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The only honest and responsible way for me to begin to address the Gospel today, I think, is to say, "Welcome to one half of what can only be called a dynamic duo of parables." And I might add as well, "Welcome to one of the most difficult and contrary passages in our whole canon, to one that, on its surface at least, is fraught with unattractive paradox."
St. Matthew's Parable of the Talents, which is the name given by most Christians to the story we have just read, St. Matthew's Parable of the Talents is actually only one of a suite of three stories which our Lord taught on the subject of shrewd stewardship. The third is the tale recorded by St. Luke in chapter 16 of his Gospel that is known as the Parable of the Crafty Steward or the Parable of the Dishonest Manager or some similar wording of the same theme. While we do not have time today to address this third parable itself, anything we do say about the other two needs to be heard in the context of all three stories, and for that reason, I urge upon you the reading later, but not too long from now, of the Parable of the Crafty Steward.
But for our immediate purposes today, the two stories of our dynamic duo, the second one of which is also recorded by St. Luke, but in the 19th chapter of his Gospel, are quite enough to keep us occupied. This morning's reading is known as the Parable of Talents. The story recorded by St. Luke in chapter 19 is known as the Parable of the Ten Talents. In St. Luke's story, if you will remember, Jesus posits not so much a landowner as a lord or crown prince who has to leave his kingdom and travel to a far country in order to be made king. Before he leaves for his coronation, the lord calls 10 of his slaves to him and gives each a mina, small fortune with which each is told to "do business" for the crown prince until he can himself return to them as king. Each of the selected slaves takes his mina and begins to deal with it. Meanwhile, however, many of the other citizens and slaves of that land become restive and begin to speak of rebellion against their absent lord. They go so far, in fact, as to in the end, actually plot out an insurrection.
Well, of course, as we know, the lord does return and he does return as king, fully empowered and totally in command at last. Shortly thereafter, he calls the 10 slaves and asks of each of them a financial report about their success in using his trusts. We are, interestingly enough, only told about three of the reporting slaves. The other seven simply disappear in the ensuing action. We are told thus that the first slave reports to his master, rather proudly in fact, that he has made 10 additional minas out of the one entrusted to him. The king is deeply pleased, and as a reward, gives the profitable slave lordship over 10 cities, one city for each of the minas he has earned. The second slave reports, with equal pride and identical wording, that he had made five minas out of his one. He, too, is praised by the king and given the oversight of five cities, one for each of his earned minas.
The third slave is the last from whom we hear, for his story we are led to understand, is very sad indeed. Like the fearful slave of today's Gospel, this slave has also chosen to hide his mina away where it will be safe from theft and from corrupt usage until his master's return. He explains this decision, as does our fearful servant in St. Matthew, by saying, to quote one translation, "I was afraid of you, for you're a tough man; you collect what you didn't deposit and reap what you didn't sow." So far, our two stories are, in other words, pretty parallel, having only minor differences but the same point.
But now the king of our second rendition responds to the overly fastidious and fearful slave rather differently and far more clearly and emphatically than does the landowner in St. Matthew's telling of the story. The king says, and I quote, "I will judge you by what you have said, you evil slave! If you knew I was a tough man, collecting what I didn't deposit and reaping what I had not sown, why didn't you put my money in the bank? And when I returned, I would have collected it with interest." And then the king said to those standing nearby, "Take the mina away from him and give it to the one who has 10 minas."
Understandably, here, as in the story of the talents itself, those who are standing there and hearing this judgment are outraged. Being moral subjects, albeit insurrectionalist ones, they protest that giving another mina to a man who already had 10 is unfair--pretty much the same accusation against the king that the fearful slave had already made to his own undoing, but moral insurrectionists apparently learn very slowly. So the king turns to the protesters and delivers one of the most frequently quoted lines of Christian scripture. He says, "I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given; and from the one who does not have, even that which he does have will be taken away." After that, the king summarily orders the slaughtering in his presence of those who had plotted his overthrow and the story is ended.
If we never know what happened to the other slaves in St. Luke's story, we also never know what exactly happened to the fearful one beyond his being stripped of his one mina. In St. Matthew's story, as we have read, we find that the fastidious or anxious servant, and not a group of insurrectionists, is the one exiled to the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Either way, however, the question--the central, the overriding, the compelling question--still remains.
