The Parable of the Harsh Master?

Read any great story and you’ll likely find yourself somewhere within it.

Whether it’s The Odyssey, Harry Potter, The Grapes of Wrath, or Charlotte’s Web, our natural impulse is to imagine who we are in the story – or perhaps, who we should be. So, we create emotional attachments to certain characters, identify with their motives and dilemmas, differentiate between heroes and villains – all to draw moral lessons for how we ought to live our lives.

We do this with many of the stories Jesus tells.

A man going on a journey is beaten, robbed, left for dead in a ditch, and we naturally wonder, what would I do, who should I be like – the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan?

Or a father has two sons. One runs away, blows it bigtime, then comes home repenting, and we ask: Who am I in this story? The prodigal, the father, the dutiful son, the fatted calf? What would or should I do?

Some parables are like windows through which we see the kind of person we could be or should be if only we’d come to our senses, or come clean, or just do better.

But Jesus tells other parables that function more like mirrors by which we see ourselves not as we should be, but as we really are. These parables are less prescriptive and aspirational and simply more unapologetically honest about who we are and how far we seem to be from the sheer joy of living in God’s presence.

Take the so-called Parable of the Talents, for example. We look to find ourselves within this story, hoping to glean some lesson for how we should live, but it turns out that what we assumed was another window is actually a mirror, and the face staring back at us is startling.

Did you find yourself in this story?

There are four characters — a master and three servants. But because we’re inclined to associate master with God, we assume we must be one of the three servants, which narrows it down a bit. But because the story doesn’t end so well for one of those servants, we assume it’s much preferable to be one of the other two, and that we’re supposed to emulate at least one of them. And so, it seems, we’ve now narrowed it down to two.

Which of the two are we?

We look to the plot elements of the story for clues. The master has amassed great wealth. He’s headed out of town on business but he can’t take his cash with him. So, he leaves it with his three servants to manage while he’s away. He distributes his cash to the servants disproportionately, according to their apparent ability to manage it. And it’s a lot of cash, by the way — a seven or eight-figure sum in today’s dollars.

One of the servants is given five bags of cash. Another, two. The third, one. When the master leaves town, the first two servants invest their cash, earning substantial returns, but the one-bag servant buries his in the ground, failing even to earn interest on it.

When the master returns, he demands an accounting from his servants, and the two who invested wisely are rewarded, but the one-bag servant who buried his master’s cash is condemned to the outer darkness for the dreaded weeping-and-gnashing-of teeth treatment. It’s a harsh punishment but, we assume, he had it coming.

So, the moral of the story, it seems, is clear: don’t be like the one-bag schmuck. Emulate the hardworking, wise servants — because we only have one life to give and only so much time to give it, and our divine master expects us to get to work, and try harder, and do more, and be productive, and to not waste time because, in the Kingdom of God, the operative mantra apparently is … Carpe Diem or die?

Fear of punishment can be a great motivator, and a stirring appeal to live our purpose can be a great catalyst for achievement. This works so well in our modern culture that values success and achievement. Do something with your life, with your God-given talent, with the treasure God has entrusted to you. Or else.

Only Jesus wasn’t a motivational speaker, his mission wasn’t self-help, and his message was never, ever, to do more or to work harder or to be more productive – or else.

“Consider the lilies of the field,” Jesus says elsewhere. “How they neither toil nor spin… the birds of the air, how they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns… Do not worry about tomorrow… or store up treasures on earth.”

So then, if we’re not supposed to be the five-bag or two-bag servants, and if, given his tragic circumstances, we definitely don’t want to be the one-bag servant, where in this story are we to find ourselves?

The parable’s context in Matthew’s gospel offers some hints. In Matthew 25, Jesus will soon be arrested, and tried, and crucified. He has little time left to say what must be said. And last words, we know, are often the weightiest words.

So just before today’s parable, he tells another about ten bridesmaids. Five are foolish, five are wise, but only the wise get to party with the groom. The foolish are, according to the story, like burnouts who’ve run out of gas; the wise are those who’ve carefully tended their flame, so to speak. Jesus seems to be saying that some people can be so busy trying to be dutiful and religious and hardworking that they finally just burn out and lose their shine. In their drive to do more, to try harder, to achieve for God, they didn’t even realize that their light had gone out. And so, they missed the party.

