At first glance, it’s an easy one. The master distributes wealth, gifts, talents. The recipients either put them to work and harvest their reward, or bury them, ignore them, and finally hand them back covered with dirt and none the shinier for it. The shrewd investors are rewarded; the mattress hoarder is punished. Use your God-given talents or wail and gnash your teeth: the choice is yours.
Easy. But weeping and gnashing of teeth do not make for much of a gospel message.
There are a couple of problems with this kind of allegorical reading. First of all, the third slave tells his master, “You are a harsh man who reaps where he does not sow”: hardly the image of an all-creating, loving, all-encompassing God without whom nothing is sown, to whom all harvest is owed, who sustains all life. Either the slave is wrong, and misunderstands his master’s business; or he is right, in which case the master can hardly be identified with God; and either way he is pretty foolish.
At our Bible Study Tuesday, Elaine helpfully pointed out that if the slave is correct and the master is a jerk, his servant had to be out of his mind to tell it to him face to face. And then throw his muddy, dirty talent back at him. He was just looking for trouble!
And that is one interpretation of the parable: that the third slave was looking for trouble, insulting and maligning his master, challenging the one who had control over his livelihood, his life, his destiny, like a rebellious child. And like a rebellious child, he was put in time-out, where there was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, which sounds remarkably like some of the toddler tantrums we all have witnessed from time to time. And the good children got ice cream for dinner.
Which sounds like a good, old-fashioned moralistic nursery tale: but not like much of a gospel message.
Of course, if the third slave was right, and the master’s money was already dirty before he put it in the ground: extorted money; drug money; mob money; ill-gotten gains; well then the third slave becomes a hero. He is the only one brave enough to stand up to the man and give it right back to him, man to man: “I was afraid, but not any more. I will say it straight: You are a bad man, and you don’t deserve my interest.” The first two slaves are the fools, duped into doing the master’s dirty work for him, and the third is the whistleblower, the honest worker, the hero. Who gets thrown into the outer darkness to weep and wail and gnash his teeth for his pains.
We know it can happen. But does it make a gospel message?
Here’s the thing: it could be that Jesus is telling a story not about the kingdom of God but the way we live now. It could be that Jesus is saying, look at how things are working out in real life. Those who have plenty get more, and those who have little lose it because they don’t have the economic power to bargain their way out of debt, to pay the people who could advise them wisely, to buy comprehensive insurance against losing the little that they own. And the millionaire master, who can afford to liquidate large, massive sums of money for his servants to play with while he is away on business; he says, tough luck. There is not a whole lot of compassion in this picture; not a great deal of grace.
It could be that Jesus was holding up a mirror to a society that put its faith in money, in power bought and sold. He is parlaying the message of the prophet into a story, a tale about the complacent ones who say, “It doesn’t matter how I earn my money or use or abuse my power: it’s all mine, it’s all on me, and God will do neither good nor evil; God doesn’t even notice.”
The great and terrible day of the Lord is near, says the prophet, says Jesus: God will take notice. Neither their silver nor their gold will deliver them on the day of wrath, the dies ire, the great and terrible day of the Lord.
In fact, the only thing that saves them, that saves us, is grace. Stuck in the parable of this world, we are trapped either in servitude, in pandering to a mean master, in disgrace and punishment and despair, or in the moral morass of the despotic millionaire. No one in that parable comes off well.
But we heard just a couple of weeks ago how the meek will inherit the earth. The one-talent, fearful, timid slave, as meek as milk, will inherit the earth. God will raise up the lowly and cast down the haughty from their heights. No more rich getting richer at the expense of the poor; the manifesto of the Magnificat, the message of the Gospel turns the story on its head. The third slave gets his fairy tale ending, and the others? Well, that’s for God to decide.
But a God whose property, thank goodness, is always to have mercy.
That, to me, sounds more like a gospel message.
And there is more good news. We just rewrote the story. Which means, we can rewrite the story.
What if last week’s bridesmaids, instead of dividing into two groups and splitting the party, halving the joy: what if they had shared their lamps and all gone in together? What if the first two slaves had taken the third under their wings and taught him their investing strategies? What if he had asked them for help? What if all three had pooled their resources and bought themselves out of indentured servitude altogether: the money in the story is about fifteen years’ wages, times one, times two, times five? Surely they could have done more together than apart. And their master could obviously spare the change.
We have the power, the authority, if we have the will, to rewrite the story. If we rewrote our story, perhaps we could throw off the narrative of the widening gap between rich and poor, and work together for the dignity and security of all people. We could write a parable of economic justice. We could help the meek into their earthly inheritance.
Of course, it’s all speculation. Jesus didn’t give us too many answers. He did tell a lot of stories. The story that he told the most was that the kingdom of God was at hand, that God’s will for God’s people will be, is to be fulfilled; the will of a gracious God whose kingdom is peace, whose property is mercy, whose will for all people is salvation.
Which brings us full circle. If we read this parable as a story rather than as a threat; if we go back to reading it as a parable of the kingdom of God, it becomes a place wherein largesse is distributed in amounts beyond our dreams, and those who go out and share it, share the grace, share the gospel, find that it is returned to them measure for measure. And those who hoard it to themselves discover that that is not grace at all, and they live to regret it. Will they learn their lesson and be restored? That’s a story for another day.
If we read the parable as a story rather than as a threat.
Because, in the end, if the stories of Jesus that we read do not give that gospel message of God’s love for all of God’s children; if they don’t provoke in us a need to love God and to take loving care of one another, don’t you think, we might just be missing the point?