When I was here last summer, I was inspired to preach sermons based on ten of the windows here in this sanctuary. When I was asked if I would like to come back to Fort Massey again this summer I decided to do another 10-week sermon series. This past year at AST (The Atlantic School of Theology), I fell in love with contemplating the parables. I soon discovered that the parables were not the neat and tidy little morality tales that I once thought they were. No, they were meant to turn the way that we saw the world completely upside down. Jesus told these stories that are provocative, alarming, sometimes insulting, often confusing, and always subversive. These stories are not allegories where each character or object in the story directly represents something else. We have a tendency do that sometimes to try and make them easy to understand like the fairy tales we are used to where the moral is so clear. The problem with this thinking is that the parables weren’t meant to be easy.
Parable telling was a common practice in Jewish teaching. When explaining why the parables are hard to understand, Jesus says that to those to whom the Kingdom of God has been revealed through him the parables will make sense if: “He who has ears to hear let him hear.” This is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied that the day would come when a king would reign in righteousness and the rulers would rule with justice – “Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The fearful heart will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear.” We are among those who have ears to hear should we choose to use them, but even though we know about the Kingdom of God, we still live in the world and it is often easier to hear and not listen and see and not perceive what these stories are trying to tell us about ourselves. The books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Acts, and Romans all tell us about this resistance we have to God’s kingdom. Again and again, we can read about how we (the people) are afraid to see and hear what God is trying to show and tell us… again and again we learn that it is fear that keeps our hearts from turning away from all that the world tells us is good and true, and keeps us from turning to God who has is always waiting to work in our hearts.
Change is scary – but that is what the parables provoke us to do – change… And that is what the parable today does too.
I thought of this parable right away when Phil Pacey was described to me by Rev. Trent as “A Good and Faithful Servant”. I have no doubt that he was, but maybe not in the way that this parable might suggest. You see we have done to this parable exactly what Jesus expected those that weren’t ready to hear the message would do to it. We have allegorized it so that it makes sense to the way we understand OUR world. I’m willing to bet that most of us automatically made the Master in this story a representative for God. If you did, then you are not alone as it has been interpreted this way for centuries by many preachers and scholars. Let’s take a closer look…
If the master in this story is God then the heroes of the story are the first two slaves who take what their master gave them and turn it into profit. In return for their good work they are told that they are good and faithful servants and are rewarded equivalent to their good deeds. The third slave, who took what his master entrusted in him and just gave it back to him in kind, is punished. He speaks up against the master and calls him a scoundrel. The master does not like this (although he doesn’t deny it) and calls it just an excuse for wickedness and laziness. He casts the third slave into the outer darkness – “where men will weep and gnash their teeth!” It seems that he was right to fear this man who punishes him with pain and suffering for simply returning to him what is his (remember – give to Ceaser what is Caeser’s!). In this version, the Master says that wealth would be given to those who already have wealth and everything would be taken from those who had nothing. Please think about that for a moment… does this sound like the God you have come to know?
Do you imagine that in God’s Kingdom the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, financially, spiritually, or otherwise? Do you imagine a God that doles out rewards and punishments based exclusively on our performance? Do you imagine a God that inflicts pain and suffering on his servants? This God is vengeful and unforgiving… That’s not the God I’ve come to know.
The first clue that this story may not be what it appears on the surface comes in the sheer ridiculousness of the giving of talents. Reading the parables has taught me that stories that have extreme examples are clues to the reader to flip the story on its head! Setting aside that this sermon has been misguidedly preached so many times to interpret “talents” as the gifts of the Spirit that God has given each of us (like playing the piano or being good at mathematics). In this case, a talent is an actual unit of measurement for money. Some report that a talent would be five years worth of wages, some say 130lbs of silver coins… so think about that. Slave 1 was given 650 lbs of coin! No Slave Master would give a slave that much money. It just wouldn’t happen. There is another version of this story in the gospel of Luke that gives another clue to what this story is really about. There are scholars that share that there was a well-known story of that time about Archelus, who, after his father King Herod’s death, set out to be crowned king in Rome. As King he would receive all the taxes and literally reap the benefits from what he did not sow. He punished harshly the Jews that tried to fight his rule over them.
Let’s consider for a moment what this story might mean with a different hero. What if this parable is not about the kingdom of God that is to come but a warning against the kingdoms of the world that are already here?
Let’s rewrite the story and see what you think…
The Owner of an Multi-national Manufacturing company was leaving the continent and entrusted all his investments to traders that worked for him. To those that had a reputation for turning the largest profit he gave the most responsibility, and to the rest he gave just enough to keep them in his service. The one that reported the highest earnings became CEO of the company and the one that doubled his investment, but had less to begin with, became Chair of the Board.
While he was away, one of his employees learned that this company used child labour in Asia, polluted rivers, and had a reputation for destroying landmarks in poor neighbourhoods to build office buildings. This employee didn’t want any part of that, but was also deeply afraid of losing her job in this fragile economy so she just kept the investment safe until the owner returned. When she blew the whistle on her boss, he didn’t deny her accusations, but said that if she didn’t want to risk trading she could have at least put the money in the bank to earn interest! Her ethics required that she did no business with those funds and so she returned to the boss what was his. She was fired on the spot and the owner of the company made sure that any future employer knew that she was not a good and faithful employee! The owner of that company is the kind of man that believes that being rich means that you deserve power and he has no problem taking everything from the poor if it means that he becomes wealthier. He knows that this is just the way to be successful in the world.
I don’t think that anyone would identify God as the owner of the company in that story. And the Good and Faithful servant is likely the whistle blower isn’t she? – the one that stood up against an unjust leader, and the one that refused to become a part of the problem. That is the Good and Faithful servant that I want to be.
Good and Faithful servants are the activists among us like Betty and Phil Pacey that fight for what they know is right. These are the people that put their money where their mouth is when they see the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. These are the one that stand up against big business and corrupt governments that make their profit on the backs of others.
The cost of being that kind of Good and Faithful servant means that those whose measure success on the values of the kingdom of earth will see those that seek the kingdom of God as fanatics, troublemakers or maybe even lazy whiners. Sometimes they are seen as real societal threats and lose their jobs, their freedom, and sometimes their lives. I think this parable is about the cost of being a Good and Faithful servant of God, like Jesus, who was willing to die on the cross for what he knew was right. Those that long for power in this world may attain it, but if they do so at the expense of others then they are not seeking the Kingdom of God.
So, for who will you be a Good and Faithful servant?- for the World or for God? It is my hope that each week we will engage in these parables as Jesus called his disciples to do: with our eyes ready to see & perceive, with our ears ready to hear and listen, and with our hearts steadied and readied for change. That is the challenge we will face together over the coming weeks. May it be so. Amen.