XXIV Pentecost, Year A
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years. At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, `Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”
Be silent before the Lord GOD!
For the day of the LORD is at hand;
the LORD has prepared a sacrifice,
he has consecrated his guests.
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the people
who rest complacently on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
“The LORD will not do good,
nor will he do harm.”
Their wealth shall be plundered,
and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
they shall not drink wine from them.
The great day of the LORD is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter,
the warrior cries aloud there.
That day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.
I will bring such distress upon people
that they shall walk like the blind;
because they have sinned against the LORD,
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
and their flesh like dung.
Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the LORD’s wrath;
in the fire of his passion
the whole earth shall be consumed;
for a full, a terrible end
he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
Jesus said, “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then 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.’ His 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.’ And 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.’ His 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.’ Then 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; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But 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? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ”
The Bible texts of the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel lessons are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA, and used by permission.
The parable of the talents is often read as a reflection on what comes at the end, at the judgment. The ‘again’ of vs 14 hearkens back to vs 1 “at that time the kingdom of heaven will be like…” There is an undeniably eschatological layer to Matthew’s framing of the parable. This framing, though, is undermined by the anthropological point of view of the rest of the parable.
Like so much of Jesus’ teaching, the metaphor of money is used. This alerts us right away that we are not dealing with a one to one correspondence between God or Jesus and the master; money. Mediums of exchange and substitution, are not a part of the reign of God. From the outset, then, there is a mitigation of the (traditional) eschatological impact of the parable.
What is important, in this parable, as with so many of them, is the way that the parable, and, in fact, Matthew’s use of it, encourage the reader/hearer to project their own violent tendencies and assumption on it, revealing ourselves in our reading, and then deconstructing our assumptions on second reading. Matthew plays along. His use of the parable exposes our violent assumptions regarding the eschaton, while providing all the clues necessary to help us see beyond them to true reign of God.
The focus of the parable is on the third servant who perceived (correctly) that his master was a “hard” man, expecting to derive profit in places where he had not expended effort or risk. Perhaps the two other servants knew the same thing about the master. They chose to behave in ways congruent with the master’s expectations. The third did not.
C.H. Dodd (as well as Jeremias) suggests that the parable in its original form (stripped of its Matthean and Lukan additions) was directed against the proponents of the holiness code, those who viewed God as a tit for tat, ‘you’re gonna get what is due you’ kind of God (The Parables of the Kingdom). In this case, it has a similar impact as the parable of the tenants. Those who believed they were doing the will of God by excluding sinners, tithing on the smallest herbs, etc., are going to get what they expect: a harsh taskmaster. In the end, you get the God in whom you believe.
This is the same principle we saw back in the Sermon on the Mount when we examined Matt. 7:1-5: namely, with the measure you give (or in this case invest) you will receive back, divine judgment becomes self-judgment in the anthropological, self-revealing layer of the Matthean Gospel.
What undermines this reading, though, is the choice by Matthew to include at the end the reference to the outer darkness. We have already suggested (see the “so what” portion of Proper 23) that the outer darkness functions for Matthew as an anthropological topos, a place where the servant of God winds up who refuses to dress in the robes, or, in this case, participate in the economy of the principalities and powers of this world.
Matthew has already given us this information, and provides it again as a way of leading us out of the initial tendency to place the “blame” for the third servant’s fate on the servant himself. In fact, he “knows” correctly, and he refuses to participate in the master’s business. Being afraid, he protects the master’s “talent” by hiding it in the ground and returns it. He is not afraid because he is afraid of losing the talent, he is afraid because he knows that he will not please master, the “hard” man.
As a result, he winds up in the same place of exclusion (outer) and victimization (weeping, etc.) into which the wedding guest was cast.
Now the parable reads as a presentation of the interaction of the (present) reign of God with the (dying) reign of the principalities and powers.
Parables, by their very nature, are going to attract interpretations. They virtually demand instant existentializing, that is their character, that is why they are so vividly remembered. But as parable, they speak out of two sides of their mouth, expressing congruity and discontinuity at the same time.
In parable interpretation, it is important to ask where we see this incongruity and simultaneous discontinuity, in what figures? For example, we have seen the importance of not seeing the master in the parables as God or the Lord. It may well be that the synoptic tradition or redaction does, and we do well to ask just how this parable is being applied in their community and for what purpose. But we can ask the question about Jesus’ parables, prior to their christologizing, which is not a bad thing, its just that it can be a bit misleading, if you continue to seek continuity between violence and God.
Parables are in a sense like scapegoats, they partake of a binary character, is and is-not. The scapegoat, as the first generated symbol (demonized then divinized), is given an ‘is-not’ character in the hostility transference of the mob/culture, then as a consequence of the peace generated by this transference, beneficence is assigned to the victim who becomes sacralized, i.e., made into a god. Parables also have an is and an is-not side to them, they are like and unlike at the same time. Parables are slippery, just when you think you’ve gotten hold of ‘the meaning’, an is-not aspect loosens your grip. But that’s the way they work, always challenging, always bringing in new perspective. Jesus’ parables are beautiful.
It’s tempting to moralize this parable, as though talents were natural assets, special gifts or personality traits. It would be easy to try and use this parable to motivate congregations to get up off the pews and use the gifts given by the Spirit. Some may well find that preaching this will meet a specific need they have in their congregation.
The challenge of preaching this parable is to once again disconnect the master from God, or at least the Creator of heaven and earth. Fact is, the master is like a God, but a god of this world, a violent uncaring deity. This is the is-ness of the parable. But God is not like that, which is the is-notness of the parable.
The parable thus expresses that the kingdom of heaven is what it is like when that which is given as ‘talent’ by the gods of this age is not invested, an investment which takes advantage of others. The final servant refuses to invest what cultural gods have given him; but he also knows that this choice will cost him and it does. The servant is to be cast into some apocalyptic fire (only the gods of this world exercise that kind of authority). It is easy to see that one could interpret this parable christologically.
But the fact is that Jesus is not condemned by God, rather, he is vindicated, his resurrection upset the apple cart of a victimage dominated human history. So the master’s authority in the parable is ultimately contravened by the God of history. Hallelujah!