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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 11/16

          You most likely know how the parable of the talents is usually interpreted; the traditional understanding has been that the man going on a journey represents God or Christ, the servants represent Christians, and the talents are the gifts of God, be they monetary gifts or the various skills and abilities that each of us are given.  The first two servants use their talents well and productively and so they are rewarded accordingly for their efforts while the third servant buries his talent, he doesn’t use what he is given and is punished for his lack of productivity, cast into that outer darkness that Matthew seems to have a need to remind us of periodically, just in case we forget.

          The moral of the story then, the point of the parable is that each of us is given resources to work with, gifts…money, talents, abilities, whatever they might be…and we should put them to good use.  It’s a point worth making, a good lesson for anyone to learn and I’m sure we all can think of someone who has failed to do this, the athlete who is immensely talented but can’t discipline him or herself enough to ever get it together, the really smart person who could be whatever they want but fail to put forth the effort to amount to anything, a musician who has natural ability but isn’t inclined to practice.  You know people like this who have squandered their talents and in truth all of us have times when we don’t use our gifts very well.

          This is the traditional interpretation and there certainly is basis for it in the context of Matthew’s gospel because, for example, you could say that the servant who buries his treasure is like a tree that doesn’t bear good fruit, an image mentioned more than once in Matthew while the other two are like the faithful servant in an earlier parable who the master will find at work when he comes, the one whom he will put in charge of all his possessions.  There is basis for this interpretation; it is worthy of our attention because for any of us discerning what our talents are and then putting them to good use in service to God is part of the journey of faith.

          It’s a good lesson and if that’s what you need to hear this morning I suppose you could stop listening now and just think about that; that would be OK.  But remember that with parables there is no one correct interpretation.  By nature parables are open ended, open to different interpretations even in cases like this where one interpretation tends to be the dominant one; but others are always possible and there’s another one I want to talk about that I think is worth considering especially in light of what has happened with the economy in recent weeks.

          In this second interpretation the man going on a journey is not God or Jesus, but a wealthy person who has become rich unjustly, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not scatter seed.  I think we’ve been hearing a lot about this individual and his friends during the past couple of months, Wall Street executives making hundreds of millions not terribly concerned that everyone else’s retirement investments are going down the toilet.  In this version of the parable, the first two servants follow in the footsteps of the boss, loyal employees using the same kinds of dishonest practices to further increase his wealth and their own as in the end they are compensated financially for their “success,” moving up the corporate ladder as it were. 

The third servant however, doesn’t buy in.  He refuses to participate in this system of exploitation even refusing to invest his money with bankers who might also be engaged in unjust practices.  The result for him is that he is punished, what he has is taken away from him, I guess you could say he gets fired supposedly for a lack of production but really for bucking the system that the boss wants to keep in place; so he is banished, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the cycle of injustice, inequity and dishonesty continues.

I think it’s an interesting take on this parable.  Where is God or Jesus in this you might ask?  Well, wasn’t Jesus a servant who acted in ways that threatened the establishment such that he was punished, eliminated (or so they thought) for his refusal to play by the rules?  That’s one possibility.  Or maybe we picture God or Jesus standing beside the third servant, providing support as he digs the hole he’ll put his money in, a daring, countercultural act which he knows will get him in trouble but he’s reached a point where he just can’t go along anymore.  He’s willing to stand apart and take a risk, taking comfort in the fact that God stands with him. 

He knows he’s at the mercy of those in power.  He knows it would be easier to just go along and play the game and pretend that the promises of those in power were true, pretend that the system works and is fair.  But the third servant knows too much.  He knows that the teaching of the Bible, the teaching of Jesus represents an alternative to systems that use dishonesty and result in injustice and so he has to act in opposition, trusting that God is beside him.  So, as was the case in the first interpretation there certainly is contextual support in Matthew for this one too, support both in the actions of Jesus and also in the alternative to the status quo that Jesus’ overall message always represents.

Both of these interpretations have merit.  Both have been around for a long time, but I’ll bet until today you never heard the second one; I’d never come across it before.  I think there’s a reason for that; while both interpretations are challenging, in some ways the first one is easier; it’s safer, it doesn’t really upset things and we’re often inclined to interpretations that don’t upset things.  The first interpretation makes the parable a simple morality tale; work hard and make good use of the gifts and talents you’ve been given.  Like I said, it’s a great lesson, something young and old all need to learn and then hear again and again.  On the other hand, I don’t think God became human in Jesus only to tell simple morality tales.  A teller of morality tales doesn’t wind up crucified.

Jesus challenged ways of living that were accepted and thought to be unchangeable.  All of his teaching suggests that there is another more human and more godly way to be and that’s what he invites people to see.  But what often happens is that it’s easier to say that he just represents an impossible, pie in the sky vision that doesn’t have much practical value; sounds good but we can’t live that way.  That’s why I think this second interpretation of the parable has merit even if does make us uncomfortable; it challenges everyone who hears it.   

Another, maybe even more important reason I think it has merit is because of the portrayal of God.  With the traditional “work hard and use your talents well” interpretation, what you have to overlook or explain away is that if the man going on a journey represents God, he is one nasty, scary, judgmental character.  It’s not a God of grace’ it’s not even a God who gives you what you deserve because the third servant didn’t get what he deserved, he got far worse.  If you think about it, he didn’t do anything that bad; he just wasn’t very productive.  To have everything taken away and to be cast into the outer darkness is not justice in this case.  The punishment does not fit the crime.  There is absolutely no forgiveness or grace.

The second interpretation is much more consistent with what we believe about the God revealed in Jesus.  It makes more sense to see Jesus in the third servant, daring to act differently only to be punished by the ruling powers.  Or it makes more sense to see Jesus standing with the third servant, present to him and with him in the suffering he experiences for the sake of the gospel.

The point though isn’t to say one interpretation is right or one is wrong or even that one is better than the other; both have merit and remember I’ve just looked at two possibilities here; there certainly could be more.  However you look at it though, whatever interpretation you choose, the parable kind of hits you upside the head and calls you to pay attention which is what parables are supposed to do.  Maybe the question to ask is which interpretation upsets you the most; which one challenges you the most?  That’s the one you want to pay attention to.  That’s the one which, as you wrestle with it, will draw you closer to the kingdom Jesus talked about, the kingdom he died for.

These end of the year gospel texts are not the easiest ones for us to hear, but we do need to hear them.        

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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