There will be a Part 4. I just want to be up front about that.
Jesus told a lot stories. It was his primary teaching tool, after all, and we tell the stories of Jesus the same way. However we might interpret them – yes, we do interpret them – we should be looking for the truth that’s at the heart of them.
That’s a tricky business, sometimes, and never more so than when what we think the story’s about collides with what we know, in our hearts, about Jesus. Like right now, here in Part 3 of 4, because there’s a stretch of stories in Matthew’s gospel that we’ve traditionally looked at a certain way. They’re all related to Jesus’ conversation with the disciples about “the end times,” when there will be all that cataclysmic destruction and Jesus will return and everyone will be judged.
Last week, I suggested that a story about bridesmaids being prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom may very well be about warning us to be ready (Jesus saying something like “be ready” was kind of a give away). Half were prepared, half were not, and only the former were allowed into the wedding. But I also suggested that Jesus might not have meant in the distant future. What if he meant tomorrow? What if he meant that he was here all along in each and everyone of us, and seeing the kingdom of heaven in the midst of our world today was a simple as seeing Jesus in your neighbour or in an act of kindness or compassion? What if, “keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” meant now? What if the “second coming” wasn’t a single being, but in all beings?
Now, hold that thought because the next story that Jesus tells is about a very rich man who goes on a trip. To care for his wealth, he divides it among three servants, according to their ability, and leaves. The first two servants used what they were given and doubled it, the third, who began with the least, buried it in the ground and did nothing with it. When the man returned, he rewarded the first two (“well done, good and trustworthy servant”) and punished the third.
We’ve traditionally interpreted this story with Jesus being “the man” and we are the servants – as we wait for Jesus’ return, we should use what we’ve been given to increase the kingdom. Yes, good point. We’ve also often used this parable as a stewardship story: we have talents – both money and, literally, talents – that we should invest in the work of the church. Why, yes you do and you should. Those interpretations are just fine.
But, again, what if this story isn’t about waiting, but about now? What if the story Jesus is telling is a description of where our world is at right now and a reminder to look for Jesus, now, not just in the future?
Here’s some things in this story that lead me to wonder about that. The man is a very rich man indeed. A talent is a measurement of silver or gold by weight some historians say is equivalent to 6,000 denarii or 20-30 years worth of daily wages for a labourer in the first century. So the man isn’t just rich, he’s very rich. He has servants (slaves in most translations). And we learn a little bit about his character and how he may have acquired that wealth when the third servant says he was afraid because, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.”
That’s not sounding much like Jesus to me. That sounds more like the rich people that Jesus regularly called out. That sounds more like someone who might finish off that third servant with a pointing finger and a “you’re fired.” This story sounds more to me like Jesus is describing the very world we live in, one in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
It says in the story that each received an amount equal to their ability. So maybe the third servant just wasn’t very good at the business skills so prized by the master. Maybe he was, indeed, afraid of the price he’d pay for just holding on to it, but he tried to do the right thing anyway. Now that sounds like Jesus.
Or maybe it was just an ordinary person trying to be more like Jesus. Maybe Jesus is waiting outside, waiting to greet this “worthless slave” with kindness and compassion. Maybe he might even say, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant…come and join the flock.” That’s for Part 4.