Proper 28(A): Can’t We Just Skip This?
By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer
My knee-jerk response to this parable is negative for three illegitimate reasons:
1) I can’t bear to think of God as “harsh…reaping where [he] did not sow, gathering where [he] did not scatter seed” and engendering fear in his timid slave.
2) I really, really dislike the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” imagery.
3) I shudder to think that many read this parable as an endorsement of modern financial investment practices.
I doubt that I am alone in struggling with the temptation to skip right over this passage looking for more congenial lectionary texts. But if we give into that temptation over and over again (which can happen so easily), we deny our people the chance to wrestle alongside us and miss an opportunity to teach folks “how” (tools, concepts, etc.) one interprets hard texts. In this passage, three key “concepts are ripe for elaboration: parables, eschatology, and apocalypse.
My first illegitimate reason for wanting to avoid this text is caused by an overly-allegorical approach to interpreting the parable. Often we want parables (or Scripture generally) to provide some sort of clear directive or advice or doctrine. That isn’t how Scripture works generally and especially not parables! The more we preachers can break open the Word from the chains of even subconscious literalism, the more we are inviting our people into spiritual maturity and real-time engagement with the Living Christ.
A common (mis)reading of parables looks to one-to-one equivalences. In this case, the man is God the Father, the slaves are servants of God. Two of the slaves “invest” their talents and are rewarded. One buries it and is condemned to hell. So my first knee-jerk aversive response is based on lazy interpretation: Jesus isn’t suggesting that the “man going on a journey,” later referred to as the “master” is the first person of the Trinity. We might glean some meaning by making that association, but the association is limited. It doesn’t work the whole way through as a lens for understanding the nature of God – and that is okay because parables aren’t allegories.
Moving away from one-to-one equivalences also partially addresses my second illegitimate reason for wanting to avoid the text: the use of the “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is a misreading of the text to equivalate the “outer darkness” as “hell” in the “heaven/hell” binary of popular culture. This parable is not about soteriology (how Jesus saves or redeems the world and its creatures) and should not be reduced to a teaching about an individual’s fate after death; rather, it is one of a cluster of teachings about how to live faithfully when the world is falling apart around you. In other words, it is apocalyptic.
The passage is situated in the Jesus’ “final discourse” in Matthew. Beginning in chapter 24 and concluding with the parable of the sheep and goats at the end of this chapter, Jesus is responding to the disciples’ questions about signs of Jesus’ coming and the “end of the age,” about eschatology. You can almost think of this section as a post-script to the ascension, even though this discourse precedes those events in the narrative. Perhaps Matthew, likely writing after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. and certainly amid conflict with traditional Jews, imagines how Jesus would speak into Matthew’s present-day situation. How do disciples find the courage to live faithfully in a context where clear lines are surfacing between Jews who are part of the “Jesus movement” and Jews who aren’t, especially in a context where the first type of Jew could be persecuted by the Romans? The ultimate “End Time” that Jesus is purportedly addressing in the discourse is likely blurred with a proximate “End Time” for displaced, persecuted Jews who are realizing their allegiance to Jesus means they are no longer welcome in the synagogue.
As much as my skin crawls at the imagery of gnashing teeth, I am more empathetic to Matthew’s use of the terms when it is placed in the context of a literal struggle for survival. Perhaps it is part of our unredeemed human nature to create binaries in which we find tend to make ourselves superior. Certainly this tendency is exacerbated when we feel threatened. Fear is a powerful motivator. (There are so many examples from our political life today; I don’t need to cite them.) This parable is one of several in this discourse that use judgement scenes almost as a trope to convey skills, dispositions, virtues that disciples need as they wait the End Time when the Kingdom of Heaven is more fully realized.
So now for my final negative knee-jerk reaction to this parable: that my parishioners will hear it the context of present-day global economics and believe Jesus encourages us to make good financial investments. Again, one-to-one equivalences distract us from the harder work of struggling with the parable’s meaning. In God’s economy, spiritual gifts, “talents,” grow when they are used and given away freely for the benefit of others here and now, not when they are controlled for some future “use,” as can happen with financial investments, endowments, etc.
The slaves don’t “earn” the money and certainly never lay claim to owning it. They are given the money each “according to their ability,” resulting in different amounts. This resonates with Jesus’ earlier parable in chapter 13 about the sower getting different yields. We aren’t all given the same spiritual gifts, and we don’t all produce spiritual fruit in equal quantities. The master knows how much each slave is capable of stewarding well, and the slaves are accountable to the master for using what they’ve been given. The two who use their talents, who serve the master, find benefit for themselves (“enter into the joy of your master”). The one who doesn’t experiences “consequences,” as my father would say after I disobeyed him.
A question to wrestle with, and which might be an excellent topic for a sermon, is why the third slave buries the talent. If the third slave knew his master liked a return on the talents and was afraid of him, why wouldn’t the slave have sought even a modest return? Was he paralyzed by fear? Was he captive to his own desire for security and control? Was he just lazy and taking the “easy way” out? The master knew he was capable of doing more than he did but the opportunity for doing good (using spiritual gifts to strengthen the community) passed him by, and there were consequences of this inaction. Another possible angle for preaching is to look at how human beings respond in the context of fear. Does fear, say in this political climate, make us more timid to speak our minds, to use our gifts? Does fear make us more passive in the face of harsh, unjust powers? Which is harder in the long run: hiding our talents and being cast into outer darkness or taking the risk to use our gifts and claim our voice even though we can’t fully control the outcome?
The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in the Mountains in Haywood County, North Carolina. When not thinking, reading, or writing about spiritual leadership, missional priorities, sermons, or pastoral care, she chases two kids, a cat, and a husband around Lake Junaluska and other beautiful spots.
 The conclusion to Amy Jill-Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus elaborates on this point.
 Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. p. 203.
 This is the thrust of Hauerwas’ argument. Ibid. pp. 201 -212.