RESISTANCE IS RISKY BUSINESS
November 19, 2017
If ever there was a passage in Scripture that could be used to justify our economic system of capitalism, our gospel lesson for today would be the perfect proof text. The slave who had received 5 talents from his master traded with them and made 5 more talents, and the slave with 2 talents traded with them and made 2 more talents. When the master returned, he congratulated both of these slaves for their trustworthy initiative, but he told the slave who had buried his one talent that he should have invested his talent with the bankers and earned some interest on the master’s money. If the master in this parable is supposed to represent God, then we could draw the logical conclusion that God must be in favor of the practice of usury.
Of course, in order to avoid such an application of this parable, traditionally we have concluded that Jesus is using the example of money really to talk about our other talents—that is, the gifts, skills, and abilities that we have been given by God to use in order to spread God’s good news and draw other people into the realm of God. Anyone who fails to maximize their talents for this purpose basically is portrayed in this parable as failing God and could be subject to the hellfire of damnation, whether that be in the here-and-now or at the end of time.
Such attempts to situate this parable in some eschatological time tend to ignore the historical context of Jesus’ parable and the location of this parable in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus recently has entered Jerusalem whereupon he immediately went to the temple to chase out the money changers and the animal sellers—both of whom were ripping off the people in order to line their own pockets and support the lucrative business of the religious elite. The next day, Jesus returned to the temple and engaged in a day-long conversation with people who were trying to get him to incriminate himself so that they could find just cause to put him to death. In the course of this conversation, Jesus denounced the religious leaders for their hypocrisy, oppression, corruption, and violence against their own people.
Afterwards, Jesus took his disciples aside and described for them all of the trials and tribulations that would come about if all of this oppression, corruption, and violence would be allowed to continue and no one would take a stand to put a stop to these atrocities. That’s when the author of the Gospel of Matthew records 3 parables attributed to Jesus—the parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids that we heard last Sunday, this parable about the slaves and their use of the master’s talents, and the parable about the sheep and the goats that is the gospel lesson assigned for next Sunday.
This parable about the slaves and the use of their master’s talents realistically reflects the economic situation in Jesus’ day. According to Donald Kraybill in his book “The Upside Down Kingdom,” an elite aristocracy had called Jerusalem their home—the city where Jesus now finds himself presenting his vision of the beloved community and challenging the injustices of his day. This aristocracy included the chief priests of the temple, wealthy landowners, merchants, tax collectors, and the Sadducean Party—all of whom derived their extravagant wealth from vast estates throughout the country that were being worked by slaves, hired hands, and tenant farmers who lived in abject poverty and made up about 90% of the population of Galilee and Judea.
Peasant farmers who used to be fortunate enough to own a small piece of property would become go into debt due to the double taxation by Rome and also by the temple in Jerusalem. In order to pay off their debt, these farmers would be forced to sell their land to a wealthy landowner and become enslaved for the rest of their lives in working for their master. Within this economic system, this wealthy aristocracy would accumulate and own massive estates, but often would be absent in order to live in the city or go traveling throughout the region.
This parable is a commentary on and critique of this capitalistic system. The first two slaves buy into this system in order to stay in the good graces of their master. Both of them double their master’s money—not their own money, but their master's money—and are rewarded with greater responsibility on the estate. On the other hand, the third slave, with some fear and trepidation, resisted this temptation, and decided to hold on to the one talent that he had been given to invest. When the master returns, this slave not only returns the master's talent, he also takes the opportunity to expose the master for who he is. The master is a harsh man—meaning that he does not treat his slaves very well. The master also is a person who benefits greatly from the labor of others, because he accumulates his wealth on the backs of those who farm his land while he takes off and pursues the pleasures of his life.
Jesus has been putting up this same kind of resistance throughout most of his ministry. Over and over again, Jesus has exposed the injustices of this wealthy aristocracy by addressing the ways that they have enslaved and oppressed their people, used whatever means necessary to accumulate more and more wealth, and resorted to violence whenever anyone comes along that exposes and threatens their luxurious lifestyle. The slave who was given the one talent in this parable is the only one who dares to join this resistance in order to embody the realm of God that Jesus came to inaugurate and establish so that everyone could experience the justice, peace, and freedom that God intended for all people on this earth.
Jesus has just warned his disciples that if they would choose to follow him in this way, they could count on being handed over to the authorities, be tortured, and be put to death. That’s exactly what happened to this rebellious slave in this parable. He refused to play by the rules of the economic system in which he found himself, and what little he had was taken away from him and given to those who did everything that they could to placate the wealthy elite. Jesus can expect the same kind of treatment because immediately following these 3 parables in the Gospel of Matthew, we are told that the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest and conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him—which they did 3 days later.
The easiest way for us to deal with this parable is to put it off until the end of time when God would come to reward us for the way that we have used our talents to promote the reign of God and to punish those who failed in this regard—which for me totally subverts any image of a gracious God who in the end will forgive the sins of everyone and remember them no more. The more challenging way to interpret this parable is to portray the last slave as the one who has a vision for the realm of God that Jesus espoused and who dared to expose and challenge the political and economic system that the wealthy elite had devised and used to accumulate more and more wealth while forcing most of the people to live in abject poverty and keeping them in that bondage for an entire lifetime.
Has anything changed in 2000 years? The way that our predominantly Christian Congress is going about their business this very day by proposing tax reforms that will benefit the most wealthy people in our land while threatening the well-being of so many who already are struggling to make ends meet simply perpetuates the dynamic that Jesus is describing in our gospel lesson for today—a dynamic that is so harsh and so cruel because the rich keep figuring out how to get richer while those who already are impoverished have little if any hope of living without the fear of what tomorrow will bring.
Those of us who are privileged to be among what our society refers to as the middle or upper middle class would do well to figure out how we could best resist this trajectory of increasing economic disparity that is driving more and more people into the slavery of homelessness, hunger, drug dependency, mental illness, hopelessness, and despair where there is perpetual weeping and gnashing of teeth. The master in this parable has done his best to create this economic disparity and two of his privileged slaves have played along and have contributed to his already vast estate.
The third slave was the one who dared to call out the master for who he was, and for that he paid the price with his life just as Jesus did. What price are we willing to pay to turn this trajectory of economic disparity around and promote the beloved community known as the realm of God that Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated throughout his entire ministry? As we wrestle with this question, both individually and preferably as the body of Christ, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, the One who also has called us to take up our cross and follow him. Amen.