Last year around this time, I was officially still a student at WTAMU. I am thrilled that that part of my life is finally behind me, and I can focus on loving this beautiful congregation. But of course, I deeply value my education there. Because I believe this education helps me to love actively. I studied Social Work at WT, and I am convinced that social justice is an important form of love and is equally important to both clergy and social workers. I am convinced that the sermon on the mount can be as instructional to social workers as it is to Christians. Because of this affinity of mine, to always look for justice, Gospel readings like the one today initially throw me for a loop. Jesus really said: “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.” Sounds like the rich will get richer, and the poor will get poorer. Not only does this sound supremely unjust, but it also completely contradicts what Jesus preaches on the mount just a few chapters ago. And while in previous parables the main figure, the landowner, the master, was symbolic for God the Father, in this one, the master is Jesus, God the Son. Like the master, Jesus is physically present with his disciples. Jesus will soon have to leave his disciples, just like the master in the parable leaves his servants. Jesus will come again, just like the master in the parable. And on that day, we will be judged, just like the servants in our parable. The fact that the master in today’s parable is God the Son and not God the Father somehow makes this worse. Jesus is fully human; he knows how devastating injustice is to us. He experienced it. He knows it causes poverty, famine, disease, and death. “How can You say these words” I ask.
Now I know I’m biased against the master in the story here. Because I identify with the third servant. The one who gets the third degree burns from his master. That’s because I understand being anxious about money all too well. My financial past reminds me of nothing so much as a game of whack-a-mole, always reacting to yet another surprise bill, never really getting ahead. My husband and I worked hard and diligently to change this. However, it was just over a year ago that my husband suffered an injury and the financial ramifications of that brought back bad memories way too vividly. That’s when I first learned about the concept of financial trauma. Here are the symptoms: you avoid dealing with your budget and bills, as in they go straight and unopened into the trash. You overspent, nothing like a little retail therapy to distract from money problems. You underspend, like not going to the Dr when you really need to, only to double and triple your medical bill in the end. And last: money is hard for you to talk about and to understand. You work for free when asked. Never ask for a raise. You would never risk a low income, not even for a higher one. You play it safe. Remind you of someone? If not yourself, then certainly the third servant in our parable comes to mind. We can’t know for sure if in the world of this text, inflation, housing markets, unemployment, and recession are issues as well, like they are for us, but we do know that Jesus does not cater to the rich and powerful, quite the opposite. It is a fair assumption then that the disciples listening to this parable know financial hardship. The harshness of Jesus words for the third servant must have been jarring to them as well. Because Jesus Christ cannot be interpreted as a hardened slave-master who demands unjust practices for profit from his servants. Practices that are so unjust, they go against the law actually. The master reprimands the servant for failing to invest the money with bankers to earn interest. This practice is clearly forbidden in scripture in both the book of Exodus and Leviticus. He is a man who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he has not scattered seed. He aggressively seeks to expand his estate and takes whatever he can wherever he can to make a profit.
Jesus Christ, the merciless capitalist ignoring the spirit of God’s law.
That image is so wrong, it clashes with reality so hard, that we along with the disciples are forced to look deeper. We have to ask questions, like this obvious one, is this parable really about money? Is Jesus really worried about our financial literacy so that we might tithe, might give money well and often to Him the master, to temple or church? Did Jesus plan for future Stewardship Campaigns? How convenient. In short, is this parable really teaching a gospel of prosperity? And since we are on the subject of money, let’s clear up another question: how much money is a talent? A talent is equal to about 6,000 denarii. Since one denarius is a common laborer’s daily wage, a talent would be roughly equivalent to 20 years wages for the average worker. Five talents, the largest amount entrusted to any of the servants, is comparable to one hundred years’ worth of labor, it’s a surreal amount of money. The money at stake here is so overwhelming, it’s too abstract, it’s theoretical. So much so, that our use of the word talent today evolved into meaning a special gift someone has to play music or to write poetry. Let’s try out this parable again, substituting a different wealth than money, wealth in the form of a gift, a skill, an aptitude, a talent given to each servant. And let’s focus on the master’s actions before He returns and not just zone in on the harsh judgment at the end.
The master, Jesus gives wealth in the form of gifts. He picks these gifts carefully and thoughtfully, to each according to his ability. And then, He leaves. The master, Jesus Christ, God the Son leaves trusting that his servants, his disciples, will use these gifts wisely. Not only is he trusting them, he does so over a long period of time. A whole lifetime. Our culture places so much value on things happening immediately, even instantaneously, we have become unaccustomed to waiting. Here is yet another gift, the gift of time, a long time, allowing the servants to live faithfully in this abundance. And two of the servants see this for the amazing offer that it is. They are thankful for their gifts, and they trust in their master completely. They trust Him so much, they emulate Him. They copy him. They imitate their master; they imitate Jesus Christ. As we have the chance today to confirm our baptismal covenant for the baptism of XXXX, we also are reminded to imitate Christ when we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. This is how they obey their master, with trust in his word and example. It is that trust that allows them to risk, to give their talents as well. Our materialistic society teaches us early on, that the more we have, the more we own, the safer we are. Giving things, time, money, efforts, talents, it can feel unsafe, it can scare us.
It certainly scared the third servant. He is as scared as a freshly graduated student with no job prospects and student loans. As scared as a single mother trying to decide between the electricity bill or her need to see a doctor. He panics. Remember those symptoms of financial trauma? Take no risk, hold on to what you have at all costs. He digs a hole, and this is where he hides his possession. Not realizing that he is hiding his gift. He has buried himself. We hear that the master is furious at him and condemns him, but he really already condemned himself. He already literally dug his own hole. And that’s where he lives, in a darkness that knows only weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Nobody wants to live in darkness. Nobody wants to live scared. It is an exquisite irony that the servant acted in this manner to feel safe. But by trusting only in his own action, his own understanding, and experiences of the world, he cut himself of from God’s grace. The obedience of trusting God is too daunting for him, he freezes into inaction.
The other servants know that the obedience of trust, the faith of imitating Christ is not a burden or a fearful endeavor but is instead precisely the joy of discipleship in which everything is given, the gift and the interest it reaps! Therefore, they enter into the joy of the master. They know that He is inviting his disciples and us into a fullness, a wealth, an abundance of grace, of love that is continuously offered and multiplies when given away.
They know the real value of using our talents lovingly and the beauty of giving them to one another. They know that God only gives with faithful love. May we also know this deep down to our soul and be free to imitate Christ’s unconditional love.