Proper 28

– Today, we’ve heard the second to last parable Jesus told in Matthew’s Gospel before he was arrested and put to death.

Last week, we’ve heard the “Parable of the ten bridesmaids”
This week: The famous parable of the Talents
Next week: The sheep and the goats.

As I have already mentioned, they are known as “Parables of Judgment” – Judgment because they talk about the end of times but also just because indeed they sound to our ears judgmental and scary – we don’t know really what to make of such a God presented by the last slave as a: “Harsh man, reaping where he didn’t sow and gathering where he did not scatter seed”(= demanding and maybe a little bit unfair).

I am wondering if this parable isn’t especially difficult to hear in our culture where there is a lot of pressure to succeed, to make something of ourselves, to not be idle, where there is this widespread idea that if we don’t “make it” it is somewhat our fault. It would add a lot to the pain of being poor, having a difficult life where we struggle with many things, to think it’s our fault and even worse – that it means that we have been reject by God. And we know that at Jesus’s time, there was this idea that the successful where blessed and the poor / sick were cursed.

Yet it would be difficult to use this angle to understand the parable, if we remember that in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said exactly the opposite: that the poor were actually the ones being blessed (Sermon on the Mount). I am also glad that we can read the Gospel in the light of Paul’s writings today where Paul reminds us that “Our Lord has not destined us for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ”!

So we have to dig a little deeper to understand that this Parable is not about God asking us to make money or to be successful, otherwise we’ll be doomed to Hell.

– How can we read this parable?

As I noticed last week with the parable of the ten bridesmaids, a lot of commentaries have tried to figure out what the oil in the lamp stands for, when actually the most important was to understand what the oil does (= It brings light, and that’s what the disciples are called to do). In the same way, it can be tempting to get ourselves caught with the symbolism of the Talents / trying to hard to figure what the Talents stand for but it won’t get us very far: We would have to interpret the story as God wanting us to be rich / wanting us to be successful. As I have just said, it does not seem to be the specific message of the Beatitudes (we heard them recently on All Saints’ Day) or, for that matter, the overall message of the Gospel!!

If we do a little exploring though, we realize that a Talent was not any kind of money. It was a huge, huge sum of money. One talent represented 15 years of an average salary. So when the Master gives to his salves five talents, two talents and one talent, he basically give them money to cover the expenses of a life time: 75 years, 30 years, 15 years.

Having that in mind is very important if you think that it means that the Master gives them enough to “cover their debts” because we know this is what Jesus dying on the cross does for us: He covers our sins / our debts for a lifetime. The Master is getting ready to go on a journey, and it’s probably that Jesus was thinking about his own journey trough death to resurrection. The gift Jesus gives us / the Master leaves to his slaves is Redemption. Now this may seem a bit abstract, but think about it only as life. Jesus gives us Life (John: I came so that they might have life) – and the question is: What do we do with it? What do we do with this incredible gift?

– Well, the first answer given by the parable is that what we do with our lives varies according to individuals, but I would say it even varies based on times of our lives, or even based on whether we have a good day or a bad day. As I read this parable at least, I had a sense that some days I am the first slave – I get a lot done and I am very excited about it, other days I may feel like the second slave – I just do what I have to do and I feel contented, but some days I also feel like the third slave, I just want to hide and don’t feel like doing anything / don’t feel like it’s worth doing anything – Feelings a lot of us can relate to I guess in the midst of this pandemic! Now as you can imagine, as you probably know from your own experience, the days we want to hide, to bury our Talents in the ground aren’t the days we feel the best about ourselves, about the world and about God. And I am wondering if this isn’t a key to understand our parable.

– My question is the following: Do you think the third slave feels good about himself? Not in the end of the parable but even at the beginning? One thing is sure: he does not feel good about his Master. As mentioned earlier, although the Master made him a huge gift, he is suspicious of it, he thinks there is a trick and that he will probably end up being punished. If he feels that way, it’s probably because he does not feel good about himself to start with, guilty or maybe ashamed. He does not trust his Master, does not trust himself, and certainly does not trust the process (of investing) which I take for meaning he does not trust life.

– Those feelings happen to all of us, I guess – especially when we struggle with depression or other health challenges, family issues or financial insecurity. But I don’t think this is the kind of distrust that Jesus is addressing. Remember that these are the last parables Jesus teaches and he teaches the parables in Jerusalem, he is specifically addressing the religious leaders, people who – because deep down in their hearts they don’t really love God, trust life and don’t accept who they truly are – are so afraid of doing anything wrong they end up doing nothing at all. They want so bad to be good that they end up paralyzed, trapped into their law and their moral code, and even deeper, trapped into shame, guilt and fear – defiance towards God and really – towards anyone. They can’t recognize God in Jesus because they don’t believe that God is loving, acceptant and forgiving. They believe God is like “Harsh man, reaping where he didn’t sow and gathering where he did not scatter seed”. Their religion is not an expression of love towards God, but of distrust! They want to have al their bases covered because they think God is unmerciful!

I think that Jesus is really mad that God gave all these goods things to his people – especially religious people as God gave them the Temple, and the Torah and the assurance of God’s blessing throughout History– and these people they just bury it in the ground!

As a side note, it’s very interesting to realize that this parable does not praise morality as these religious people understood it. God as the Master and the good disciples as the two first slaves don’t appear like good religious people, they actually do something that was forbidden in the Law: Invest money with the bankers! I think Jesus uses use this message to tell them there is something more important beyond their rites and their laws, and it is to trust God enough to dare live this life!

– What does it mean for us? Well, there is a quotation I love that says that: “God created us because He thought we would enjoy it”, or if you prefer “God gave us life because He thought we would enjoy it” – and to me, this what the parable is all about. The two first slaves enjoy the gift, when the last one does not even open it. To me, God gave us life, not because God wants us to be wealthy or successful, but because God wants us to rejoice in it – and as I’ve noticed before, a prisoner in his own shame/guilt system, the third slave isn’t happy, he does not flourish and he does not contribute to anything in the world. More than being rejected by his Master, he condemns himself to his own hell by believing his Master is not a good Master, that he cannot trust the process and his own abilities.

More than anger, I think there is much sadness in God when we behave this way. I watched a movie this week, and it was the story of a woman who has a son dealing with addictions. Each day, she goes to his house, in fear of finding him passed out, and then she opens the windows, brings him food, tries to talk him into finding a job or just checking himself into a hospital, and each day he rejects her and tells her to go away. This is so heart breaking for this woman that all her friends tell her to give up, to leave him be, but of course each day she comes back because he is her son and she cannot give up on him. She gave him life so that he may enjoy it, she gave him life so that he may flourish – didn’t she?

I think this is the way God looks at all of us. God gave us life so that we may flourish and, as Paul reminds us, so that we may encourage and build up each other, “each according to our ability” as the parable mentions.

– I would like to finish with a prayer from Teresa of Avila I often use for blessing at the end of the service, because to me it could really be a way to decipher the parable. The prayer goes like that:

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received,
and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing that you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones,
and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.

The last slave isn’t at peace and certainly does not believe he is where he is meant to be, he forgot the infinite possibilities that are born of faith, didn’t use the gifts he has received or pass on the love that has been given to him. As for us, let us be content knowing that we belong to God and that God loves us, trusting this deep down in our bones and letting this belief set us free to do whatever we want to do to praise our Maker and our Redeemer whether to sing, dance or just live this life in love.

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