Can you find yourself in that story?

After today’s parable, he tells one more – about people who are so busy trying to be perfect, and to be right, and to do right, and to please God, that they completely fail to recognize the naked, hungry, sick, and imprisoned God hidden in plain sight before their very eyes. “Just as you did not do it to one of these,” he says famously. “You did not do it to me.”

Can you find yourself in that story?

Two parables about our incessant human need to please God by doing more and trying harder to make ourselves worthy, only to burn out, miss the party, overlook God’s presence.

These two parables bookend our so-called Parable of the Talents, about three servants – two of whom try so hard to please their demanding, high-expectation master, and one of whom is so fearful of that master that he doesn’t dare even try for fear of failure.

“I knew you were a harsh man,” he tells the master. “Reaping where you did not sow, gathering where you did not scatter, so I was afraid…”

Is Jesus suggesting here that God is like some harsh, unyielding, punitive, fear-mongering mob boss whom we better satisfy and gratify, or else? Is he saying to all the one-bag servants of the world: God is so disappointed in you that darkness is your only destiny because, in some way, you have failed, and you are unworthy?

Does that sound like God to you? Where, in all the gospels, does Jesus ever use such language to describe God, or us?

And yet, for so many, this is the God we’ve only ever known:

A God who demands achievement and accomplishment in order to dispense divine approval;

A God who loves us only when we follow the rules and fulfill God’s expectations;

A God who holds over our heads the threat of outer darkness and the weeping and gnashing of teeth until we finally make something worthy of ourselves.

That master’s standard is impossible, because, let’s be honest, can we ever, ever make a 100% return on anything in life? We who strive to be the five-bag or two-bag servants will always end up bankrupt trying, while the one-bag servants might never have the courage to try at all.

So, what if in the end, as we look for ourselves in this story, we find we are neither of the three servants — or perhaps a bit of all three? Sometimes we achieve magnificently, and sometimes we fail miserably. And while we all want to impress, to be found worthy by God and rewarded generously, we know that kind of faith is a fool’s errand. We’ll never live up to the standards of that harsh master.

What if, in the end, this harsh master is simply a divine projection of all our insecurities and fears of failing to please God and being found unworthy? How we conceive of God often determines how we perceive ourselves. And sometimes we need to heal our disfigured images of God, so that we can hear the gospel’s resounding message that we are already worthy before we ever do anything at all with our moneybags.

Until we finally reject our false projections about who God is and how God loves, that harsh master will always rule our lives, and we will spend every moment hustling for divine approval. Our moneybags might even be filled to overflowing in the process, but our hearts will be empty.

The desert fathers and mothers told about a hermit who hears a knock at the door of his hermitage. Opening the door, he sees a mother, a father, and their young daughter. They have come to ask him to pray over their daughter who, they claim, has been turned into a donkey by an evil wizard.

“I see,” says the hermit, as he invites them inside. He asks the parents to sit off to one side and then asks the girl if she’s hungry. She says yes, and as the hermit prepares a meal, he asks her questions about things that matter to her. When the parents see the genuine love this hermit has for their daughter, their eyes are suddenly opened. They realize that the wizard hadn’t cast a spell on their daughter after all and turned her into a donkey. Rather, the wizard had cast a spell on them, making them believe their daughter was a donkey. Seeing now their daughter as truly the little girl they love, they’re filled with joy and tearfully embrace her.

As they leave with their daughter, they express gratitude for what’s happened. And their daughter is grateful too — because it’s hard to be a little girl when your parents think you’re a donkey.

If only we could break the spell of unworthiness and behold the God beholding us, smiling.

Is the Parable of the Talents a window or a mirror? In the end, I suppose each of us gets to decide. But either way, wouldn’t it be lovely to look upon it and see the face of God gazing back at us in love and smiling?

Let’s join together in prayer. Lord, look upon us with eyes of love. May your Spirit rest upon us and within us, flowing into every cell of our bodies, into the deepest depths of our souls, recovering, restoring, returning to us your divine image, your original blessing. Amen.