peasant Reading of the Parable of the Talents/Pounds,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, 23:1, Spring 1993, pp 32ff; cited by Ched Myers, op cit.

[vi] See http://financialplan.about.com/od/personalfinance/qt/Ruleof72.htm.