If we are to understand, as obviously we are, that the Messiah is the king or lord or master in both stories, and if Jesus who is telling the tale, is Messiah, then what are we to make of these pictures of himself and of his nature that he has left us? What are we to make of a lord who rewards one of our own kind for using the ways of the world to enrich the king upon his return? More to the point, what are we to make of a lord who condemns, exiles, strips bare one of our own kind, for electing to not use the ways of the world to enrich the king upon his return? Usury, which is the word that the King James Version uses to translate what our more cautious, more socially correct contemporary translations refer to as "bearing interest," usury was and is a sin in Judaism, and in a lot of other places as well. And nowhere do nice people ever go around reaping crops they didn't sow? What's happening here?
Well, for one thing, if we are honest with our texts, we have to say that the nature of sin and spiritual error is being defined in a very uncomfortable, unconventional, and uncodified way. If we are honest, we would also have to say that it is being defined in much the same way that Jesus was given to defining it during his teaching life. To the ongoing consternation of the religious, we know he ate on the Sabbath from the grain he and his disciples gathered along the roadside as they walked. He refused to stone an adulteress, as the law required, and then made it impossible for others to do so. He talked in depth and publicly to a Samaritan who, even more damning, was a Samaritan woman. He sat at table with flagrant sinners including whores and Roman toadies. Over and over again, by act as well as word, he pushed against the moralism and the derivative codes of religion, but never more clearly and incontrovertibly than here in our three parables.
Lest there might be any mistake in the minds of those around him about the difference between Torah--the law--and moralism and derivative codes, Jesus very explicitly tells his students and through them, us, that not one jot or tittle of the law as given by God at Sinai will pass into inefficacy until the kingdom itself comes. He says as well that anyone who teaches or empowers another to break Torah would be better off thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his or her neck than to do such a thing. But he just as clearly defines Torah by saying that all the Law and the prophets are summed up in this: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and your neighbor as yourself...for in this all the law and the prophets are indeed fulfilled."
Not all the derivative codes, not all the moral principles, not all the accepted rules and customs of society are so summed, just all the Law and the prophets--just, in other words, all the demands of the crown prince, the landowner, the master, who rejects the moral servant and rewards the obedient ones--rewards the obedient servants whose guiding principle was--there's the real question, is it not? Whose guiding principle was what?
We hear a great deal, and very, very frequently I might add, about Jesus' summary of the law and the prophets, but almost without exception, what we hear about is that second part, the part about loving our neighbors as ourselves. It is a good principle, that one, a good summary of the divine imperative, a good compass for determining direction, but it is also only half of the Messiah's whole summary. It is, to be precise, the second half and occupies thereby, or so we are told, the subordinate or secondary position. Love your neighbor, in other words, while it may be of great social good, is of no spiritual or religious use without its other and primary companion piece of "Love God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your soul."
To know God, as the moral slave knew, is to be afraid. To know God, really know God to the limits of human observation, is to concede that he does indeed make his rain to fall upon the just and the unjust alike. To know God as far as observation will take us is to acknowledge, as the fearful slave acknowledged, that he's a tough man, playing by rules we can easily question and often find deplorable. Such knowledge, much less the rather ubiquitous evidence of it that surrounds us, would make almost any thinking person afraid, and thus it was that the unprofitable slave took up the shield of playing it safe in order to hold his fear at bay.
But what of the profitable servants in both our tales? Were they not also afraid? Of course they were! Common sense alone teaches us that no slave is without fear of the master, not any servant of the boss. Moreover, the profitable servants were clearly thinking and observant folk who knew as surely as did the fearful one what was the nature of the king. Why then did they not likewise fall into heaps of terror, or at the very least, into heaps of paralyzing anxiety?
Because, it would seem from both our stories, because they loved the master, the landowner, the king. Or if love be too weak and abused a word nowadays to be applicable here, and I suspect it is, then let us say, as do the parables, that the profitable servants yearned toward the master. They positively glowed in the light of him and his approval. They also yearned so completely that they gambled with his goods in pure blind faith that that was really what he meant for them to do. They yearned so completely, in other words, that they believed his intentions--his spirit, if you will--as they understood it, and they gambled themselves on fulfilling it. They, in short, loved the master with all their hearts and souls and minds, for this is the first and great commandment, and all the others are secondary unto it.
And the only proper response to such stories as these, it seems to me, is to pray that God may give each of us such grace and faithfulness in our times as he gave to those faithful servants in their storied ones.
Let us pray.
Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scripture to be written for our learning, grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.
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