Today's gospel is usually told as part of a stewardship drive. People are encouraged to hear this parable then give as much as they can to the church. We don't usually talk much about that but I'm going to tell you a joke about it;
A little boy pulls on the preacher's hand to get his attention, then says, "I'm going to give you money when I grow up." The preacher says, "Thank you very much but why do you want to give me money when you grow up?" The little boy replies, "My dad says that you are the "poorest" preacher we have ever had."
Jesus tells these perplexing stories to his followers, we read them 2000 years later and try so hard to figure out what the heck he meant. Every time I hear this particular story I wince. No matter how you read it, it just doesn’t seem fair.
Let’s see: A harsh, unscrupulous slave master is leaving for a long vacation. He gives different amounts of money to three slaves. The first two slaves double the money they’ve been given but the third slave is afraid. He knows that the slave master is a bad person, with a bad temper. He is afraid to risk losing the money so he buries the money in the ground to keep it safe.
The slave master returns a year later and is very pleased with the first two slaves. But, he is completely furious with the meek, cautious slave and yells at him: “You lazy idiot! So you knew that I was a bad person, did you? You should have at least invested my money with bankers so that it would have made some interest! Don’t you know that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer? Get away from me, you fool!!!” With these words, the meek slave is banished to the outer darkness.
And that is how Jesus ends this story, this terrible parable. There are two very conflicting ways to interpret this story. Here is the most common, comfortable interpretation: The master is God, the slaves are us. God gives us gifts and talents to use in the world. We should take risks with our God given gifts and we will reap great rewards. If we bury our talents and gifts and don’t put them out into the world, God will be angry with us and we won’t reap any rewards.
I have some questions about this interpretation. First, why would Jesus tell us a story where he describes God, his loving father, as a slave master who “reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter”? This is the behavior of a cheat and a thief. Where else in the Bible is God ever described that way?
The meek slave buried the money which was the common practice for people of that time. So, if the master is God, why would God be so angry about this prudent, careful behavior? Now I know that God gets mad at us throughout the Bible so maybe the fact that he is so very harsh with the timid slave is not out of the question.
Jesus has taught us that it is the meek who shall inherit the earth. Why then, in this parable, would he say, “For those who have, more will be given, but for those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away?” In other words, the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer. Does this sound like the Jesus who aligns himself with the poor and the needy throughout his entire ministry?
Parables should jolt us. This parable jolts me. What if we’ve gotten it wrong with our tidy, happy interpretation all these years? God gives us gifts and we’d better use them!
Picture Jesus sitting on the Mount of Olives, telling this story quietly to his disciples. They were simple men from humble lives. As such, maybe they would most relate to the meek, timid servant. Maybe they admired him because he was the only slave who was brave enough to actually blow the whistle on his terrible slave master? Those disciples could well imagine how scary it must have been for him to say, “Master, I know you are a very hard man. You harvest what you do not plant. You gather crops where you do not put any seed. So I was afraid. I went and hid your money in the ground.”
What if the other two slaves had also been brave and strong enough to not cooperate with their evil master? What if they had joined with the timid slave and refused to be part of this corrupt situation? Well, they were slaves so they probably would have all been thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. I don’t know where that is but it sounds awful, doesn’t it?
Let us go with the third slave now. He walks slowly out of the only life he has known. He has lost his job. He has lost his home. He has no money, no security. (Doesn’t this sound like what is happening to so many people in the world today?) The third slave is now banished and will soon be hungry, thirsty, without clothes and maybe sick. Maybe he will get caught stealing food and go to jail. In the very next verses from Matthew, Jesus praises those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit prisoners. He could easily be talking about caring for the third, meek slave. He ends by saying, “Just as you cared for the least of these, you cared for me.” When we care for the needy, we care for Jesus.
Perhaps he is telling this story to draw his disciples into understanding that their mission is with the least among us. Jesus tells his disciples that the end of his time is near. In just two days it will be Passover and he will die.
Perhaps Jesus is painting this jarring story of a cruel slave master to say; “That is how it has been. The social order has been cruel and unfair. But, in just two days, I will be hung up on a cross and killed and when that happens, everything, everything will start to change.”
Was he right? Has society changed after his death? Well, for our poor, banished slave, there were no food banks, no Union Gospel Missions, no social security, no unemployment payments. His fate was dire. As we have followed the teachings of Christ all these 2000 years, we have developed safety networks for people in trouble. We meet Jesus when we care for the needy.
Let us hear this old parable with new ears, attuned to the needs of the least among us. Let us stand with the needy in our society as a people, as a church. Let us seek to meet Jesus in the faces of the least among us.