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Parables are tricky things, and as Pastor Nik reminded us a few Sundays ago at a 5:30 pm service, the kingdom of God is a tricky thing.
Parables and the Kingdom of God are not always as they first appear.
Today we encounter a very thorny parable in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25. Jesus tells a story about three slaves, each given an enormous amount of money, or “talents,” by their slave master.
The word “talent” in the common meaning we use it, as in gifts from God-the-master, comes from this parable,.
As it used here, “talent” is a denomination of money equal to 15 years of wages – so the first slave gets five talents, or 75 years of wages, an amount of money equal to an entire lifetime of wages and then some.
The next slave receives 30 years wages, and the last gets 15 year’s worth of wages. Each gets an enormous amount of money.
The first two slaves take a risk and invest their master’s money. When the master shows up to collect his earnings, the first two slaves are praised for their industriousness.
But the third slave buries the money.
When the master comes, the third slave gives it back to the master, and is punished for not investing it. The third slave is cast into the outer darkness.
The moral of the story appears to be: invest the master’s money, don’t be afraid to take a risk – and be generous with the money that the master – God – has loaned you.
Every biblical commentator I have read interprets this story exactly this way: We should not hide our light under a bushel basket, we should step out boldly, invest extravagantly.
It is probably no accident the church puts this lesson in the season of harvest and stewardship, and that doubly reinforces this interpretation.
And, yes indeed, I hope you will step out boldly in your generosity, and I hope you will not hide your God-given talents under a bushel basket. That is how I used to read this parable, and you will hear that sermon in a lot of places today.
But what if that is not what this parable is about at all? The truth of those moral lessons about giving and boldness can be found in many places in the New Testament.
What if that isn’t the point of this parable?
What if the slave master in the parable is not God at all? What if the slave master is, in fact, a slave master?
We must also wonder – what if the first two slaves had lost all the money they invested? What would the master have done to them then?
And what if the third slave, the one who buried the master’s money and is punished – what if he is saying to the slave master:
“I am not going to play your greedy game. I didn’t steal your money, but, here, you can have it back.”
“Yes, I am very afraid of you because you can punish me. But I am not going to play your greedy game.”
And go another step with me.
What if this parable is really about Jesus telling us about himself?
What if Jesus is the third slave, and Jesus is saying to the slave masters that he will not play the their game of greed?
And what if it Jesus himself who is being cast into the outer darkness by the slave masters of this world?
Parables and the Kingdom of God are tricky things.
There is a huge clue to this in what comes next in Chapter 25 of Matthew. In the very next verses (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus says you will finds him with the people who are ignored, cast into the outer darkness, into prison, and dwelling in those places of hurt and suffering.
“For I was hungry,” Jesus says, “and you gave me no food, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” [Matthew 25:42]
Maybe this parable is not about investment advice at all.
Parables are tricky things.
Maybe this parable is another way of Jesus telling us he will walk into our darkest night with us, and walk into the night with the outcasts, the sick, the hungry, the prisoners, the slaves.
We get more clues a few verses later: The gospel of Matthew goes on to describe Jesus going to Jerusalem – the very center of greed and power – to confront the masters, and overturn their money changer tables, and to be crucified and cast into the outer darkness.
Parables and the Kingdom of God are tricky things, and parables, if we let them, can trick us into opening our eyes into seeing the world, and our role in it, in new and different ways.
This parable, if we let it, could challenge us in ways we might rather avoid.
What if this parable is about people sitting next to us, here in these pews, who are hurting, or lonely, or in pain because they are facing an uncertain future because a relationship has ended, or they are sick, or someone they love has died?
If we proclaim and believe that Christ dwells with us, and in us, and works through us, how are we showing Christ to each other?
How are we Christ to those who are living their own outer darkness? Or just having a tough time? Do we say “the peace of the Lord always be with you” and go on our way?
Or are we willing to travel down their road with them, and shed a tear with them? Or maybe just share a smile and a laugh?
Maybe this is a parable about people who can’t find a job, people left by the side of the road of our fractured human economy, or people who are struggling just to get by on minimum wage, or single mothers on food stamps, or people living in a tent or in their car.
Maybe this parable is about people who live on the street, or sleep on our doorstep, or under a railroad trestle, and don’t smell good, and are hard to deal with.
Maybe it is about people with mental illness or addictions, and nowhere to turn. What if this parable is about people in prison – real convicts who have done terrible things and who will never get out?
How can we be as Christ even to them? Where do we stand? With the greed of the world, or with Jesus and the wounded?
Parables and the Kingdom of God are tricky, tricky things.