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Maybe it’s not about the money?

Pentecost +24, Common Lectionary year A

Matthew 25: 14-30

©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Intro to scripture

We need to pray!
Holy One,
in turning this text,
you will turn us,
challenge and provoke us,
perhaps indict us.
So we pray you,
let the turning be for our good,
and for the good of humanity and all creation
which you call us to serve
in accordance with your Dream.

So, invoking the language of indictment,
let me at first issue this confession of guilt.
I have been guilty as a preacher
of turning this parabolic tale
on its side, of laying it down
into the syrup of moralism.
You folk have heard me invoke this
Gospel text to encourage
wise stewardship of the God-given talents,
skill and treasure we have been given,
in service of the work of our faith community.
Those of you who are listening from ‘away’
you’ve probably heard preachers do this too,
heck, some of you are preachers,
and we’ve all done it!

And whenever we’ve done it,
we’ve had to shuffle to stand and block
a clear view of the mercenary ugliness of the master,
scuffed over the tracks of the poor schmuck
who was dragged and thrown off the cliff into
outer darkness, and we’ve whistled to muffle the sound
of that eternal wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Here I stand, guilty as charged,
of, as Stanley Hauerwas trenchantly puts it
“misusing the parable, abstracting it from
Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom.”
Stanley is not one to mince words,
but plenty of scholars agree with him.
The use of this parable as a foundation
for a prosperity gospel
is exactly the sort of distortion
that Jesus spent the rest of his life decrying.
So, if that interpretation is a misuse of the parable,
what do we do with it?
If it’s not about the money, or the talents,
what the heck is it about?

That’s probably the wrong question;
it is the top of a slippery slope into thinking
that these parables of Jesus mean one thing.
Jewish scholar of the NT, Amy Jill Levine
reminds us (and I often paraphrase her)
that parables have a “surplus of meaning;”
they are designed to be turned in many ways;
they can change in their impact on us
as our circumstances change,
and as we hear different things in the same story.
She also says “When we hear a parable, and say
‘I really like this’, we’re probably not listening well enough.”
because parables are supposed to surprise, provoke,
challenge and even at times indict, all at the same time!

So let’s set ourselves a different goal,
a humbler one; to ask a few “what ifs?”
not to answer,
but let those “what ifs” rumble
in our souls and hearts and brains….
letting the lively Word of God grow
and shape us into Gospel people.

So, what about that master?
Can we set aside the formulaic assumption
that it must be a figure for God, or for Jesus?
What if, Jesus, has set up a decoy?
He’s done it in other parables, why not this one?
What if the master stands not for God,
but for everything God stands against?
A master who buys loyalty with ridiculous gifts
with strings attached?
Who, when he returns, expects the money back again,
and is ticked beyond belief
when the third slave has not “invested” it for gain.

Now we are at a 2000 year, and a cultural disadvantage.
We’ve forgotten or never knew, that to Jesus’ audience,
the charging of interest, the act of brokering,
or trading for gain at the expense of another
was absolutely verboten in Torah.
Every single disciple at Jesus’ feet
would have cried out in horror
when the master’s true colours are revealed!
“That’s so NOT what the kingdom of God is about!”
they would be thinking,
and so should we!
The kingdom, the Dream of God
is not about the rich getting richer
and the poor having what little they have taken away!
We know that….
and it took Jesus winding us down the wrong path
to get us to that visceral recognition,
“Hey, that’s wrong, not right!”

Which raises another “what if?”
What if the third, the one who blew the whistle
on the true nefarious, sleezy, welching character of the master,
what if this one, who knew better than to risk or spend the loan,
but who did what everyone did in the days before banks,
buried it deep in the ground,
and then returned it, whole,
intact to the usurious master,
is the only righteous one in the story?
(The other two have bought and sold themselves to the master’s
actions, and get to enter the joy of “your master”….eugh!)

We are so not used to turning this parable that way are we?
But that’s what happened at the midrash study of this text;
a dozen of you good CPU folk stood up for the little guy.
You likened him to the one wee boy in the crowd
who called the emperor on his nakedness.
You likened him to the 99%,
stiffed by the rich who amass ridiculous sums of wealth
at the expense of a rightly fearful systemic underclass.
And you said,
“He does not deserve to be cast to inner,
let alone outer darkness. Shame!”
you said,
“That’s not a Gospel we want to live by!”
Good on you…!
(I now have this image of Jesus fist pumping the air as he watches
this Gospel outrage, knowing that his last lecture has ‘landed’
his disciples are ready to discern the Gospel for themselves!)

Here’s another “what if?”
the third guy is Jesus?
The one who called out the Empire and its colluders
for what it was?
Maybe, but,
that’s what did happen to him, right?
Nailed on a cross and consigned
to the Empire’s outer darkness.

What if that’s how
Matthew’s community of faith would have heard it,
just a few short decades after Jesus’ death?
They’d have re-lived the outrage
of his state-sanctioned execution for
living the Dream of God,
but what if, also,
there were smiling glances,
because they know
what the Empires then and now refuse to know;
that the outer darkness to which Jesus was consigned
doesn’t hold him for long.
Matthew’s community,
right down to this one, and ones like it,
the resurrection communities
who shape our lives around
Jesus’ embodiment of the loving justice of God,
were and are testimony,
living proof that the Gospel
outlasts, outlives and out-loves
dishonesty and life-shafting greed.

St Paul once wrote, a couple of decades
before this Gospel was written
that this life and death of Jesus
are seen by the ones with
money to burn and power to wield
as a loser religion, idiocy, foolishness.
But we know otherwise;
the wisdom of God has nothing to do
with the accumulation of wealth or accolade
but with the willingness to abide
on the side of love, truth,
and the ability to suffer alongside those who suffer.

Now, that’s a very different turn
on a very familiar parable,
and the traditional ways it has shaped our discipleship.
But the parable itself can stand it,
it becomes richer to us for the turning.
If I have provoked a simple parable
into getting up from the settled dust,
to make us think and rethink
how we live as disciples of a crucified one,
whose Way is love,
whose attention is always keenly focused on
the well being of those who suffer,
then perhaps I’ve done
what I should have done years ago
with this parable.

What if?

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