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"Take Risks"

Jesus has entrusted his disciples with the good news. They must dare to act; they must share what they have been given; they must multiply it – like the first two slaves! Hiding it away does no one any good. The third slave is like a tree that bears no fruit!


Two chairs with the word 'Render' above it

Matthew 25:14-30

November 19, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright


We come to the end of our series on Matthew with a parable that has long been the go-to text for stewardship season. Preachers will usually explain that it encourages us to put our talents to good use, not bury them away in the ground!


But our study group had questions that simple summary can’t answer:

“Where did all this wealth come from?”

“Was the master really a cheat?”

“How did the first two slaves make such a profit?”

And, “What if they had lost their money instead of doubling it?”


Good questions, right?

 

It is an astonishing amount of wealth. One scholar explains “’Talenta’ were almost impossibly valuable — at least fifteen years’ worth of income for the average laborer. They would be worth somewhere between 2 and 6 million dollars today, depending on how you do the math. They could weigh around 75 pounds, meaning a single person might struggle to even pick one up. This is an obscene, ridiculous, hyperbolic amount of money.”[1]


As to how the master became so wealthy, the answer is staring us in the face: the man had slaves. “The economic value of the 4 million [US] slaves in 1860 was, on average, $1,000 per person, or about $4 billion total. That was more than all the banks, railroads and factories in the U.S. were worth at the time.”[2] When you don’t pay a laborer for their work, almost all the value they produce – whether that be in the form of tobacco, cotton, sugarcane, or salt – is profit!


I know that slavery in the first century was different, but the potential for profit still applies.


On top of that, it is alleged that the master is “a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter seed.” It sounds like he’s a cheat.


Is it true? Who knows, but it sort of fits.


Alyce McKenzie writes, “The wealthy elite used its wealth to make loans to peasant farmers so they could plant their crops. Interest rates were high, as high as 200 percent.”[3] That sounds like an effective way to reap without having to sow seed yourself. McKenzie continues, “The purpose of making these loans was so that the peasants would be forced to put their land up as collateral, and so that the wealthy elite could foreclose on these loans in years when crops did not cover the incurred debt.” Gathering not just the seed but the land itself!


It’s not cheating, but it’s a far cry from the command in Leviticus to leave the corners of your fields unharvested so that the poor and immigrants can glean.[4]


How did the first two slaves make such a profit? Maybe they made such loans to others, even though charging interest was not permitted[5] or maybe they gambled … or maybe they sold oil to foolish bridesmaids at midnight!


Whether they invested or gambled, they were lucky they did not lose it all. I’m sure they would not have entered “the joy of their master” if they had lost the millions he had entrusted to them. In that scenario, the third’s decision to bury it in the ground would have looked prudent, not timid.

 

Of course, the real question remains: What is Jesus trying to tell folks with this parable?


The timing may be important: He tells it just days before his arrest and crucifixion, so, like the master in the parable, he is about to go on a journey. Maybe he is trying to prepare them for the responsibility of carrying on his ministry.


If that’s the case, then you can understand the traditional interpretation – that the third slave


fails to make use of the great gift he has been entrusted with!


Jesus has entrusted his disciples with the good news. They must dare to act; they must share what they have been given; they must multiply it – like the first two slaves! Hiding it away does no one any good. The third slave is like a tree that bears no fruit!


There’s a lot of other stuff going on here, but maybe we are supposed to ignore everything else and focus on being fruitful!


Or maybe Jesus wants us to pay attention to the generosity and grace of the initial gift. The master entrusts millions with his slaves. He is said to have given to each according to their ability, but let’s be honest, none of them deserve that kind of gift. Slaves would have had no concept of what to do with a lifetime’s worth of money – just like most lottery winners!


Jesus has entrusted the gospel of salvation to his followers – ordinary people. A few, the fishermen, were small businessmen; at least one was a revolutionary, so maybe he had skills recruiting or stirring up a crowd; and Matthew was used to handling money. But as for the rest, what skills did they bring to the table? Would any of them know how to run a ministry?


So maybe he tells this parable as a way of saying that God gives without counting the cost and that he believes in them – more will succeed than fail – and that will fill him with joy!


Or maybe Jesus does want us to notice the crookedness of the master and the blind obedience of the first two slaves. Maybe this is a critique and we are supposed to cheer on the third as a whistle-blower who honors the Torah and dares to speak truth to power. Maybe he believes the disciples will need such courage to take on the powers and advocate for the oppressed.


Maybe, but it’s still hard to swallow the ending. The outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth does not sound like the kingdom of heaven.

 

I ran across another alternative. One scholar observes …


“More than once in his teaching, Jesus uses a “how much more” form of argument. For example, [earlier in Matthew’s gospel], Jesus contends that if his listeners “know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your God in heaven give good things to those who ask!” This week’s parable has a similar underlying design. If even this scoundrel invites his servants ‘into his joy’ when they make wise, fruitful use of his resources, how much more will God, the just and generous Maker of all things, invite us into God’s joy when we do the same?”[6]


The beauty of this option is that we are not forced to ignore that the master is a scallywag.


Or the celebration of God’s grace in entrusting a great gift into out care.


Or the encouragement to make wise, daring, fruitful use of what God has given to us.

 

When Audrey West reflects on this parable, she says, “I suspect that most people today, if they picture this parable in their minds, imagine the servant dropping something like a silver dollar into a small hole at the base of a tree or beneath a rock — the way my grandmother once claimed to have hidden a small jar of coins behind the garden. After she died, my uncles repeatedly scoured the yard with metal detectors in a fruitless attempt to locate the buried treasure. Years later we discovered a jar of silver dollars tucked behind a can of seed-beans on a shelf above her washing machine. It turns out that ‘behind the garden’ meant something different to Grandma than it did to the rest of us. Jesus’ parables are like that. They invite listeners — even require us — to puzzle over their potential meanings.”[7]


This fancy robe does not give me the last word on how to interpret this parable. You have as much insight as Jesus’ original audience. You’ve puzzled it over. What do you think Jesus wants you to learn? What do you think he is calling you to do?


Listen to the Spirit … and then do it, even if it means taking a risk! Amen.


[1] From Carol Holbrook Prickett’s reflection on the text for the Presbyterian Outlook, 11/6/23
[2] From “How much did Slavery in US cost Black Wealth?” bloomberg.com, 3/18/21
[3] From “No time for timidity: reflections on Matthew 25 and Luke 19”, 11/7/11
[4] See Leviticus 23:22
[5] See Exodus 22:25 or Leviticus 25:35-38
[6] From The Salt Project’s commentary on the text, “Be Daring”, 11/l
[7] From her reflection on the text for workingpreacher.com, “Deep in the hole”, 11/17/17
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