Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18
Psalm 90:1-12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Of all the stories that Jesus tells, there are few or maybe none that I find more confusing and more troubling than the one that we just heard. This is the story that is sometimes titled in Bibles: The Parable of the Talents. And I reckon that it troubles me so much because, here in the West, here in 2020, it is so, so easy to read it as an allegory – an allegory that functions as a celebration of individualism, of the wild accumulation of wealth, and of God’s love as something that you and I must earn. And indeed, an allegory for how God will punish us if we do not earn God’s love.[1]

In other words, it is so easy to read this story as an allegory for a very particular, very Western, and very modern way of living your life.

Within this allegorical understanding, the guy with the money is clearly God.

The story goes like this:

Once upon a time, a CEO went on going on a long business trip. And he summoned three senior managers into his corner office, high, high up the in sky. To one manager he gave five billion dollars, to another two billion dollars, to a third one billion dollars.

The first senior manager took the five billion and bought Amazon stock. And he doubled his money. The second took his two billion and bought Home Depot stock. And he doubled his money. The third took his one billion and bought a term deposit. And his investment didn’t even keep up with inflation.

The third senior manager was a total loser.

One day, the CEO came back – the managers knew the time and the hour when the CEO would come back because the CEO’s personal assistant texted them ahead of time – and the CEO summoned the senior managers into his corner office. The first senior manager said, You gave me five billion dollars and I made five billion dollars. Here is ten billion dollars. And he handed over the money. And the CEO said, Well done, good and faithful senior manager. You too shall have a corner office. The first senior manager said, You gave me two billion dollars and I made two billion dollars. Here is four billion dollars. And he handed over the money. And the CEO said, Well done, good and faithful senior manager. You too shall have a corner office. And then the third came forward. (Remember, in jokes and in parables, things happen three times: twice to establish the pattern, a third time to break it.)

Before the third senior manager handed over his money, he made a speech. He explained his actions. He said:

Boss, I know that you are a massive jerk. You take things that don’t belong to you. You’ll do anything to get rich, no matter how much your actions debase you and everyone around you. And because of that I am terrified of you. My knees knock when I am in your presence, I am actively working not to wet my pants right now.

Here’s your one billion dollars.

And the CEO replies:

You know that I take things that don’t belong to me, did you? You know that I will do anything to get rich, did you? Then you should have done like the other senior managers and invested my flipping money. I’m taking your one billion and giving it to the guy with ten billion!

Hey first senior manager! Hey second senior manager! Open the window of my corner office in the sky.

And they do so.

And now grab senior manager three’s legs! Let’s throw this senior manager three out and down, down, down onto the hard pavement below.

And they do so. And as the third manager’s screams recede and then abruptly end, the CEO looks at senior manager one and senior manager two and he says:

Well. The rich get richer. And the poor get poorer.

The Word of the Lord.

What do we think about that? Via the CEO’s behavior, have we just witnessed the actions of God?

No. No, that cannot be the right reading of this story.

While God totally gives us gifts or talents and God delights when we live into them and we thrive, God does not make God’s love is in any way conditional on what we do with our gifts. God never responds to us by sending us to a place where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. You know that from scripture and from your every encounter with God.

Here’s the good news. Jesus agrees with you.

Here are a few clues.

First, remember that Jesus is telling this story to a group of folks who are living under occupation, most of whom are of modest financial means, many of whom live in poverty. Few or none of the people listening have any firsthand experience with investing, least of all with investing at the scale that Jesus talks about in this story. (There is considerable debate, by the way, as to how much a talent is worth in modern dollars. Some scholars reckon that a talent is equivalent to as much as 20 years wages. Regardless, it is a staggering amount of money.) So, none of these three servants or slaves in the story are going to be someone with whom the listeners identify. This story isn’t a story about them, it isn’t about whether they are trying hard enough in life. Unless you are absurdly wealthy, it probably isn’t a story about you.

Second, notice who gives the moral of the story. Often Jesus will tell us a parable and then, at the end, he will share a moral with us. But that doesn’t happen here. The wealthy man pronounced judgment on the third slave. And then the parable continues. And it is the wealthy man who says, 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. The wealthy man isn’t God. The wealthy man is a wealthy man.

Third, Jesus constantly contrasts the Kingdom of God with violent human kingdoms. Jesus consistently says: God’s Kingdom isn’t like Caesar’s. Be not afraid. Do not worry. You don’t have to earn your way in. You aren’t going to get punished if you do it wrong. Remember just a few weeks ago the Parable of the Vineyard. The laggards, the latecomers get paid the same. Jesus tells us this persistently through his teaching. And he tells us most emphatically via the cross, whereby he refuses to respond to Empire’s violence with violence of his own. And notwithstanding his refusal to pick up a sword or a gun or to drop a bomb, he wins anyway. Love wins anyway.

In the resurrection, the Kingdom is victorious. And the only blood that is spilt is that of God’s.

The cross tells us this story ain’t an allegory, that it cannot be an allegory. And I wonder if what I talked about earlier – how this story leaves me confused and troubled – isn’t actually a deliberate choice by Jesus. I wonder if he is saying, through this tale, the same thing that he says when he declares that the love of money is the root of all evil. If you love money, this story says, you will end up doing evil things, things that leave you confused and troubled, things that leave you ashamed and hurt and that leave people around you ashamed and hurt.

Don’t be the sort of person who loves money so much that people fear you: don’t be like the boss. Don’t be the sort of person who loves money so much that you need to be afraid of your boss: don’t be like the servants.

Money’s a tool, sometimes a necessary one. But money is totally unworthy of your heart, of your fidelity, of your worship. So choose the Kingdom. Choose love. Be not afraid. Instead, be free.


[1] This sermon draws on the work of Sarah Dylan Breuer and Paul Nuechterlein.

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