Reflection on 33rd Sunday: 15th November 2020

Commendation or critique of exploitation?1

The cultural lens through which we read Scripture is completely foreign to the cultural lens in which Scripture was originally written or read.2  We usually interpret the parable of the talents in today’s gospel and that of a similar scenario in Luke’s gospel (Lk 19), as an exhortation to develop our God-given gifts. Our heroes are the slaves who returned their talents with interest. We dismiss the unprofitable slave, but people of a peasant background recognize him as the hero of the parable. How can this be?3 He unmasks the fact that the master’s wealth is derived entirely from ruthless business practices, usury and the cynical view that the rich will only get richer while the poor become destitute. Unwilling to participate in this exploitation, this third slave took the money out of circulation, where it could no longer be used to dispossess another farmer and his family. The consequence of the third slave’s non-cooperation is banishment to the “outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” We have presumed this to be “hell,” and so perhaps it is—that is, the hell on earth experienced by those rejected by the dominant culture.4

Moreover, if we assume, as does the traditional interpretation, that the master is a figure for God, it is a severe portrait indeed. The man/nobleman in the parable is Archelaos, the son of Herod, who had gone on a three year furlough to Rome after becoming king. He expected his stewards to collect the same unfair taxes that he had. He wanted them to oppress the poor as he had, and then he would rake in the whole profit.5 The master represents the god of this age, the one who teaches and models the morally reprehensible behavior of stealing from the poor to make themselves rich. Jesus is teaching us that we can expect the same fate as the third slave when we try to live according to His new commandment.2

Church historians, as early as Eusebius (339 AD) have known of this interpretation of this parable and several commentators assert that it is understood more correctly as a cautionary tale about the world than as a parable about the kingdom of God. (In the original Greek the words “kingdom of heaven” do not appear in v.14—those words were inserted later.)4 The third slave is the one who is prepared to accept the consequences of his convictions. Nowadays we would call it civil disobedience. We would say that he is responding to a deeper truth; and this deeper truth always leads us into conflict with the superficial truth.5 We need the courage of the third slave to become God’s compassionate presence in the midst of pain and marginality.

Adapted  [1] Justin Ukpong, [2] Jeremy Myers, [3] Carl Schafer OFM[4]Ched Myers & EricDeBode, [5]Richard Rohr

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus told this parable to his disciples: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who, before going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”